With the box office disappointment of last year’s Green Lantern, the end of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman series, and most of the specifics of 2015’s Justice League still to be determined, DC Comics and Warner Bros. have put all their support behind a new Superman franchise helmed by 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder. The result is an often puzzling piece of filmmaking that breaks away from both decades of comic history and the ghost of Richard Donner‘s Superman to create a New 52-ish take on the character (i.e. grittier and largely absent of joy or wonder) that, despite its preponderance of extended action scenes, is one of the most boring super-hero films ever made.
Much like Green Lantern (which is in every measurable way a superior film), Man of Steel decides to redesign its leading man for the silver screen. The muted palette and organic earthy feel of Snyder’s version of Superman’s homeworld of Krypton (where the film’s first 25 minutes takes place) may remind you of Green Lantern‘s version of Oa, but it’s just one of many steps in distancing the character from his rich comic history.
The film begins with a prolonged sequence on Krypton involving the final days of the world prophesied by Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and a last-minute coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his soldiers to take control from the council who refuse to heed the scientists warnings. In a bit of convoluted logic Zod and Jor-El, who actually want the same thing (to save Kryptonians), become quick enemies. Eventually Zod attacks, forcing Jor-El to send his infant son into space to what he hopes will be “a better world.”
Skipping decades into the future, the film picks up with a 33 year-old nomadic Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working various odd jobs under assumed names, and at times putting his secret in jeopardy by (with as little subtlety as possible) saving lives. Clark’s journey eventually takes him north where he crosses path with spunky reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and discovers a spaceship under the ice that will answer the questions about his past and provide him a spiffy, if muted, new suit (which is even ribbed for Lois’ pleasure).
Rather than give us a prolonged origin tale, the script by David S. Goyer provides flashbacks from Clark’s past (some of which are even loosely tied into the events currently taking place) including the young man learning to cope with his burgeoning powers, his first heroic rescues, and an odd sentiment offered by his father (Kevin Costner) to keep his head down and not to use his powers to help mankind who he fears will never accept him.
At best Man of Steel is a misguided attempt to give us a gritter version of Superman that bares little resemblance to the iconic version portrayed by Christopher Reeve 35 years ago. Although Cavil, like Brandon Routh, is fine for the role, Man of Steel gives us a story that concerns Kal-El of Krypton but not Clark Kent. In fact, the well-established Daily Planet reporter with strong Midwestern values who moons over his co-worker and moonlights as the most powerful man on the planet is nowhere to be found in this film. In his place is 33 year-old vagabond with no real purpose or direction to his life until events force him to become the hero his adopted father never wanted him to be.
Where Bryan Singer failed by tying himself too closely to Richard Donner’s original movies in a way that made Superman Returns (which is in every measurable way a superior film) feel like a lesser remake rather than a soft reboot, Goyer and Snyder have no trouble distancing themselves from what has come before. Although this allows Man of Steel to have a fresh take on the character, it’s a gritter, more emotionally-distant, and far less heroic version of Superman than fans of the character should demand. The world doesn’t need a morally ambigious Superman. It needs the old-fashioned, even corny, Big Blue Boy Scout.
One of the strengths of Donner’s original Superman was skipping over the period of time than 80% of the events of Man of Steel choose to focus on. A young Clark growing up in a world where he is more powerful than everyone around him is interesting, as is an iconic hero in full command of his powers. A somewhat disinterested Kal-El who is more guilted into than inspired to become a hero is certainly more morally gray, but moral ambiguity might be fine in Kick-Ass or a Punisher film it works in opposition to the template of the the DCU’s moral center (who certainly can’t be asked to fill that role in a larger movie universe following his actions in the final act of this movie).
One of biggest strengths of Captain America: The First Avenger was the care it took to showcase Steve Rogers as a good man. This version of Superman, who should have that same moral compass as the hero who does as much by inspiring nobility in others as he does by actually saving lives is missing completely from this movie. In his place is an over-powered alien from another world who destroys not one but two cities while facing other aliens who the surrounding populace (and perhaps even members of the audience) can’t really distinguished from our hero.
Trying to one-up The Avengers, most of the final hour of the film is non-stop action with what seemed like an endless battle between Superman and Zod in the middle of Metropolis. It’s interesting to note that Zod isn’t the only “evil” Kryptonian to survive the Phantom Zone and come looking for Kal-El. He is, however, the only one that matters. Although he has a ship full of super-powered warriors, the only soldier that gets any real screentime is Faore-Ul (Antje Traue) whose name I had to look up in the credits as she has absolutely no distinguishing characteristics of her own other than having boobs.
Without giving too much away, Zod’s master plan also makes as little sense as the method (involving gravity generators) which he uses to carry it out. Of course logic has never been a staple of Snyder’s films, but thinking out basic character motivations and self-destructive actions that play against the strengths of the villain would seem to be something someone at either DC or Warner Bros. might have wanted to take a look at.
I was surprised by the size of Russell Crowe’s role, especially since he’s playing Superman’s long-dead father. Much like in Donner’s film, Crowe’s Jor-El is recreated as a computer intelligence to help guide his son to reaching his full potential. This version, however, is far more interactive than the floating head we saw in Superman, and has knowledge and an absurd ability to adapt to situations that is impossible to take seriously. Man of Steel misses a prime opportunity by casting Jor-El (who already received plenty of screentime in the film’s opening half-hour) as as the computer intelligence rather than taking a page from Superman: The Animated Series and cast the far more interesting Brainiac whose appearance could have naturally led into the sequel Warner Bros. has greenlit before Man of Steel even opens in theaters.
Like Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel is a film full of promise that ultimately disappoints due to unimaginative choices and a number of poor decisions. It’s loud, full of explosions and (bloodless) destruction, but the non-stop CGI barrage has no emotion or real character investment behind it, creating a black hole of boredom that climaxes with the worst possible on-screen choice for Superman to make that left me shell-shocked at just how far the Man of Steel has fallen in stature during my lifetime. I’d rank the movie between other half-hearted disappointments such as Elektra and the first Ghost Rider. It may be better than Sucker Punch, but it certainly doesn’t leap buildings in a single bound.