REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Overly long, sloppily scripted, needlessly violent, with changes that need not—and in some instances, should not—have been made, Zack Snyder’s telling of the classic superhero’s origins, despite some good touches, never coheres into a unified whole.
SYNOPSIS: Kryptonian scientist Jor-El sends his only son to Earth as his own world perishes. The boy grows to manhood and learns of his identity and extraordinary powers as a renegade general from his home planet demands his surrender.
PROS: Good cast, with strong performances by Russell Crowe and Amy Adams; incredible rendering of Krypton; small, standout scenes.
CONS: Muddy, redundant script; too much action; too little character development, with the main characters underfinished; a major change in the title character that goes against his primary image.
If Man of Steel represents the newest take on the world’s most iconic four-color hero, then call me old-fashioned and get off my lawn. Yes, Zack Snyder directs his best movie with this retelling of Superman’s origins, and deserves commendation for disassociating from Richard Donner’s classic cinematic nodal point, but, in the case of the former, it says very little, and, in the case of the latter, he cannot help but elicit comparison — not just to the cinematic iteration, but also to television and, of course, comics — and ultimately disappointment. Man of Steel never sinks to the depths of the worst of the Superman movies — those who willingly sat through Superman IV: The Quest for Peace should be relieved to learn that this reboot won’t induce vomiting into your popcorn bucket — but it never lights into something more memorable than the average summer blockbuster. It lurches toward grandeur and mythology, yet its presentation possesses as much depth as the photons composing it.
Much of the problem comes from David Goyer’s screenplay, which once again relays the story of how the scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), unable to convince the decadent leaders of the planet Krypton of their home world’s imminent destruction, sends his only son Kal-El to the planet Earth, thus preserving both his family and his species. Goyer adds more detail to the planet’s history and politics than movie audiences have seen, and Snyder adds incredible details to this predominantly dead world, a remarkable blending of last year’s John Carter mixed with the retro-futurism of a Flash Gordon serial. It’s almost a shame when General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup that leads to Jor-El’s death and his own capture and imprisonment in the Phantom Zone moments before the planet’s destruction. Snyder also showcases breathtaking battles — Crowe’s Jor-El, even beneath Krypton’s red sun, demonstrates feats of such athleticism that it suggests Krypton’s evolution was Lamarckian as opposed to Darwinian — as well as planetary vistas and a suggestion of court intrigue…and yet, the question arises: is this retelling really necessary? Don’t we know this already? With seven decades of stories begging to be told, does Goyer actually have anything he thinks he can add?
Perhaps. But Goyer still manages a few tricks up his sleeve, even as the story unfolds and unravels. Rather than landing Kal-El outside of Smallville, Kansas, the movie jumps ahead, where Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) holds a series of odd jobs, from fisherman (who happens to save a group of oil rig workers as their platform catches fire) to short-order cook, all the while running from his past. In flashback, a young Clark suddenly runs into a janitor’s closet in terror as he develops X-ray vision (one of the movie’s most inspired sequences) and saves classmates from a school bus that plummets into a river. This latter incident leads his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) to implore Clark to restrain his powers, and teach him of his origin. As Clark continues his meandering quest, he finds in the Arctic ice an ancient Kryptonian ship and learns of his true identity, but only after he meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a reporter covering the discovery of the ship. After he rescues her from a pair of Kryptonian robot sentries (cauterizing her wounds with his heat vision — another highlight) he flies away in the ship, and learns his true identity from a download of Jor-El—just in time, too, because Zod, released from the Phantom Zone, comes to Earth, and delivers a message: turn in Kal-El, who knows the location of Krypton’s last bloodlines, or meet destruction.
In outline, the main material is there. The changes mark this particular picture as its own being, though by introducing Lois to Clark so soon, it eliminates the love triangle that has been the hallmark of the Superman story. It also jettisons much of Superman’s standard equipment. Kryptonite? Gone. Luthor, Superman’s arch nemesis, barely rates as more than a name emblazoned on the top of a skyscraper demolished by incoming meteorites during Zod’s invasion. The Fortress of Solitude? Apparently, Superman has yet to lay the foundation. Instead, Goyer and Snyder focus on what it would take to become a savior of humanity…a wise move on paper, but also a mistake. The ancillary, incidental material, from the trappings to the sudden rescue of ordinary citizens, makes Superman enduring and endearing. Once Cavill dons the red cape and blue suit (and stays so costumed throughout much of the movie), he spends little time zipping around the globe as our altruistic guardian angel, but instead throws down with Zod and his army. Incredible though the fight scenes are, extensive as the property damage is, Snyder protracts them to such a degree that they lose much of their significance and punch. Worse still, Snyder never quite finds the pacing he needs to make it work. Though he overloads the movie with action, much of Man of Steel feels inert and far too long. And then there is one incident that goes completely against the character himself, but won’t be revealed here.
Snyder also overloads the movie with seasoned actors, though they strengthen the tale. Crowe’s Jor-El lacks the pompous poetry of Marlon Brando, but shows himself as an more than adept in the action sequences. (Nor is his Jor-El reduced to a cameo; he haunts much of the picture in the manner of Hamlet’s ghost, if Hamlet was a posthuman alien.) Costner, who so often leeched charisma from movie screens, plays Jonathan Kent with remarkable understatement and knowledge. Diane Lane, who so often seems pained in earlier movies, evokes the kindness one expects from Martha Kent, and Amy Adams stands out as a far more confident, far less neurotic Lois Lane. Indeed, these thespians are so assured that they make Cavill seem rather bland in the title role and Michael Shannon’s Zod incredibly generic. And while Laurence Fishburne seems inspired casting for Perry White, he’s given absolutely nothing to do.
The movie’s best moments are its smallest. Near the beginning, Clark attempts to intervene when a trucker in a bar harasses a waitress and, in the end, declines a fight. But when the trucker goes outside to his rig, he finds it a lump of twisted metal. When the U.S. Army attempts to track Superman with a drone, he demolishes it, telling General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) that he does not want the army to know where he hangs his cape. After the incident, Swanwick berates his giggling assistant. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I think he’s kind of hot.” Upon saving Lois during Zod’s invasion, she kisses him deeply, informing him that it’s all downhill after the first kiss. “I think that’s only true when kissing humans,” he replies. Such scenes make the movie shine, and one wishes for more of them to lighten the too-heavy tale. It would have helped. Man of Steel wants to soar, but never transcends its own heavy mettle.