by Matt Smith
Man of Steel isn’t a great superhero flick, but it’s a solid one. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for the men in tights on the big screen, though I can admit when one falls short – say, for instance, a Green Lantern or a Green Hornet. None of the bad ones, however, compare with the increasingly abysmal portrayals of a non-animated Clark Kent.
Fleischer ‘toons and Warner Bros. animation aside, the only good outing for Superman so far has been 1977’s Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve in a career defining performance. The Richard Donner cut of Superman II which is available on DVD and Blu-ray ain’t all that bad either. Even so, the list of onscreen failures is long: two further Reeves films, the George Reeves TV show from the 1950s, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and the absolutely god-awful Superman Returns. Make of Smallville whatever you want – that isn’t Superman to me, but maybe you feel differently.
Part of the trouble I have with all of these is that once you get past the origin story, Superman is a pretty boring character surrounded by even less-interesting people. He’s the boy scout, the true blue American hero, even moreso than that competition at Marvel with “America” right there in the name. Man of Steel does something interesting, though: it succeeds in making me care about a character I normally don’t find compelling. And in that, at least, the film is a success.
The first half hour largely focuses on Krypton, the doomed planet from which Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son Kal-El. Jor-El, in a bid to save the DNA of Krypton’s future, sends the world’s genetic key with his son to Earth before dying at the hands of the traitorous General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod is subsequently banished to the Phantom Zone for attempting to overthrow Krypton’s government. Many will (and have) complained that this opening sequence is bloated and unnecessary, but I think it’s the film’s best half hour.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Crowe in fighting trim and Shannon given the go-ahead to be completely unhinged. It was also a pure pleasure to experience so much hard science-fiction/fantasy in a film genre so often preoccupied with only Earth. And where WB/DC Comics’ earlier Green Lantern faltered by trying to cram too much of a good thing into its origin story, here it’s just about right. We are given enough of an idea in the opening to get a pretty good idea of the stakes to be raised later in the film.
The planet Krypton is gorgeously conceived and beautifully rendered – all hard surfaces and soft, enveloping folds, from the landscape to the various spacecraft and domiciles. The military armor worn by Jor-El and Zod evokes the medieval and the futuristic all at once, the style and strength of a highly advanced civilization that is now in decline and holding onto the traditions which may have caused its demise.
From Krypton, the action picks up on Earth. Clark Kent is a loner, out in the world working odd jobs, but constantly on the move because he keeps using his super strength to save lives and thereby attracting attention to himself. Damned morals. We are shown snippets of Clark’s childhood throughout the film in flashback (Kevin Costner is a great surprise as his father), a decision that keeps the main narrative of his transformation into Superman and his ultimate confrontation with Zod as the film’s primary focus. In doing so, the film avoids the laborious pacing of getting to the superhero. It should be noted that this tactic was previously deployed by screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan in 2004’s Batman Begins. For the most part it continues to work here as a method of keeping things moving.
One big thing that doesn’t work? Lois Lane. Don’t get me wrong, Amy Adams is terrific in the role, but it’s a rather thankless and severely underdeveloped one. Lois is little more than a pretty face in danger. The only purpose of any consequence she serves is to ultimately help Clark make his way to The Daily Planet at the very end of the film. But she, along with other secondary characters, have no meat to their parts. They’re stilted and stalled by the script, which blows the third act into a forty-five minute disaster porn epic that sees Metropolis – the equivalent of New York City – nearly leveled and thousands upon thousands of its inhabitants nearly dead. And therein we find the film’s biggest problem.
Superman, at his core, is the defender of the human race. But at the end of Man of Steel, countless thousands die because he and Zod are tearing the city of Metropolis apart. The destruction doesn’t just fall to Zod and his team because of their attempt to terraform Earth into Krypton. No, Superman actively throws Zod into and through buildings, many of which fall over, killing all those who were not evacuated and still trembling inside. He blows up a gas station by throwing Zod through it. And the end, which I’m ultimately fine with, sees him kill Zod for threatening the lives of a family backed into a corner. This might have had more of an impact if we had seen him actually appear to care about all the wanton destruction he wrought for the past thirty-five minutes, but he doesn’t and didn’t, so the emotional impact of what his decision to kill has cost him is totally lost.
Director Zack Snyder also hammers the Superman is Jesus metaphor a bit hard. It’s ham fisted and overdone. I’m willing to say this is probably a Goyer thing, but it doesn’t really matter. By the time you’re framing Clark in a church with a stained glass window behind him of Jesus in the garden questioning his fate just as Clark is having doubts about what to do to save humanity, well, that’s in a league of its own. He also doesn’t have to fly around with his hands spread out like he’s being crucified, but honestly by that point we’ve already gotten the point a million times over.
Finally, the performances are great. Henry Cavill is a great, fresh take on what the character looks like and how he behaves. Amy Adams is terrific despite being given nothing to do. Michael Shannon damn near steals the whole movie (yet again) just by being amazing as always. For all the crap I could shovel onto the ending of the film, I had a damn good time.
Even with the unwieldy ending and the lack of focus (all character development stops once the world engine gets going, never to be seen again), Man of Steel is the best Superman flick since 1978, and that says a whole hell of a lot, I think. Maybe not about this particular film, but definitely its part in the franchise as a whole. A solid movie for the summer. I predict many more satisfied fans than disappointed ones.
3.5 out of 5 stars