The new Superman film tries to do everything but manages to accomplish little.
(Editor’s note: This review contains commentary around plot-lines in the new Man of Steel movie. Please be advised: spoilers below)
I was never more devastated and flattened by my own lofty expectations going into a film than in 2006 when I saw Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns on my birthday. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978 was an all-time favorite of mine, and when word came out that Singer, fresh off of two great X-Men films, was going to start the new installment where Superman II left off, I was ecstatic. Even the random casting of Brandon Routh as the man in the red cape didn’t get me down. I did not just want this movie to be great; I knew it was going to be great. Boy was I wrong. The movie starts out five years after Superman’s battle with General Zod, and it feels like a 2-hour 30-minute epilogue to all the good stuff that came before. I wanted an iconic, old-fashioned superhero for the new millennium, and instead I got crystals, Lex Luthor as a corporate puppet, Superman having an illegitimate child, a mute Kal Penn, and a lot of Marlon Brando voice-overs. The film was so obsessed with recalling Superman’s Christ-like stature that it forgot to tell an actual story. The guy doing most of the saving in the end was James Marsden! When the credits rolled, I could barely lift my head from the disappointment. A man who was capable of doing anything did a whole lot of nothing. I swore to myself that I would never get my hopes up for another Superman film again and begged for Christopher Nolan to save the DC Universe with his fresh take on Batman.
Nolan did just that when the gritty, reality-based The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises became box office sensations for Warner Brothers for the seven years after Superman Returns’ mediocre performance at the box office put Kal-El on the shelf for another reboot. This time, Warner Brothers hired Nolan and his Batman screenwriter, David Goyer, to try their hand at the Man of Steel with a take that would bring the masses of new Batman fans to adore Superman. It’s all about business anyway, as this is the first step in a three-part plan hatched by Goyer, who will also write a Superman sequel and DC’s version of the Avengers, the Justice League. With so much riding on Man of Steel, the studio pulled out every stop to make sure this movie was going to totally dwarf any memory of Superman Returns and its flat reception. So far it has worked like a charm, earning nearly $200 million worldwide in its opening weekend. It is a common trait to link outstanding ticket sales with the quality of the actual films when it comes to big franchises (Do people really think the last three Fast & Furious movies were anything above average?). Man of Steel is setting records in theaters right now, but it barely makes the finish line as a good movie.
The director of this new attempt is Zach Snyder, the man who made Warner Brothers oodles of money with the testosterone-infused 300 in 2007. I thought he did an admirable job adapting the mature superhero mini-series Watchmen in 2009, but his excessive love of action and music video-style of sequencing really did him in with the awful Sucker Punch. After watching Bryan Singer turn Superman into a non-entity, I was more than glad for Snyder to insert some ass-kicking into the mix, although it was going to make some fans angry. Snyder’s hiring did ring some alarms for Superman fans, but it was offset by the comfort that Goyer and Nolan wrote the script and would supposedly keep Snyder in check at the right moments. The trailers promised as much, with more emphasis on the “man” than on the “super.” They showed landscapes of farmland, fatherly advice to a scared boy, the rescue of a doomed school bus and a grown Clark Kent working as a fisherman. There was no sight of slow-motion karate fights, explosions in the sky, or Kryptonian spaceships. Were we really going to get a taste of what Nolan and Goyer did with Batman and try a Superman story rooted in the grim, realistic worldview of our times?
The answer is no, but in a variety of ways this is both good and bad. First of all, to try out Superman in the same vein that Nolan did with Batman would be fatally flawed. Batman is a hero that is within our understanding of humanity but beyond our morals and our interpretation of justice. That is what made the real-life, terrorist-driven fright of today resonate so well with Nolan’s vision and brought the moviegoers back for two more sequels. Superman is a hero that operates within our morals and justice system but is beyond our understanding of humanity. How do you make a film so edgy and hard-boiled about an invincible alien who fights other aliens? Thankfully, Snyder and crew did not go in this direction with Man of Steel. Unfortunately, the film tries to do a little bit of everything. You can feel the disjointedness in the editing of the film from the beginning when we see three storylines hurled at us all at once: The destruction of Krypton, Clark as a young boy discovering his powers and then Clark as a nomad eventually finding the Fortress of Solitude and, in turn, his destiny. Even the three storylines have totally different tones. Russell Crowe as Jor-El seems more than ready to unleash meaty expositions with robotic efficiency before the planet blows up and his son is sent through space. Snyder revels in the apocalyptic otherworldly setting with one wild special effect after the next before Jor-El’s showdown with General Zod, played by Michael Shannon. Then you have my favorite part of the film: Clark as a boy with no friends and no familiarity with what he is capable of being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, played beautifully by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. The scenes in which Pa Kent implores Clark to hold back and try to keep a normal sense of self as he develops his superpowers really tugs at the heart strings. It’s unlike anything I saw in the Batman movies, and it’s a pleasant change of pace.
But we still have some bad guy ass to kick, so we head to the main story that the movie now follows, where Clark is a man that hasn’t become Superman just yet but figures it out thanks in part to main squeeze Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams. We realize at this point that unlike the 2006 film, which was more about the Christ-like iconography of Superman, what we get here is the mythology side of things: where Superman came from, how it shapes him and how it follows him with severe consequences. Zod returns from his exile to discover the Last Son of Krypton on the planet Earth, and threatens to mold the planet into a New Krypton and killing Kal-El after already killing daddy dearest years before. Some of the film hovers around the Nolan-esque tone of trusting heroes in today’s world and the military tactics of Zod’s evil army until the final act, where we go into full Snyder-mode with all the punches, bending of metal, and weapons of mass destruction that celluloid can allow. It is as if Snyder, Nolan and Goyer were playing film tag, waiting for their own turn to make a Superman film of their own. Because of this, the film just never seems to come together.
All three stories converge an hour into the film and merge the three Snyder/Nolan/Goyer styles with the same chemistry as the ship that brought Superman to Earth: strange and beyond logical. Crowe continues to pop-up with the excuse of Jor-El as a holographic CPU that guides Superman throughout his adventures. He tries his best to deliver all the background info you need without hamming it up too much, but with so much dillydallying about world engines and radioactive genomes and the codex, the lameness grows quickly. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Chris Meloni as a military man are great actors yet get far less time to shine than newcomer Antje Traue, whose only job is to look evil and seductive as Zod’s right-hand lady, something she does not do very well.
Michael Shannon is so weirdly miscast as Zod that you can see Shannon’s curly-browed New Yorker edginess try to sneak in during every conflict with more artificiality than the crazy armor he wears throughout the movie. Shannon is a great actor, but this just wasn’t the role for him. Like Shannon, Amy Adams does what she can with the material as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who gets more than her share of the action, but with very little substance to go with it. Adams was not miscast, but she was definitely a misfire. She has done much better work, even in big-budget fare. Then there is the big man himself, played by British actor Henry Cavill. Cavill definitely outperforms Routh, who had zero resume when he got cast by Singer in the previous film. Cavill can inflect the passion of the big moments but the sustained charm and diplomatic nature that made Christopher Reeve a perfect fit for Superman does not fire on all cylinders here. They go through every gamut of emotions with Cavill from shock to revelation to hard-ass to tongue-in-cheek, and he only manages to be okay at all of them, not great in one specific area. I am glad we got out of him what we did, but where was the slick laughter in the theater that I remember doing often when Reeve was wearing the cape?
Running the gauntlet of different angles for a big-budget film is a safe bet in a lot of ways because it guarantees that every viewer will go home pleased about something, but it comes at a price. Fans of Nolan will enjoy the serious, detective-like drama that coincides with Clark finding the costume without nary a mention of words like “Superman,” “Smallville,” or “Fortress of Solitude.” It was a typical trait of the Batman films to avoid the presumed corniness of comic-book-infused surnames, and Man of Steel follows suit. Fans of Goyer’s scripts like The Dark Knight will appreciate the strategic personality of how Superman and the US military thwart Zod’s anti-matter machines. The all-action fans will love watching Supes fight metallic tentacles and continuously punch Zod while ramming him through one building after the next. If there is one thing Snyder knows how to put together, it is a lot of crazy shit at the same time, but that trait makes the film suffer, too. The film tries to balance the crazy train action that made The Avengers so much fun with the why-so-serious nature of The Dark Knight and it definitely falls short. Mixing elaborate action sequences with all-too-real situations like falling buildings in Metropolis, a tornado in the Midwest, and earthquakes in the Indian Ocean does not come off as insensitive in any way, but it definitely comes off as a cheap shortcut to get you to feel the impact. The problem with that is, how do you feel the impact of a moment like this when all the people who are fighting the real battle can defy gravity and supersede humanity? You cannot drive both sides of that street, and by the time the battle is over, you wind up directionless.
There is one advantage to going in all different directions in a franchise film like this. It is like pulling every string on a guitar: sooner or later you are going to hit the right note. For me, that note was no better played than by Costner as the Earth-bound father to the boy who would become Superman. Every scene in which Clark reaches his angst as a young boy truly reaches the everyman status that the film was trying to accomplish. When Pa Kent finally reveals Clark’s true nature to the boy and knows that he has lost a sense of fatherhood, you can see the pain in Costner’s face and you suffer with him. Clark now knows that his father is from another planet, but there was no man more of a dad to him than Jonathan Kent. This was the story that made a hero to humanity out of Superman and bred his homegrown traditional values, and Costner nails it as the man who puts Clark in his place. The tornado scene is the one that I will remember the most, as Costner keeps Clark back so that the others can be saved at his peril. The tornado whirls around Pa Kent, proud to the end, and he is gone forever as Clark screams in agony. Years later, as he stands underneath the whirl of the “world engine” during the movie’s climax, Superman keeps everyone back like his dad did in his demise. Superman then defiantly flies to the core and brings the machine down. It was a beautiful piece of work, the only great thing about the movie.
When they tried to revive the Superman franchise in 2002, and the TV show Smallville was all the rage, J.J. Abrams wrote a script in which the first film was very heavy on his upbringing in the small Kansas town and in turn what shaped him to be the man he would become. As I watched all the carnage in the final act of Man of Steel, I almost wish we got that movie instead. It seems unbelievable that in 2013, I would really just want a superhero movie starring Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. But that is what Superman is about: accomplishing things that you never thought humanly possible. The only thing that seems impossible these days, unfortunately, is making a great Superman movie.