The idea of yet another Superman movie is anathema to some. Do we really need another? The same can be said of a number of superhero reboots, which invariably set out to create a new franchise, beginning with the requisite origin story. In Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, we’re given this, albeit in a far more subtle and unpredictable manner that almost renders it a prequel to an original story than anything else. For many, Superman is mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter at the Daily Planet who hides his identity under his suit and harbors a crush on Lois Lane. It’s thus not unreasonable to expect that Snyder and Co. would follow the formula seen in countless superhero movies and craft a traditional origin film that follows Clark Kent, played by Henry Cavill, coming to terms with his abilities, acquire his job, and, in the midst of normalcy being established, become forced to save the day.
Snyder doesn’t do any of that, at least not in the way you might expect. Snyder’s bombastic introduction sets the scene, with General Zod, a Kryptonian warrior played by Michael Shannon, attempting to overthrow Krypton’s leaders in what is ultimately a failed attempt to save the soon-to-be dead planet and thus the majority of the Kryptonian race. On the other side is Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, who seeks to preserves the DNA of every Kryptonian in his newborn son’s cells before sending him off to Earth to determine his own fate. Refusing to support the coup, Jor-El is killed by Zod, who is ultimately imprisoned with the rest of his acolytes before his planet is destroyed.
After saving the life of reporter Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, at a remote station in the Arctic, Kent finds himself at what will become known as his Fortress of Solitude, where the spirit of his deceased father informs him of his true purpose on Earth. Meanwhile, as Lane desperately seeks to uncover the identity of the man who saved her life, his secret identity is threatened when General Zod returns, threatening the planet with destruction if Superman doesn’t surrender himself.
In the thick of it all, Snyder spares us the played-out habit of a superhero discovering and practicing his powers, instead showing a man who has always had them, but simply doesn’t know what to do with them. Young and adult Clark are given equal weight as Snyder seeks to create an emotional resonance that echoes throughout much of the film’s first two acts. How do you come to grips with the fact that you not only don’t know your true identity, but that you can’t use your innate powers for good, lest you be discovered and shunned? Snyder carefully broaches this subject through a rather non-traditional narrative, moving back and forth between a young, scared Clark Kent growing up with his powers, and an adult Clark, aware and in control of his powers yet still struggling with the responsibility of using them. It’s certainly engaging, and allows Snyder to remain unpredictable in his decision to reconstruct the mythos behind one of the most popular superheroes of all time.
Throughout most of the first two acts, Snyder carefully doles out the themes of the film in a decidedly even manner, balancing the ideas of fate vs. controlling your own destiny in poignant yet exciting ways; the first two-thirds of the film are almost entirely about Clark Kent, not Superman, which aids in the creation of emotionally powerful and exceedingly well-developed characters. Even primarily expository roles such as Jon Kent, played beautifully by Kevin Costner, pack an emotional punch that serve to make the characters more than just fodder for inevitable action. Conversely, Zod, so consumed with the idea of saving the Kryptonian people, is an almost sympathetic villain, beleaguered with a destiny with which Superman doesn’t agree. As quickly as this is all established, however, it disappears in favor of a third act filled to the brim with little more than monotonous superhero violence.
Precipitated by an almost literal Deus ex Machina scene, Snyder’s love of turning his movies into video games becomes apparent, with Superman spending most of this time slamming his body into Zod’s as they barrel through buildings and, along with Zod’s fancy toys that seek to establish a new Krypton on Earth, destroy everything around them. Although credit must be given to Snyder’s decision to go hand-held for the fight scenes, it’s rendered mostly irrelevant by post-converted 3D and what can only be seen as the closest cinematic approximation to two 12-year old boys playing as Raiden in “Mortal Kombat” and ONLY using the torpedo move. It’s loud, bombastic nonsense that replaces heart with superhero movie contrivances. While it can be argued that The Avengers, one of my favorite films of last year, employs the same type of ending, Man of Steel doesn’t possess the benefit of multiple characters, each with unique abilities, to sustain the action. It’s all super strength and giant leaps and flying into each other before giant machines ripped straight out of The Matrix are unleashed upon the world, causing even more chaos and damage. It’s exciting, sure, but after the first ten or fifteen minutes it just becomes boring.
It’s not fair to say that Man of Steel is a boring film, or even a bad film, because it’s not. It’s an ironic film, because the action that takes over the latter third of the movie is far less engaging and powerful than the moments when we’re simply given the opportunity to learn who Superman is and what he represents. It’s an admirable summer blockbuster, and although it doesn’t quite retain the levels of excitement present throughout the entirety of The Avengers or even the Nolan-directed Batman Trilogy, it manages to delight on multiple levels, even when straying into repetitiveness.
Originally published in the Brighton Standard Blade.