Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Come back, Superman Returns; all is forgiven. Upon its release, Bryan Singer’s take on the most iconic comic-book hero of all time was rightly criticized for being poorly cast, too beholden to the Christopher Reeve era and prone to bouts of distracting silliness. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has a clear aim: to reboot the character in a sober, bracing fashion in the same way Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy eschewed the excesses of the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher takes on the character; Nolan even acts as co-producer and gets a story credit here. Where Batman Begins succeeded in creating a workable filmic universe that placed Batman in a recognizable global context while forging strong psychological ties to that character’s fundamentals, however, Man of Steel simply presents a familiar origin story while overloading it with fussy plot details, clumsy non-linear storytelling choices, groaningly obvious symbolism, and tiresome bouts of mass destruction.
Man of Steel places its boldest foot forward from the outset, opening with an extended prologue on the planet Krypton, where a cataclysmic environmental catastrophe has Jor-El (Russell Crowe) scrambling to save the life of his newborn son. Immediately complicating matters is an attempted military coup led by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who seeks to punish the existing order for the unwitting destruction of their home planet. Young Kal-El is eventually shipped off to Earth, where apple-pie Kansas couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) raise him as their own, and name him Clark. Precisely thirty-three years later – a timeframe the film specifically points out on at least two occasions, indicating the level of subtlety at work here – Clark (Henry Cavill) has grown into an adult with incredible powers, but still no understanding of his past nor his place in human society. Just as he begins to get a grasp of his true heritage, however, Zod finds Krypton’s last son on Earth, and has devious plans for both Clark and his adoptive planet.
The most palatable stretch of Man of Steel takes place after the Krypton prologue but before the almost-absurdly cut Cavill dons the cape; it also happens to be the portion of the movie that most strongly recalls Batman Begins, with Clark wandering America doing odd jobs, performing clandestine acts of heroism, and isolating himself from humankind. This relatively quiet section plays to Cavill’s strengths, imbuing Clark with a sense of practiced calm and concealed rage. There’s a moment in this same section in which Snyder deploys, of all things, Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” (from the Singles soundtrack), and it seems to indicate that Snyder’s trademark pop-art sensibility will be present here; that turns out to be a red herring. Snyder’s filmography is hardly spotless – in fact, he’s yet to make a great film – but there’s something to be said for his devotion to crafting distinctive imagery, his (sometimes misguided) attempts to subvert Hollywood tropes, and his obvious passion for comics as a wellspring of mythic storytelling. With Man of Steel, however, he jettisons virtually all of the aesthetic excesses he’s long been associated with (a sequence in which Krypton’s history is recapped via antiquity-styled imagery is a lovely exception), not to mention his sense of playfulness, and the result is one of the most colorless blockbusters in recent memory. Some comic-book fans were concerned that Snyder’s visual approach would derail the story; as it turns out, Snyder’s gonzo tendencies are sorely missed. It’s impossible to imagine that, without Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s involvement, the Superman movie of Snyder’s imagination would have turned out much at all like this.
Much as Snyder’s sudden personality deficit is an issue, Goyer’s script is the point of origin for the movie’s greatest flaws. The dialogue is relentlessly trite and completely devoid of personality or specificity; the only character allowed to assert any sort of individuality is ostensible love interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams), here styled as a fiercely independent career woman who takes her scotch neat, but even she is saddled with scenes like the one in which she helpfully reminds her boss (Lawrence Fishburne) that she is “a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.” Between the Daily Planet and the US Military, a half-dozen supporting characters are (barely) introduced and then greatly imperiled, never leaving an impression. Most frustratingly of all, the conflict between Zod and Superman is only framed correctly in their final moments together onscreen: the liberty vs. determinism theme is far from novel, but it’s a more compelling theme than merely genetic superiority.
For all of the effort and craft evident onscreen, from the entire, fine cast (particularly surprise standout Russell Crowe, who gets to imbue the noble Jor-El with a hint of wryness), to the generally-remarkable CGI, Man of Steel can’t help but completely fall apart in its final act, which is essentially an entire hour of mass destruction. Anyone who chided Star Trek Into Darkness for evoking 9/11 too directly might have reserved their ire for this movie, in which the fictional city of Metropolis endures an assault so massive, its real-life equivalent would surely kill – at least – tens of thousands. (Not so in Man of Steel; despite the many skyscraper collapses, gas station explosions, and car crushings, not a single civilian casualty is ever frankly depicted.) By the time Superman and Zod reach their final battle, cataclysm fatigue settles into outright boredom. If Man of Steel is to be the cornerstone of a Marvel Studios-style megafranchise, as has been suggested, DC would do better in future to take a page from the Marvel playbook, allowing filmmakers (Joss Whedon, Shane Black) to assert at least some authorial influence and individual style, because Man of Steel‘s attempts to rely on the tonal qualities of the Nolan/Goyer films make it clear that different superheroes demand different sensibilities.