The search for the best possible Superman movie continues with the entertaining, but still rather flawed (and easily nitpicked by fans) franchise reboot Man of Steel. It’s probably up there alongside Richard Donner’s first film in terms of watchability and all around entertainment value, but it’s kind of hard to believe that after all this time no one has ever truly been able to hit the sweet spot between just how much of a great guy Superman is and making a credible movie about such a subject. Donner’s film and subsequent following entries played up the goofiness sometimes inherent in the comics. Here, things go so far in the opposite direction that one wishes there was a bit more levity. Still, as far as Superman movies go, it’s totally fine.
The backstory remains largely the same. Saving his son from the destruction of their dying planet Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sets his newborn son into a spaceship bound for Earth with hopes that their race can live on one day through him. Kal-El (Henry Cavil) taken in by the Kent family of Smallville, Kansas (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). He learns that because of Earth’s atmosphere he is capable of extraordinary speed, strength, and the ability to fly. He tries to balance his human side with an alien side that’s on the planet to help and do good, but that he also realizes could be seen as something threatening when viewed through the wrong lens.
Conflict arrives when the man who killed his father, a Kryptonian warrior named General Zod (Michael Shannon) wants to restart his plan of pure blooded genocide on Earth to resurrect their race. To do this, he needs to possess “The Codex,” a living document containing the DNA of every remaining bioengineered son of Krypton that was entrusted to Clark by his father. After reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) comes close to outing Kal’s true idenity, he’s forced to save the world sooner than he probably anticipated he would have to and he’ll have to do it against one of the last of his own race.
Man of Steel comes to audiences this summer courtesy of the equally beloved and reviled Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) in the director’s chair and David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (they of the ultra-successful recent cycle of Batman films) providing the script and story. What might shock people most is that Snyder seems to inherently understand Clark Kent and Superman more than his writers do. Snyder has never produced an ugly looking film in his career, but he also produces a vastly more interesting film than Goyer’s script provides for him.
Snyder imbues the film with the same sense of wonder and spectacle that Donner brought to his films, and he’s far, far, far better at underlining modern subtextual themes with images than the brickbat swinging being done by Goyer. The post 9/11 allegory of this particular story, themes of privacy concerns, and the “Superman is really Jesus” aspects of the script can, and indeed ARE, summed up by Snyder in singular beautiful shots. The problems with the film are almost entirely and unequivocally at the writing level, but it’s not surprising since instead of being in line with a traditional Superman story, it’s more in line with Christopher Nolan’s more “realist” approach, meaning devoid of irreverence or levity at all costs unless it’s someone being a snide smartass. It’s also not like it could have killed Goyer to have added a joke or two (the man did craft the Blade franchise off of such pithiness), but nope, straight faces are abound for almost the entire film.
The film also burns far too much time on the Kryptonian backstory, which could have easily been summed up in about 10 minutes, but thanks to an irregularly structured screenplay that flashes back and forward to the moments that defined Superman for the first hour or so, it feels plodding rather than inspired. It also brings to light that Crowe and Shannon moreso than any other members of the cast are being done a great disservice. Both are fiery actors being reigned in mercilessly by a script that almost demands its lines be read in flat, ominous monotones rather that putting any kind of spice on them. It also doesn’t help that Crowe’s Jor-El becomes a ludicrous deus ex machina for a screenplay that doesn’t know how to logically explain anything (despite, again, a deathly emphasis on realism in a Superman movie), or that Shannon’s Zod is a bland villain. Neither actor can generate much sympathy for their characters thanks to an emphasis on grandiose themes instead of personal stories.
Also coming across as kind of a jerk is Costner’s elder Kent. Diane Lane does a great job as Clark’s adoptive mother (even if she is given one moment while cleaning up a mess that’s a bit of a howler even by superhero epic standards), but Jonathan Kent is kind of a psychologically abusive lout who espouses some of the worst life lessons possible under the guise of teaching his son to be more human. It just adds to the problems with the first hour of the film rather than clarifying anything.
Now that we have the unpleasantries out of the way, let’s talk about what does work. All of the main principals in the film are spot on. Snyder knows, loves, and understands the characters of Superman and Clark Kent far more that Goyer and Nolan do. Not only can Snyder deliver some incredibly well executed set pieces (despite a final third that’s kind of written almost as a carbon copy of the climax to The Avengers, but for a single character instead of a group), but he handles the emotional beats better than they are written on the page. If anyone is trying to make an actual Superman movie that could connect to the widest audience possible, it’s him. And don’t worry those of you weary about the film drowning in the same kind of style that he employed on 300 and Sucker Punch. This is a very tastefully made film where he can draw more from an established history that the audience doesn’t seen (and probably in many cases already knows about) instead of something threadbare. He brings the humanity that the script lacks.
Cavill is also a great Kent and Superman. He’s never given much to work with, but his winning smile, all American good looks, and a genuine affability make the character one worth rooting for. Again, it’s not written as the same hero fans know and love, but Cavill is playing it a bit old school, probably taking his marching orders from the wiser Snyder. He’s easily one of the best actors to tackle the role, and he’s so good in it that it makes wanting to see him have another go with the character quite easy.
Adams also adds a bit of spunk to the supporting cast as Lois Lane, but while she’s a great Lois, the chemistry between her and Cavill seems off. Again, probably because the script could care less about personal stories when there’s so much flag waving and finger wagging to be done. I would also be remiss if I didn’t bring up the work of Christoper Meloni, who steals scenes as a gruff Air Force commander who’s unsure if he should trust Superman or not. It’s a pretty stock role, but he looks like he’s having a ton of fun playing it.
I guess Man of Steel could be called a disappointment, but it’s one that leaves a considerable amount of hope for the future of the franchise. The solution is very simple, especially if Warner Brothers wants to do a Justice League movie. Let someone other than Christopher Nolan and his crew handle the other DC franchises from here on out. Let them have their own voice, style, and tone. Not everything is The Dark Knight, nor should it be. Not every film from the same universe needs to have the same solemnity to it. I’d love to see Snyder and the rest of the returning cast come back, but the pen should be handed off to someone else immediately.