Man of Steel
Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Zack Snyder
Story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Screenplay by David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Superman/Kal-El), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Antje Traue (Faora), Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van), Russell Crowe (Jor-El), Christopher Meloni (Colonel Hardy), Richard Schiff (Dr. Emil Hamilton)
As a baby emerges into the waking world of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, his father calmly monitors the vitals of mother and child. A Gigeresque instrument renders a pounding, three-dimensional heart composed of countless metal particles. Look at it as the cold, steely heart of an operatic film whose intensity amounts more to pewter than puissance. A resilient steel heart, though rarely a warm one.
By the end, it’s a stream of airborne shrapnel.
Intent on evading the pitfalls that downed its predecessor Superman Returns in the eye of the zeitgeist, Man of Steel borrows little from 1978’s Superman The Movie. The charm of Capra and Rockwell take a powder as Snyder channels Terrence Malick at his most evocative as well as his most austere. On walkabout in America as a scruffy, wayward adult, Clark thinks back on the milestones of his childhood. Not the lost teeth or the first campouts, but his most perilous glances with unwanted notoriety and the suspicions of over-eager Christians antsy for the Second Coming. Much of Pa Kent’s crucial influence on Clark’s ethos is derived from Costner’s temperament and bearing, as most of his verbal advice zeroes in on the importance of secrecy. He absolutely has a point, but expect most of the Lion King wisdom to seed from Russell Crowe’s masterful, if not quite definitive Jor-El.
While Brando summoned gooseflesh in his beatific cameo as Jor-El in a brief prologue over thirty years ago, Crowe lends the same gravity as well as something far more important. Mortality. Man of Steel’s Jor-El may speak loftily and engage in Biblical levels of self-sacrifice, he does so as a mortal man and not as a gleaming All-father. He’s the film’s first protagonist and perhaps its best. Unfortunately, some of his grace actually dissipates as his presence lingers posthumously in the story, a reminder that less can often prove more.
By that same token, attempts to shed light on Krypton’s culture rob it of its mystery, leaving some creepy design choices in its place. It’s almost a relief when Krypton explodes, taking most of its unnerving furnishings along with it.
The familiar character of Smallville fairs well enough. The amber waves of grain yet sway. Though its younger generations win a blue medal in relentless bullying. Metropolis, though, seems vacant well before its skyline suffers a calamity more chilling than that of the Avengers’ Manhattan, which, you’ll recall, was menaced by otherworldly battle whales. Audiences are sadly accustomed to seeing buildings topple, to seeing Metropolis wounded, the (Daily) Planet itself unmoored from its perch. But nothing I can write here can prepare you for the extent of the devastation. Without a distinct city character to pin to the jutting rebar, the result is a sobering reminder of real life tragedies. The choice might seem bolt, but it’s ultimately hollow for Superman himself, a set piece amassing far too much collateral damage to ring as triumphant.
Pockets of warmth arise from time to time. The film skates around a lovely motif of two fathers’ hopes for a son that bridges their distant worlds. Both Jor-El and Jonathan pause to consider the other’s noble efforts. They’ve never felt more like kindred spirits than they do here. Perry White also presents a pleasantly surprising opportunity to showcase humanity as the beacon to show Clark the way to heroism. Normal people risking it all. Sadly, these themes are ultimately drowned out by the war drums of more overt preoccupations.
Though Lex Luthor takes an uncharacteristic respite, Man of Steel’s villain is actually far balder than his earthly counterpart. Michael Shannon’s General Zod has little time for subtlety, intent on reclaiming macguffins. Shannon could never be accused of turning in a dull performance, even in thankless potboilers, but he strains to find nuance in Zod’s single, plaintive note. He really wants that goddamned Codex. That he actually verbalizes the genetically engineered kernel of his ruthless motivations late in the story doesn’t so much rectify the dimensionless of the character (there’s a Phantom Zone joke in there somewhere), as it draws even more attention to it.
Does lust play some part in this reviewer’s simpering appreciation for the alluring Faora? It’s definitely part of the equation, but she’s one of the few characters who conducts palpable electricity. She’s at the center of the film’s most engaging fight sequence. Her quiet, yet not-so-subtle infatuation for Zod lends a smattering of psychology and tension in a plot of fairly basic motivations. Or, yeah, it could just be that thing about the draw of the evil Eastern European figure skater. Studio 60 was right about that one.
Amy Adams remains untested as the Lois Lane readers have come to admire over the past 75 years, this particular script never quite eager to ask it of the actress. Her frequent whimpers might go unremarked were they issued by anyone other than Clark Kent’s hero. The one person in the universe more courageous than Superman. It’s perhaps a subjective matter of degrees, but this iteration of Lois appears more reckless than devil-may-care, more caustic than confident and playful. Worse, she lacks her steely conviction. The fire erupting from Superman’s eyes seems stronger than the passion that’s always fueled it. Through little fault of their own, the chemistry doesn’t track. Were it a mid-term exam, the answers might appear on the sheet, but somebody forgot to show the work. It doesn’t help that in their first encounter, Clark forgets 33 years of human experience and decides to administer field surgery with the unnerving bedside manner of Lt. Commander Data.
As for Superman himself, despite Cavill’s omnipresence post prologue, I don’t feel that I know this man. I’m not saying I don’t recognize him, but that he passed through, unrevealed to me. That’s a function of the journey. Cavill spends little time as Clark or Superman, no matter what the wardrobe might suggest. He primarily operates as Kal-El, the lost son. A soul searcher. The missing link between two worlds. During this window of his evolution, he’s rarely comfortable, never at rest. At this point, it’s difficult to evaluate just how the actor might play the character at full confidence should Snyder and Goyer decide to stop punishing him.
Cavill might be at his best in a brief scene with Diane Lane’s stellar Martha Kent. Though an earlier scene between Martha and a very young Clark at the emergence of his abilities is but one of the film’s many, many wooden exchanges, their commiseration as adults is remarkably natural. Bristly Martha is the best Martha.
Repositioning baby Kal-El as a combination messianic figure and benign Horcrux registers as peculiar revision for revisions’ sake, though such additions aren’t prominent enough to rankle at the midichlorian level. Except, again, for the creepy design choices. As for a scandalous character choice for the finale, it all depends on what happens next and how it shapes our hero as he asserts himself moving forward. Minus the crucial chemistry between Clark and Lois, however, the outlook for a more engaging sequel seems bleak.
Man of Steel preoccupies itself with Clark’s alienation, admittedly a major component of that original baby in the reeds allegory. Unfortunately, the creative team ventured too far over the brink in mining that subtext, losing touch with the character’s humanity. It’s an icky film with a cold, clammy handshake. I should’ve known from the misplaced Ridley Scott aesthetic of cruel, dying Krypton. But it truly hit me when Clark first took to the skies in something like his trademark costume and I was startled by his glee. This was a joyless place. Who could smile here? Who could revel and take flight in the cold wake of a pale sun?
(Out of 5)