The first hour of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is truly exciting. I’ve spent considerable time recently complaining about the gutlessness of the new generation of Marvel films: the smug jokeyness, the non-stop candy-colored nerdgasm in which everything of thematic or emotional significance is systematically stamped out. This movie seems, at least at first, to be a pointed rebuttal to that mode of superhero flick: it’s somber, grandly mythic, straining under the weight of life and death. I sat up, excited. Superman is serious business.
As is traditional, the film begins with on Krypton, Superman’s home planet. It’s a hell of a place, grey and alien, with bug-like ships slithering across the skyline. The genocidal General Zod (Michael Shannon) has staged a military coup that sets the planet on a course for destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) see which way the wind is blowing and are able to save their infant son by launching him on a spaceship toward Earth. Though this is backstory – and familiar backstory at that – Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer don’t treat it that way: we’re not hustled past these events with voiceover or some stylized “many years ago” animation. The film seems to care about the fact that Jor-El and Lara are giving up their infant son; it lingers on Lara’s eyes as everything comes crashing down around her.
There’s a peremptory flash-forward and the rest of the film takes place on Earth, in the present day, with occasional flashbacks to the childhood of young Clark Kent as he learns that he’s not quite like all the other boys. (“He’ll be an outcast; a freak,” Lara had predicted back on Krypton.) Here too, Man of Steel does something interesting, inverting the origin-story tradition of triumphant discovery in favor of dread: Clark seems to see his powers as a frightening disease. His well-intentioned adoptive dad (Kevin Costner) tells him that he has to hide his gifts, for his own good. These scenes have a dark beauty about them; Snyder has a knack for turning bucolic splendor ominous and sad. I liked the notion of adult Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) as a lonely drifter, too, working oil rigs and truck stop diners; it’s a poignant vision of the character that makes total sense.
Man of Steel loses its way when Clark has to become Superman, and General Zod returns to turn Earth into a new Krypton. Snyder films some remarkable action sequences – long, vast, and surprisingly coherent; rousingly set to Hans Zimmer’s booming, intricate score. His stone-faced, portentous style lends itself well to sudden bursts of intensity. But Clark’s transformation into a superhero is given short shrift. The film purports to be about Clark finding it within himself to stand tall and become a role model for mankind – to realize “the potential of every person to be a force for good.” But this proves altogether too easy. Apart from one heart-stopping moment in a flashback, he’s never faced with any hard choices or tough moral questions. None of his experiences growing up – having to hide who he is; locking himself in a closet to protect his classmates; restraining his anger in the face of bullies – bear on anything that happens in the film’s last hour. There’s a scene in an IHOP that involves one of those bullies, and I thought maybe the movie would do something with that – show that he’s been inspired somehow by the boy he used to torment – but it’s just a hollow callback.
The romance with intrepid journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is likewise a total nonentity. It has no particular motivation, and serves no purpose other than to fulfill the promise that Clark Kent falls in love with Lois Lane. By the time she shows up, Man of Steel is off to the races and doesn’t have much time for characters or relationships. The ending is all technobabble and anticlimax – the film deals with the troublesome notion of having invincible characters battle each other by using that fact to ludicrously protract the battle and then, when we’ve had enough, abruptly negating the premise.
Look, this is an often-stunning event film. It’s big and kind of bold and it has a scope and scale that’s virtually unparalleled in the genre. But so much of that work is squandered on stuff that doesn’t matter – Zod’s nefarious plans for Earth, elaborate fights with the U.S. military, long bouts of exposition. Man of Steel’s heart is in the fencepost young Clark crushes instead of a bully’s head; in his mother’s eyes as she lets him go and in his adoptive father’s eyes as he makes the ultimate sacrifice to show his tortured son how to live. That’s the film I came to see.
— Eugene Novikov