At one point in Man of Steel the ethereal spirit of Big Blue’s long-deceased papa Jor-El grimly assures his son that he will not only be able to save Lois Lane from the fiendish General Zod, but all of humanity. This statement becomes increasingly more absurd as the movie moves towards its finale: a big albeit vapid rumble in the urban jungle which undoubtedly results in the death of a million people. This CGI-heavy extravaganza is emblematic of Man of Steel’s central failing. Digital pyrotechnics don’t mean shit if they totally eclipse your film’s humanity.
The story at the heart of Man of Steel is one of the most well-known in fiction: a whimpering tot, barely an hour old, is blasted away from his dying homeworld of Krypton. Crash-landing in homey Americana the infant is reared by the saintly, salt-of-the-earth farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent. Under their folksy tutelage he is imbued with an unshakable moral code, and grows into one of the most strapping farm boys ever seen on film. It isn’t long though before he discovers his true origins, and is led towards his destiny to become the one and only Superman.
The disappointing irony of this latest Super flick is that we were promised a shake-up of the old formula. Finally, at long last Snyder and Co. (not to mention stodgy old Christopher Nolan) were going to make Superman relevant again. We were going to see a depiction of Kal-El that would work in a modern day context. Nothing like this happens with Man of Steel. The influence of Nolan, which we all thought would ground Superman in the same overrated, hyper-realism of The Dark Knight Trilogy, backfires with Man of Steel. It makes the film feel a bit like a big, fat Frankenstein monster; certain parts just don’t fuse together very well. This is particularly true when one compares the expository first hour and a half (which has enough grit, handheld cameras and desaturation to make any film student giddy) with the mind-numbing, CGI-fused finale. It feels like two different films.
For the most part Man of Steel is dour, portentous filmmaking, with the goofy, ham-fisted antics of Kevin Spacey from the unjustly maligned Superman Returns seeming like a lifetime ago. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the script wasn’t such an unmitigated disaster. There are all sorts of things that happen in this film that makes one scratch their head and blink repeatedly, as if you were experiencing the sudden onset of a hallucination. Characters make outrageous decisions and reason goes out the window in some scenes faster than a speeding bullet.
Even worse is that the film’s script fails to provide an audience with an emotional stake in the action. There is too much crap going on to develop any weight to the story. The brevity apparent in the film’s treatment of certain characters is hilariously bad. Do you want to know something about Perry White (a rotund Laurence Fishburne)? How about Lois Lane? Too bad. Watch the films from the 70’s and 80’s, idiot.
What this results in is many of the actors being underused. This is really a shame, as the film has a plum cast. Take Kevin Costner as Pa Kent for example. Although he is unjustly saddled with an endless stream of platitudes the actor still manages to exude a kindly, powerfully paternalistic effect. Diane Lane, playing the hottest “simple farm wife” ever seen on screen is miscast. I don’t mean to say that she does a bad job with this thankless part. It’s just difficult to believe that a woman who looks like she does could be found anywhere in Kansas.
The always welcome Christopher Meloni also makes the most of his stock role. Playing some guy named Colonel Hardy Meloni brings more than a touch of Elliot Stabler’s iron-like fortitude to the mix. Finally Michael Shannon, while still not being able to hold a candle to Stamp’s amazing version of Zod in Superman II (1980), creates a different character who is not just a mindless goon, although certainly a verbose one.
Yet, for as good as most of the cast is none of them are immune to the limitations of Goyer’s writing. Unfortunately this is the most prenounced with the central duo of Lois and Clark, which draw unfavorable comparisons to the magic of Chris Reeve and Margot Kidder in the original two films. Despite Amy Adams’ formidability she is not a miracle worker; her character’s arc in Man of Steel feels sloppy and rushed. By the end of the film she is supposedly falling heavily for the super-lug and yet it’s unclear where this bond was formed.
As the iconic boy scout Cavill certainly looks the part, with his chiseled face and grotesquely muscled body appearing almost more cartoon-like than the version of Superman from the 90’s television show. His acting though is pretty static. There is none of the wit, charm or even passion that was synonymous with Christopher Reeve. There is also none of the humanist zeal which was apparent in Superman II, where Reeve was depicted emotionally screaming at Zod to stop destroying Metropolis because of the human cost. In Man of Steel Cavill also does a bit of screaming, but his bellows are more about the next alien that needs to get punched. They don’t communicate anything about how he feels about humanity. In fact, very little in the film does.
With such sparse and ineffective character development marring much of Man of Steel’s emotional weight, it’s no wonder that such emphasis is placed on action. But the action in the film is fairly boring and this proves ultimately to be the film’s Achille’s heel.
By now audiences are so inundated with CGI that the majestic awe these images once evoked has been unequivocally muted. They have become as commonplace as the other elements of film that have been around since the medium’s inception.
When Man of Steel begins its non-stop barrage of kinetic violence the audience’s investment in the computer pixels is fatally minimal. Even the spectacle of two god-like beings taking to the sky and beating the absolute piss out of each other doesn’t do much in holding one’s attention anymore. This is nothing new for Snyder. His cinema has always consisted of stories of human caricatures that are distant from the audience, men and women whose emotional spectrums only exist on the polar extremes: the cackling sociopathic nature of The Comedian, the nationalistic vigor of King Leonidas, or even the saintly protectiveness of Diane Lane’s Ma Kent. Nearly all of the film’s elements seem designed to compensate for this lack of proper characterization, particularly the bombastic score of Hans Zimmer, which seems designed to knock the dust from the walls or rattle your fillings loose.
35 years ago Richard Donner attempted to make audiences believe a man can fly. In the interim since then, and with the advent and proliferation of superhero films, men flying in film is now old hat. However a more complicated question has emerged: Why should we still care? Man of Steel has come and gone and sadly that question remains unanswered.