Generally, I’m a big believer in looking at things for what they are, and Man of Steel perhaps deserves a recap of the context many of us walked in with. After all, a production that went from zero to shooting in record time is not one to inspire confidence in an audience. It’s an inauspicious start to come off of a previous franchise flop, all while admitting that the entire reason for your movie’s existence is an effort to retain licenses over an origin story and character contrary to a twenty year old court decision. With that in mind, to say that some may be disappointing implies that there was a high mark set up to hit, and there just wasn’t, no matter how good they got at cutting those trailers to a swelling soundtrack. Careful consideration is not something Man of Steel had time for, along with perhaps a few more re-writes. And so, quite expectedly, what you end up with is what we’ve got; a lot of sound, little fun, and plenty of fury, all of which, ultimately, signifies not much.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s full of SPOILERS.
We presume, perhaps erroneously, to know the origin story of Superman backwards and forwards. But, here, director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer add some new details to the Kryptonians, turning them into a eugenics-focused, resource-depleted virtual dystopia. Such is the crackdown on population control that Superman’s parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) must naturally birth their son in secret. Their plans to -well, it’s hard to say what, exactly their plans are – are sped up when an argument over the planet’s imminent implosion is interrupted by a military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon). It’s likewise hard to say what Zod’s aims are, but it’s made clear enough that Jor-El is having none of it, going on to steal the Codex, a database of every Kryptonian “bloodline,” and implanting it into the cells of his newborn son. As Zod closes in, Kal-El’s parents shoot him off to a little blue rock far, far away. Zod, imprisoned with his fellow traitors in The Phantom Zone, swears to find him, one day, and retrieve the Codex. The rest, as they say, is well-established pop culture history.
Never fear the trailer shots of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as an itinerant worker and drifter, determined to hide his true nature from what he has ben taught would be the fearful reactions of humanity: things settle quite quickly into the visual flare and spectacle that Snyder is known for. However, each of the fight sequences, though full of all the CG we’re capable of throwing at the thing, soon plateau out into slugfests between virtual immortals. They can throw each other through every concrete wall in a ten-mile radius, but you get the sense after the fifth or eleventh bone-shaking building collapse that nothing much is getting accomplished. The sole pleasant surprise in all this facing off is Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), the much-speculated-upon female villain, right hand to General Zod. With no commentary, from characters or editing, on her sex whatsoever, Faora displays ruthless competence and loyalty, proving a worthy adversary, in fact, a superior, in hand-to-hand with the film’s hero. It shouldn’t be something we have to laud, but, given the slim pickings on offer at the general box office, The Mary Sue is on the verge of sending congratulatory fruit baskets to the barest displays of female badassery. It’s a good thing Faora’s there to provide some interest, as unharmed bodies hurling through the air again and again do nothing to create tension or a sense of jeopardy.
Man of Steel is another summer blockbuster that is unsure of what it is saying, and can’t be bothered to live up to any of its proposed internal themes. In fact, if there’s one thing Man of Steel fatally lacks it’s a theme. If there was one, then it went whizzing right by, faster than a speeding bullet. The film is not about fathers and sons, since, even after Clark finds a hologram approximating his father’s consciousness, he seems to have little to no emotional attachment to the idea of this missing puzzle piece to his identity. Nor is the film about young Clark’s seemingly troubled relationship with his adoptive father, Johnathan Kent (played with earnest solemnity by Kevin Costner), where friction appears briefly, and turns into wholehearted obedience once Kent Sr. (needlessly) dies. Cavill is a fine actor, but in watching his take on Clark (or Snyder’s take) one never quite gets a sense of what’s lying beneath the exterior. It’s hard to get attached to a character who guilelessly follows the whims of any father figure that crops up and seems to have trouble making any decisions that could rightfully be called his own. In fact, all the Kryptonians in play, from General Zod to Kal himself, are blindly following the scripts given to them by their homeworld; Zod’s received over a lifetime, and Kal-El’s from a bewilderingly blind trust in his father’s hologram, combined with a headstrong adherence to the wishes of his deceased adoptive dad.
The only person not zealously following a pre-determined destiny is a plucky, take-no-prisoners Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams. Adams’ Lois is a woman of the world, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who quips that she’s just not having a good time unless she’s required to wear a flak jacket. She’s a breath of life in a film that could have used a few more concentrated characters, but, though she gets herself into the center of the action often enough, the film isn’t about her. It isn’t about her relationship with Clark, which develops in a new, and interesting, way from previous canon, with Lois discovering who he is up front, and on her own. But any extra-curricular attraction must take a backseat to world saving, and love neither redeems, nor develops our hero very much.
The one trait Clark seems able to express is rage. Rage at his loved ones being threatened, but, beyond that, a general outpouring of anger aimed at a villainy that’s conveniently appeared. Whatever Superman’s traditional traits, thoughtless anger, and the actions it provokes, are not compelling in the lead of a superhero movie. If you cared about Superman before, you’re probably appalled by the behavior of his character and the changes made, and if you didn’t, the movie isn’t going to make you like him very much. The script does such a sloppy job of handling this collapsed character arc that it raises startling questions upon further examination. For example, when Superman, having stopped the World Engine from terraforming the Earth into a new Krypton, proceeds to level additional portions of Metropolis in a grudge match with General Zod.
Superman’s story is not a complicated one, and attempts to railroad it into grittiness end up with a confused product. We’ve been down this road once before with Superman Returns, and the approach fares little better here. I was unsurprised to see Christopher Nolan listed among the story credits for the picture, and understand that a desperate DC/Warner Bros. would try to transpose what it could from that successful franchise. But what works for Batman does not work in Superman’s drastically different world, which, traditionally, has been one of daylight and wink-nudge workplace delights, not of moralistic brooding. The result is a Superman movie direly lacking in what the archetypal superhero needs; a sense of fun, of wonder, and, yes, of hope.
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