I don’t envy director Zack Snyder for rebooting a franchise like Superman. The character of Superman, after all, has always been a bit of a bore; due to his generally invincible status, it’s difficult to create a palpable sense of danger. And thus, the challenge of any Superman film is multifaceted: how to make Kal-El more human by allowing him to experience real struggles, and how to make the characters and conflicts around him more interesting in order to make up for the mostly static nature of this particular hero.
The original Christopher Reeve Superman films (one and two, that is), cheesy as they were, solved this by giving the hero a warm persona and a sharp wit. They also gave us a timeless romance with the Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. Superman seemed human because he was likeable and relatable, especially as Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent.
Snyder’s solution (along with screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan, of “Dark Knight” fame), has been to give us an exceedingly generic and perfunctory sci-fi blockbuster complete with a “gritty” and “edgy” version of the hero that absolutely no one asked for. It is, for many reasons, a film that is hard to love, and one that shows how difficult it is to make a truly great superhero movie.
The film starts out interestingly enough, chronicling the downfall of Kal-El’s homeplanet Krypton and his father Jor-El’s (Russel Crowe) decision to send him as the last of his race to earth to carry on the survival of the species. You see, Kryptonians have mined the planet to the point of destruction, and it is too late for their race. This first sequence on Krypton drags on much too long and introduces a freighter’s worth of plot elements, characters and situations that the audience is expected to carry through the rest of the nearly 2.5 hour running time. It’s an exhausting introduction both visually and mentally, and a good indicator of what the rest of the film will be like.
We’re also introduced to General Zod (played by an absolutely incredible Michael Shannon), who plans a military coup to take over the planet (which is doomed anyway, so…) but is captured. He and his cronies (including Antje Traue as the cold and calculating Faora) are doomed to the Phantom Zone, a region of space where bad things…happen. But when Krypton is destroyed, Zod is released form the Phantom Zone (oops) and vows to hunt down Kal-El so that he can help him carry on the Kryptonian race on Earth.
The rest of the film follows Kal-El’s (now known as Clark Kent, of course) exploits on earth, via the present time as well as in flashback, where we see his struggles to come to terms with his powers and his loving earth parents (Diana Lane and Kevin Costner, who is criminally underused) attempts to help him find his true identity.
British actor Henry Cavill certainly looks the part of Clark Kent, but displays little of the warmth and charm of the iconic Christopher Reeve. His character is played as a mystery to the people of earth, and to the audience as well. And yet, the conflict at the core of his character is still compelling: is he a citizen of earth or a citizen of Krypton? How does he strike the balance between helping people from keeping his identity hidden? And yet, the fundamental flaw of the character is the face that he doesn’t have one. Superman can’t be hurt by anything other than Kryptonite, shards of crystal from his home planet. And yet, Kryptonite is nowhere to be found in this movie.
The film’s motif of “don’t worry, we’ve got really cool things planned for the sequel but not now” carries over to other characters as well. Lois Lane (played unconvincingly by Amy Adams) is completely wasted in this movie. In this version, she’s a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter. How do I know that? Because she says, “I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.” If you say so, lady. There is just the barest hint of a romance between her and Superman teased here, but the joy of discovery so clever in the original films is gone, since Lois knows almost immediately that Clark is Superman. Is she just automatically okay with dating an alien? I guess so. There’s also Perry White, the Daily Planet editor played here by Lawrence Fishburne, who is a great character that unfortunately only gets a couple of scenes in the entire movie. If you’ve got Lawrence Fishburne, you’d better use him, movie.
I was surprised at how thick the spiritual symbolism is layed on here. Superman has always been a Christ-like figure, but here he is Jesus. The movie told me so in an out-of-nowhere scene where Clark reveals all his secrets to a random priest while a stained glass window of Jesus sits in the background. There’s also Jor-El’s heavy-handed narration (“one day they will join you in the sun”), just in case you didn’t get it.
Speaking of lack of subtlety, the product placement in this movie is ridiculous, especially during the epic, climactic fight scenes. Did you know Lois Lane likes Nikon cameras instead of Canon? Was that a 7/11 that just blew up? Man, it’s going to cost a lot of money to replace all those nice Sears washing machines Superman just got punched through! It’s incredibly distracting and takes the audience out of the movie entirely. I understand Snyder’s desire to ground Superman in the real world, but I don’t remember Batman whizzing past a McDonald’s on his way to beat up some thugs in “The Dark Knight.” And that movie felt pretty realistic to me.
I enjoyed the film’s chronologically disjointed flashback structure for the most part, but the last third of the movie falls into the unfortunate trap of blowing up lots of stuff real good while throwing tons of technical jargon and pseudo-scientific explanations for things that don’t make a lot of sense while expecting the audience to keep pace. It’s a confusing climax, but when Zod confronts Superman, the results are indeed epic. Zod has always been a truly great villain, and remains so. I love how his noble motivations; the desire to ensure the survival of his race; are at odds with his tactics, which don’t care a wink for the sanctity of life outside of the Kryptonian race. And the aerial battle between Zod and Superman is a pretty darn impressive technical feat to boot.
There is a decision that Superman makes at the end of the film that has the internet abuzz. I imagine Superman fans see it as a betrayal of the character, and they would be right. Superman would never, ever do what he does to defeat Zod here. And yet, I kind of liked the way the movie handled it. At the very least, it was a welcome surprise in a movie that had few, and for that reason, I’m willing to let it slide.
One last point. The true strength of the film lies in the fact that many of the heroic actions in the movie are not perpetrated by Superman, but rather by ordinary people. Superman did not save the day alone. He had the help of the people he swore to protect, from Lois Lane to that scientist with the glasses whose name the movie doesn’t give us. The film’s message that anyone can be super is beautifully conveyed, better in this regard than any other superhero movie I’ve seen. It’s a message we all need to hear.
Alas, it is a bright spot in a sea of wasted opportunity. I really wanted to love “Man of Steel.” I really did. I don’t know that I’ve ever wanted to love a movie more. But the film really makes it so hard to feel anything other than numbness. This is not a movie you watch so much as a movie you’re bludgeoned by. It definitely has moments of greatness, but those are overwhelmed by plot holes, a lack of subtlety and a sense of delayed gratification that keeps delaying. The film sets itself up perfectly for a sequel, and all I can say is that “Man of Steel” displays a lot of promise for what the future of the franchise could potentially hold. A great Superman movie? Maybe next time.