In its first half, Man of Steel builds a world of intriguing mythological import. In its second half, Man of Steel tears that world down in a pileup of fiery explosions and collapsing buildings. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer have reinvented Superman for a generation that prefers its superheroes to have one foot in our world and the other in a universe of fantasy and mythology, but they’ve fallen prey to the increasingly dispiriting trend of mistaking bigger for better. For all that this Superman reboot accomplishes in resetting a creatively tricky big-screen franchise, the film is also unnecessarily joyless and stubbornly formulaic.
We first see a Kryptonian woman giving birth to a son named Kal, whom we know will grow up to stand for truth, justice and the American way. The planet Krypton is on the verge of extinction, and there’s some dissent in the council as to the best way to preserve the race for future generations. Kal-El’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) wants to send his newborn son to a distant planet called Earth, while his nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon) has a grander and less forgiving vision. Soon enough, the planet is gone, and Kal-El hurtles towards Earth in a space pod. This sequence cleanly and efficiently sets up the main conflict while serving as a poignant origin story for Superman. Crowe’s performance nicely captures the emotional pain that comes with his difficult choice, and the elaborate visual design of Krypton is one of the movie’s most impressive achievements.
Cut to more than twenty years later, and Kal-El has acquired a human name (Clark Kent), grown a beard and taken up work on a fishing vessel in the Arctic, occasionally saving people but keeping his identity and powers a secret at the behest of his Earth father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Meanwhile, intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) investigates the discovery of what turns out to be Kal-El’s transport ship, right around the same time that Kal-El himself finds it.
The Kal-El/Lois scenes are among the best in the movie because they deviate from our expectations for these character types. Lois isn’t the damsel in distress constantly in need of rescue from the dashing and strong young man, nor is she ignorant of Superman’s true identity. Clark isn’t the polished, slightly geeky do-gooder of the comics, but a decent, capable man worried about humanity’s reaction to extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, Clark and Lois don’t share a romance so much as a quickly escalating friendship joined by mutual understanding. Their relationship is interesting, convincing and fresh.
Adams is wonderful in this role, steely and sassy in equal measure. She’s mature and dignified without being stiff or prim. Unfortunately, the pair doesn’t generate much in the way of romantic or sexual chemistry, and the script doesn’t allow enough breathing room for a romance to develop organically. When they kiss, they do it because the script told them they should, not because they actually want to.
As Clark begins to piece the mysteries together and Lois struggles to keep Clark’s secret without compromising her ideals or her job, the movie remains sturdy and compelling. In the most emotionally affecting and visually stunning sequence, Kal-El finally learns the secrets of his past (with a little help from a convenient plot twist that allows an important character to return from the dead), finally claiming the role of Superman that we all know he is destined for. Superman’s first flight has the grandeur and sweeping exhilaration the rest of the movie lacks. Superman smiles, closer to his true home than he’s ever been, and we feel that all is right at last.
Unfortunately, what follows is conventional, by-the-numbers, unsurprising, even depressing. General Zod finds Earth and demands that Kal-El eradicate the human race to make way for the return of the Kryptonians. Superman, having fully assimilated into American culture, does everything he can to prevent that plan from going forward. And by “everything he can,” I mean destroying buildings, tossing cars and laying waste to Smallville and New York City. Sound familiar? That’s because carbon copies of this movie’s third act have appeared in so many blockbusters that destroying anything less than the entire United States in a future installment will be insufficient.
If the movie has to end with a bombastic, protracted series of action sequences, why not at least punch up those action sequences with some degree of originality or invention? Instead, the rote onslaught reveals other problems. Michael Shannon is a very good actor and his big-eyed intensity was an apt choice for the ostensibly fearsome Zod, but the character on the page just isn’t very interesting. He wants what he wants because he wants it, and he’s not menacing so much as frustrated. And by the end, I felt we hadn’t spent enough time with Superman to really understand what made him tick. Why not? The cataclysm in the last 45 minutes leaves no room for the character to develop.
Part of the problem is that the flashbacks to Clark’s earthbound childhood, which could have been tremendously powerful if deployed correctly, lose impact because they feel disconnected both from the central narrative and from each other. It’s too bad, considering that Costner’s warm, decent Pa Kent is one of the movie’s best-drawn characters. The flashbacks provide relevant plot information, but they feel tacked on like Post-It notes filling in the gaps.
Even with its descent into lazy screenwriting and exhausting special effects, Man of Steel has its virtues. I really did like the new approach to the iconic character, essentially reversing his traditional trajectory of nerd-to-superhero by making him brawnier and more confident early on. The character also works because Henry Cavill looks utterly convincing in the Superman suit, which requires both good old-fashioned bravado and an acknowledgment of the suit’s less-than-fashionable aesthetics. Cavill’s performance itself took its time to win me over, but I ultimately appreciated its subtlety and quiet confidence.
And the movie makes time for lovely visual moments, most often on that expanse of Kansas farmland but also in the skies. Snyder’s graphic novel influences appear in isolated scenes like Superman and Zod’s first meeting aboard Zod’s ship, and the movie pays homage to Superman’s iconography in a way that approaches epic scale. This creative team is clearly trying, and sometimes succeeding. If Snyder and Goyer had ignored the Hollywood inertia and marched forward with a Superman story that focused on the machinery (crash! boom! bang!) only as a means to understanding the humanity, perhaps Man of Steel could have been a classic. As it stands, even the almighty Superman crumbles under the weight of a city destroyed and a budget surpassed.