There’s nothing in MAN OF STEEL that hasn’t been executed before – just not with as much bombast as director Zack Snyder’s 143-minute, epic assault on the senses that, at least, manages to get more things right than Bryan Singer’s ill-conceived 2006 franchise-killer “Superman Returns.”
Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan have gone back once again to Superman’s roots for this “contemporary” refashioning, which – once again – starts out on Krypton where Jor-El (a slimmed down and engaged Russell Crowe) sends his infant son out into the galaxy after a failed military coup staged by General Zod (Michael Shannon). Shades of “Avatar” fill this fanciful introductory section of the film, where flying beasts and tentacle-laden machines fill the otherworldly skies of the soon-to-be-doomed planet.
Kal-El eventually makes it to Earth and, once again, into the arms of the Kents, the Kansas farming couple here played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. This Jonathan Kent, however, doesn’t exactly evoke shades of Glenn Ford or John Schneider, as Costner’s Pa worries that the world isn’t ready for his adopted son, Clark, who’s bullied at school and perpetually cast as an “outsider” despite having a knack for the heroic.
“Trying to find his place in the world” here means growing a beard and serving on a “Deadliest Catch” fishing boat where the now-grown Clark (Henry Cavill) subsequently overhears rumblings of a frozen ship in the icy Alaskan tundra. There, the last remnants of Krypton, including Jor-El’s conscience, fill in the Man of Steel about his heritage and what his relationship with humanity ought to be, all the while Clark is being pursued by the dogged Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as part of a potential Daily Planet scoop. Ultimately, Clark’s eventual embrace of his Kryptonian legacy can’t come soon enough once Zod and company arrive with the intention of exterminating mankind for a rebirth of their now-deceased civilization.
“Man of Steel” is a movie that’s sometimes dazzling and at-times mind-numbing, not to mention erratically cast. First the good news – Cavill is a fine Superman, and his confident, yet empathetic, performance is one of the film’s highlights. While you wish Snyder and Goyer had given the actors more material and dramatic beats to work with, Cavill has a much stronger screen presence than Brandon Routh and fits comfortably in both aspects of the role, providing a Superman for the 21st century whose traditional nobility and concern for his adopted race still shines through. Amy Adams doesn’t really get a whole lot to do as Lois, but she has good chemistry with Cavill, even if the two don’t share nearly as many scenes together as they ought to. Christopher Meloni does the most he can with a surprisingly hefty role of an army colonel initially reluctant to embrace Earth’s latest superhero, while Crowe seems more alive here than he’s been in ages as Superman’s biological father.
Other performances in the film, unfortunately, are a real mixed bag. Michael Shannon is a total bust as Zod, with the actor sneering and barking his lines in a vacant performance devoid of nuance. Shannon has been fascinating, and at times scary, in so many other performances that his one-dimensional, even boring, portrayal of Zod ranks as the film’s biggest disappointment; compare it to Terence Stamp’s suave, menacing turn in the Reeve films and you’ll be reminded how deficient Shannon’s cardboard portrayal is. Though not nearly as problematic, also ineffective are Costner and Lane’s respective performances as the Kents – neither registers on an emotional scale, while Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White likewise comes off blankly, with “The Fish” even sporting an Ed Bradley-like earring.
Some of those issues are related to Goyer’s script, which despite breaking up Clark’s childhood in flashbacks, ultimately brings nothing new to the table on a dramatic scale. Technically, it’s a different story, as the endless – if expertly executed – special effects include a headache-inducing, climactic succession of collapsing buildings, screaming Metropolis residents, flying cars, and explosions as you’ve never seen before. The carnage is endless, and Superman’s fisticuff-laden brawls with Zod and his previously-imprisoned Phantom Zone villains are so repetitive to an almost cartoonish degree that there came a point in the concluding minutes where I was just hoping the movie would end. It’s all too much – too frenetically edited, too chaotically directed, and horribly overscored by Hans Zimmer – while Snyder and Goyer miss the heart and soul that Marvel routinely infuses in their comic book films.
“Man of Steel” is likely to leave casual viewers exhausted and Superman fans in a strange place. Some may like the film a great deal, others might be hugely disappointed, and there’s likely to be a faction – myself included – that’s just happy the film isn’t “Superman Returns.” While that may be damning with faint praise, “Man of Steel” is still a reasonably entertaining comic-book movie that lays the groundwork for superior Superman adventures to come – provided the writers have something fresh to say and rely more on character than special effects. That’s a balance that Christopher Nolan struck quite well in his “Batman” films, and it’s something that, for the most part, eludes Zack Snyder and David Goyer here, with only fleeting moments where the material flies up, up and away with inspiration. (**½, 143 mins., PG-13)