Every major movie studio wants their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a vast, sprawling, multi-pronged franchise that generates one reliable hit after another. The studio that wants this most desperately is Warner Bros., which has all the source material it needs (a vast library of compelling, iconic DC Comics characters) but has often struggled to find the right way to bring that material to the big screen. After various false starts (Superman Returns, Green Lantern, other projects that never made it to the finish line), Warner Bros. finally decided to place their franchise-building efforts in the hands of Zack Snyder (tasking him with using a Superman reboot as a launchpad for an entire superhero universe, ala Jon Favreau's Iron Man). In hiring the director of 300 and Watchmen, Warner Bros. made their intentions clear: while the Marvel movies offered lightweight, quippy entertainment, the DC movies would grim, serious and weighty.
This was a smart move for a couple of different reasons. First, it would allow the DC movies to avoid looking like a cheap imitation of Marvel's model. Snyder and co. would be offering a tonal alternative rather than trying to beat Marvel at its own game. Second, it's a decision that feels well-suited to the material Warner Bros. is working with. There's a mythological aspect to DC's stable of characters that largely feels absent from Marvel's snarkier, more recognizably human ensemble. All of this to say: I dig what Man is Steel is trying to do. Unfortunately, it doesn't do it very well.
Superman's origin story is nearly as familiar as Batman's, but Snyder does his best to bring some fresh elements to the familiar tale. We begin on the ill-fated planet Krypton, a wondrous fantasy realm filled with advanced technology, shimmering spaceships and all sorts of marvelous-looking animals. It's visually rich enough to make you want to see an entire movie set there, and Snyder cleverly manages to incorporate a number of little beats that make us feel like we're arriving at the tail end of a long, rich saga. There's one moment when Jor-El (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) offers a word of comfort to H'raka, a flying beast that was wounded in battle. We don't know anything about H'raka (for that matter, we don't know too much about Jor-El), but it's one of those moments that ends up feeling a lot more memorable than some of the more conventionally dramatic sequences.
Anyway, Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, Daredevil) have just had a baby, which is surprising considering that it's been centuries since anyone on Krypton has had a natural-born child. Alas, the parents won't have much time to bond with their son: Krypton is facing an environmental apocalypse, so Jor-El and Lara infuse the boy's cells with a genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race (as you do), place him on a ship and send him off to earth. Long story short: the kid makes the journey safely, Krypton explodes, and the planet's only other survivors – hardened war criminals General Zod (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter), Faora Hu-Ul (Antje Traue, Woman in Gold) and Jax-Ur (Mackenzie Gray) – begin a long search for this missing kid with the magical world-restoring codex.
You have a pretty good idea of what happens from there: the kid is found and adopted by Jonathan (Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, Unfaithful), given the name “Clark” (an excellent choice, if I may say so), develops all kinds of amazing superhuman abilities, is forced to hide his true nature from the world at large and eventually wanders off on a long, meandering quest to find himself. To his credit, Snyder seems to recognize how mundane much of this material is, so he jumps straight ahead to Clark's adulthood, tosses us into a mystery plot involving reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, Junebug) and then gives us bits and pieces of Clark's childhood via occasional flashbacks.
There are a lot of promising strands early on: Adams' Lois seems smarter and more resourceful than earlier big-screen incarnations, Lane and (particularly) Costner do strong, sensitive work and Clark's identity crisis leads to some intriguing moral quandaries. However, the deeper you get into the film, the more apparent it becomes that Man of Steel has entirely too little to say about the bulk of its main characters. Almost everyone comes with with a hint of an interesting idea attached, but in most cases, that's pretty much all you're going to get. Yes, Lois is smart and resourceful and... um... well, that's about it. There are a whole lot of good actors littered throughout this cast (the second tier of the supporting cast is filled with dependable TV veterans likes Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Tahmoh Penikett and Michael Kelly), but precious few of them are given much room to put their talents to good use.
The most obvious problem is Superman himself, who has never seemed like more of a blank space. I have issues with the “Mopey Deadbeat Dad Superman” offered by Superman Returns, the “Clumsy Idiot Superman” depicted in Justice League: The Animated Series, the “Moody Soap Opera Superman” from Smallville and the “Naive Political Activist Superman” served up in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but at least all of those takes had a unique perspective on the guy. This Superman is a wax figure; a blandly heroic man-god who looks great on posters but never really comes to life in the movie. Cavill's performance isn't bad, exactly – his line readings are perfectly convincing – but he seems uncertain of where to go with it. The only time the film makes a real effort to give Supes depth is during the controversial climax (you know the part I mean), but even this feels unearned and tacked-on. There's a way to make an ending like that work, but the film doesn't put in the effort required to make it happen.
Man of Steel's most complicated character is probably Jonathan Kent, who only appears in a handful of brief scenes but always makes a big impression when he turns up. This is largely due to Costner's heartfelt performance; one of those surprisingly rich little supporting turns he's shown a real knack for in recent years. While Martha is largely reduced to an Aunt May-esque source of fretfulness and homespun wisdom, Jonathan's brand of paternal concern often takes a more intriguing shade: he cares about his son's safety, and continually urges him to avoid revealing his powers to the world... even if that means letting innocent people die now and then. Even here, the film bites off more than it can chew, using this sort of thinking as the basis for one of the film's most unconvincing and genuinely irritating scenes (the one with the storm, the dog and the raised hand).
The most successful characters are probably Jor-El and Zod, a pair of steely-eyed Kryptonians with very different temperaments. The film struggles to maintain a consistent tone, but whenever Russell Crowe and/or Michael Shannon are onscreen, Man of Steel feels like it's somewhere near the right place. Crowe's sad, weary Jor-El looks convincingly like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders (or maybe that's just the look of an Oscar-winner realizing he's been called in to bring dignity to an ungainly blockbuster), and there's more of him than you might expect (Kryptonian A.I. is mighty impressive). Meanwhile, Shannon offers a simplified, stripped-down version of his patented bug-eyed intensity, bringing an stern conviction to lines like, “I will harvest the codex from your son's corpse, and I will rebuild Krypton atop his bones!”
Curiously, Snyder's trademark slo-mo technique – used to such memorable effect in the exceptional Watchmen and the less-than-exceptional 300 – is pretty much absent here, replaced by a considerably more generic method of shaky-cam “realism” that often proves a little aggravating (particularly when it's just two people having a quiet conversation and you start to sense that the cameraman is nodding aggressively the whole time). Large chunks of Man of Steel feel like a (slightly above-par) Michael Bay film, particularly the exposition-y scenes involving the military (blue lighting, glowing computer monitors, stern pronouncements, a sense that the director wants you to remember that these people are The Real Heroes).
As for the action... well, there sure is a lot of it, particularly in the film's second half. While it's fun to see Superman get the chance to punch the daylights out of a bad guy – something he never really gets to do when Lex Luthor is at the center of things – there's a tiresome familiarity to the film's buffet of 9/11-inspired imagery (which is even more aggressively reminiscent of 9/11 than usual). Yes, it upset people that Superman so thoughtlessly allows innocent people to become collateral damage of a superbrawl (I hear Snyder follows up on this in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), but the bigger issue is that so much of this stuff feels like generic blockbuster material (save for a few distinctive images like General Zod hustling up the side of a building like some sort of angry wall-climbing puppy).
There are a lot of scenes in Man of Steel that almost work, or at least scenes that you could imagine working with a few tweaks. I suspect that quite a few of the film's problems would be easier to overlook if Snyder had found the right tone and stuck to it. As it is, there are moments that feel almost embarrassingly out of sync with the scenes that surround them. People made fun of Warner Bros. A while back for reportedly instituting a “no jokes” rule for their superhero movies, but Man of Steel suggests that's probably a good idea: every single bit of “comic relief” that appears in this movie lands with a thud. The problem becomes particularly pronounced during the film's closing scenes, as a moment that is supposed to be shocking and emotionally overwhelming is immediately followed by a stupid scene in which a female soldier comments on how hot Superman is.
It's a terrible moment, but then again, what else is there to say about this Superman? I don't have a problem with the notion of someone delivering a version of Superman that is dramatically different from the version I prefer (I think Grant Morrison's take in the overstuffed-but-moving All-Star Superman is a particularly beautiful distillation of who the character is and why he's special), but Snyder's version feels so incomplete. Maybe that's the point: Clark/Kal-El/Superman spends the whole movie trying to find his place in the world. By the end of the movie, he seems to have found it, but the journey there isn't really a journey. It just sort of happens. How does Clark get a job at the Daily Planet? Why does Clark have such deep feelings for Lois? What are Clark's feelings about being asked to do potentially deadly battle with the last surviving members of his race? We don't really know. These things just happen because they're supposed to. This isn't a particularly bad movie. Every now and then, it's actually kinda cool. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that some crucial spark of inspiration is missing.
Man of Steel
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 143 minutes
Release Year: 2013