I was pretty excited about this movie. Combining the formidable talents of Zack Snyder (the stylish director behind “300,” “Watchmen,” and “Sucker Punch”) and Christopher Nolan (mastermind of the “Dark Knight” trilogy) seemed like a surefire route to awesomeness. Perhaps they could even successfully reboot the story of one of America’s most beloved icons: Superman.
Unfortunately, they didn’t. Not only is “Man of Steel” not a success, it’s an abortive debacle of storytelling shellacked with massive amounts of CGI. In fact, it’s one of the worst big-budget summer tentpoles I’ve seen in recent years.
A quick rundown of the story: on the environmentally doomed planet Krypton, scientist and leader Jor-El (Russell Crowe) steals a mysterious object and places it in a spaceship capsule containing his infant son. The capsule subsequently departs Krypton and heads for Earth, where Jor-El hopes his son (Kal-El) will be able to serve as an “ideal” for humanity. At the same time, the crazed General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts to execute a coup against Krypton’s leadership, but is arrested and exiled to the enigmatic “Phantom Zone.”
Jump forward several years. Kal-El, now an adult (Henry Cavill), wanders the planet, occasionally interfering to save endangered humans from death. When he discovers a massive Kryptonian ship in the Arctic, he inadvertently triggers a signal that summons General Zod and crew back from the Phantom Zone. A full-scale invasion results, accompanied by more explosions and destruction than I’ve seen in any movie…ever.
Oh, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) show up here and there.
The plot is driven by an increasingly preposterous series of events and coincidences. Characters conveniently forget important pieces of information, make completely irrational decisions, and abruptly switch motivations midway through the narrative. Furthermore, the way the story is put together – a paper-thin comic book plot mixed with a series of flashback vignettes – robs the material of any sense of character progression. None of these heroes and heroines actually evoke real emotion or sympathy: it’s clear no one is in any real danger, so why worry for them? Or even pay any attention to them in the first place? (Yes, this movie really is that bad.)
The entire moral linchpin of the story – should Superman disclose his identity to the world? – is criminally underdeveloped. Early on, Kal-El’s human father (Kevin Costner) suggests that it might be better if Kal hid his abilities altogether, even LETTING PEOPLE DIE to avoid having to reveal himself.
Absolutely no rationale is given for this staggeringly revisionist approach to Superman. Given Christopher Nolan’s track record, I expected an eleventh-hour cascade of plot developments that brought everything into focus. I don’t have any problems with the general concept – “counting the cost” of being Superman – but not a word of explanation is given as to what this cost might even be.
The heart and soul of the Superman character is “other-ness”: an overwhelming sense of destiny that emerges out of his near-omnipotence. Naturally, there are a lot of Christological motifs that accompany this – and “Man of Steel” hits a number of these in its first hour. The process by which Kal-El, as an Earthly child, comes to terms with his powers is evocative of the Gnostic mythology surrounding the childhood of Jesus…and much of Jor-El’s advice to his son is clearly rooted in biblical texts. (For an outstanding and intellectually provocative exploration of the Superman omnipotence concept, I highly recommend the Mark Millar graphic novel “Superman: Red Son”).
But by the third act of the movie, no one’s talking about these themes anymore.
Instead, there’s a half-baked notion of “recreating Krypton on Earth” thanks to advanced genetic and terraforming technology. A raft of internal contradictions immediately pop up – did Jor-El send Kal to be a moral example to humanity, or an incubator of Kryptonian DNA? it’s never clear – and this is saying nothing of the fact that, clearly, the “terraforming” plot is an excuse for lots and lots of explosions.
“Man of Steel” is the most thoroughgoing vision of apocalyptic sci-fi destruction I’ve ever seen (surpassing the torching of Chicago in “Transformers; Dark of the Moon” and the battle of New York in “The Avengers”), but it’s all a great welter of meaningless sound and fury…rather like being smashed over the head with a boom box on full blast. It’s as if, by the end of the film, director Zack Snyder tore up the “script,” threw up his hands, and ordered his crew to just start blowing up everything in sight. If you’ve seen one or two of the countless superhero movies released in the last few years, you’ve seen everything that “Man of Steel” throws at the screen.
I have no idea how Christopher Nolan’s name got attached to this piece of drivel. One can only hope that his involvement was minimal – a plausible scenario, given the narrative adeptness demonstrated in the rest of his filmography (and Snyder’s historical lack of the same). One of the individuals with whom I saw the film suggested that perhaps Nolan scrawled some plot ideas on a cocktail napkin while inebriated and trying to impress a woman; that, at least, makes more sense than this movie.
No standout acting performances bolster the dead-on-arrival screenplay. Cavill certainly cuts a fine figure as Superman, but he doesn’t do much beyond grunting and brooding. Shannon overacts the part of Zod to a hilarious degree, stripping the character of any hint of nuance.
All this being said, “Man of Steel” is not without its fleeting moments of glory. The scenes in which Superman flies are breathtaking (especially when accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s always-welcome musical score), and plenty of the smaller-scale action scenes are solid (this is one area in which Snyder excels). But these, sadly, aren’t enough to outweigh the problems stemming from an abysmal script and a fixation with clangorous digital destruction.
In short, though it pains me to admit it, this movie is flat-out bad. I found myself actually checking the time halfway through, in the middle of yet another tortuously drawn-out action scene…and I haven’t done that at a movie in years.
Wait for Redbox.
A mildly entertaining train wreck of a movie. This “Superman” never gets off the ground.
Normalized Score: 0.3