Director: Zack Snyder
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
Loath though you may be to admit it, as superheroes go Superman is almost unpalatably wholesome. He’s an alien who cannot be killed; how are you supposed to forge an emotional connection with this creature? Created back in the 1930s, when irony was primarily an adjective, Superman was the embodiment of all-American derring-do and justice. As time went on, he became more of a representation of the best in humankind, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar Christ allegory. There are a couple of moments in Man Of Steel that hammer home the idea of Supes as God’s kin, and they are forehead-slappingly obvious. Not that you need to be told, but 300 and Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder is not a subtle man.
The first two installments of Christopher Reeve’s stint as the son of Krypton are still enjoyable, but they also reek of cheese and nostalgia, with little bite. The next two films are best forgotten, as is Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s indulgent trip down memory lane. In Man Of Steel Superman steps out of Reeve’s shadow only to end up shrouded in another shadow, one with pointed ears and a gravelly voice. Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot set a dark and brooding template for superheroics, one that has raked in almost $2.5 billion thus far. With The Avengers essentially owning the fun and kitsch superhero image, plus efforts at comedy having sunk Superman once before, Man Of Steel sees Superman go dark under Nolan’s watch as producer. Because that’s what audiences want from their superheroes now, right? Darkness is one thing, but overstuffed and repetitive stories are very much another.
Man Of Steel opens on Krypton, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discusses ways to save the planet’s dying core with its rulers. A coup is attempted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), but it fails, and he’s frozen and sent into space just in time to see Krypton implode. This begs the question: why bother banishing him when everyone is going to die anyway? Anyhoo, Jor-El sends his newborn son into space to save him, along with a Kryptonian DNA MacGuffin which will come back to haunt us later in the film. David Goyer’s script has too much going on; too much plot, too much backstory, too much speechifying. Every line is written to be delivered with the solemnity of gospel. Some of the dialogue is repetitive, and it’s tricky to deliver this stuff when alien generals are destroying towns with lasers and issuing cross-galactic threats.
On Earth, the former Kal-El is now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a bearded outsider grappling with the deific powers he’s inherited. His childhood with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both as warm and encouraging as apple pie) is told in flashbacks, but the back and forth between the past and present serves only to break up the story. Pa Kent lectures his young’un before we jump back to the now adult Clark, but there’s little connective tissue between the two. Meanwhile, the present-day action jumps ahead of itself continuously. One moment, Clark is saving workers on a burning oil rig; the next he’s meeting Lois Lane (Amy Adams). In an apparent coincidence, she’s investigating the discovery of something beneath layers of Arctic ice, a discovery at which Clark just happens to take one of his low-paid jobs whilst roaming in search of himself, and which will turn out to be the Fortress of Solitude. Less time on the speeches and more time on the plot contrivances would have been a help, not least in Lois and Superman’s rushed romance.
Before long, Zod is free from his intergalactic ice cube and on the hunt for interplanetary lebensraum to rebuild Krypton. Discovering Kal-El on Earth, he chooses his target out of vengeance and to find the MacGuffin from earlier. At the very least, Shannon’s Zod gets more solid motivation than Terence Stamp’s chilly contempt in Superman II. Shannon’s bug-eyed stare and intensity certainly sell his portentous dialogue, which isn’t easy to do when your outfit looks like the offspring of a Ringwraith and the Space Jockey. Eventually and inevitably, we get to a showdown in Metropolis, replete with collapsing skyscrapers and extras dashing for their lives. Man Of Steel may be aiming for The Dark Knight’s sense of relevant urgency, but willy-nilly destruction on a large scale isn’t the thrilling sight onscreen that it used to be. In a post-9/11 scenario, it sits uncomfortably with the darker aspirations reflected in the muted blues and beiges of Amir Mokri’s camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. Snyder believes thrills come from sudden close-ups on wide shots, sometimes zooming in twice. Between this and the lens flares, someone needs to get J.J. Abrams’ lawyers on the line.
The cast do their best, sometimes in spite of the script. Adams’ Lane is spunky, Shannon is all brooding, snipy menace and Crowe’s Jor-El is given much more to do than Brando’s, but his presence/essence/soul/whatever is part of one of several plot contrivances than will leave you confused, and then annoyed. Laurence Fishburne gets shortchanged as an underwritten Perry White, and the likes of Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff come and go with little impact. But what of Cavill? Crucially, he’s a near-perfect fit for Supes’ new blue ensemble, a fine mix of self-doubt and quasi-regal bearing. He shoulders Man Of Steel and guides it through choppy overlong waters. Clark’s elation when he first practices flight in his new regalia is one of the film’s high points.
Man Of Steel is a passable entertainment, delivering all the explosions, fights and and broad CGI vistas that $225 million can buy. Yet, once the credits roll a shrug rolls across the shoulders like Superman’s cape. After all, there’s only so long you can tolerate two near-immortals throwing each other through buildings and kicking the almighty crap out of each other. Handsome and energetic it may be, but super it is not.