Remember when Superman returned in 2006? Neither does the rest of the world. Brian Singer’s adaptation was greeted with a general thud when it attempted to reboot the franchise 7-years ago. It’s not a terrible adaptation but the slavish commitment to the Christopher Reeve era (all the way down to casting a lookalike) left the film feeling more like an homage than an original take. Also, every action scene was Superman lifting something, which got boring…fast. But of course Hollywood was not going to allow such a massive property die a sad, Kryptonite-induced death. Enter Zack Snyder, the talented but slightly-hackish director of 300, Sucker Punch and The Watchmen to helm the new, grittier Man of Steel. Does he succeed in revitalizing the franchise? Yes and no.
Although the majority of the film takes place on (and around) Earth we are treated at the beginning to a stunning view of the planet Krypton – in its death throes. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have just birthed their first child Kal-El. Unfortunately he doesn’t exactly enter the finest place to grow up. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is making a power play against the Kryptonian government which is useless because the planet is imploding. Zod wants a codex which contains a lot of important stuff regarding this particular race of aliens. To ensure his son and races survival, Jor-El imprints the codex on his son and ships him to Earth in an escape pod.
Snyder along with screenwriter David Goyer smartly scale the story back from there. We meet an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working various odd jobs under fake names. The film jumps back and forth through time as we’re given bits and pieces of Clark’s upbringing on that famous Kansas farm with his parents Jon and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.) Eventually Clark works his way to Antarctica where he first meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams.) She is reporting on this suspicious military excavation project. One night she sees Clarke sneaking around the dig site and we get our first glimpse at (what I assume) will become the Fortress of Solitude. Here is also where Goyer gets rid of any pretense that Lois doesn’t know who Clark really is. That was always the silliest part of Superman anyway so to basically say, “You are clearly Superman, no stupid pair of black glasses will trick me” was a good choice for modern audiences.
But all is not hunky dory on Earth. General Zod wants that codex and brings his best men and women to our planet to retrieve it. Of course his plan is more sinister than that – Zod wants to destroy humanity and build a new Krypton on Earth (the horror!)
By reducing the story to an easy, digestible “us vs. them” scenario gives Snyder the ability to run wild with the action. Those worried that Man of Steel doesn’t bring it on the action front can squash those fears. The set pieces here are huge and relentless (save for one very ill-timed tornado sequence given recent real-world circumstances.) There is rarely a ten-minute stretch to catch your breath. And I am a fan of Snyder’s eye for action. In general his cinematography is beautiful and he’s able to capture the sheer power of Superman when he’s battling Zod and his evil band of baddies. There is a law of diminishing returns however and I did find myself tapping my foot a bit watching an uncounted number of buildings collapse near the end.
Also what’s lost quickly in this very post-9/11 bombast is the characters humanity. Superman is so busy punching and flying that he barely has any lines. Henry Cavill is a very good actor and makes a fantastic Superman but he is mostly a silent cipher through the films nearly 2.5 hour runtime. It’s a shame too because when the film does settle it can often be beautiful, pensive and emotionally involving.
Goyer’s script is also a blessing and a curse. Because of the simplicity of the plot (for once in a superhero movie we don’t need hours of mindless exposition) he was able to let Snyder do what he does best: Blow. Shit. Up. But when he does allow the characters open their mouths they too often speak in awful platitudes about honor and respect which is grating and borderline painful at times. Oh, and I get it Superman is also a Christ allegory. I’m not sure I needed that laid on so thick.
Something that universally works is the casting. Cavill is a studly Superman and carries the weight of the character very well. He has the smirk to carry the film’s quieter, funnier moments while bringing the power that Superman needs to be convincing. Russell Crowe is also sharp as Superman’s father Jor-El. He has far more screen time than expected and is very capable of spewing such silly lines without an ounce of irony. Diane Lane, Amy Adams and Kevin Costner are all given far less to do but are very good in their roles. But the real standout here is Michael Shannon who is finally receiving the exposure he deserves. His unhinged, melancholy General Zod is a great villain and Shannon has the absolute best crazy eyes to display these emotions. He’s truly Superman’s physical match and you feel it in the battle sequences.
Is this the best superhero movie ever? Not by a long shot. It’s clumsy, very silly and possesses far less tact at the helm (sorry Mr. Snyder but you are no Christopher Nolan) than a series like The Dark Knight. But still it has enough wow-moments that will ensure a healthy opening weekend and a sequel. Hell, maybe in part 2 Clark will have enough time to actually stop and smell the roses before he blows them up.