Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costne
Review: 2 stars (of five)

MoS 08Man of Steel is fairly successful at being what it wants to be: a militaristic action movie whose grim, bleak, violent atmosphere reflects our eternal-war-on-terror, Patriot Act police state reality. But it’s a pretty thorough failure as a Superman movie.

It spends its huge special-effects budget well, has a lot of interesting things going on, and really only falls down in the final act, when it makes the assumption that more, more, MORE action is always better action. But that error is the same tedious mistake that Star Trek: Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 made in the last month alone. At this point, it’s a key feature of the genre.

Man of Steel fails because, like J.J. Abrams with Star Trek, or Christopher Nolan with Batman (or hell, whoever that was with Clash of the Titans), Zack Snyder’s real interest is not in serving the epic source material but in turning a venerable, hopeful franchise into the kind of dystopic, weaponized exercise in excess that is assumed to be the only thing viable in the multiplex. These films are, at their core, indistinguishable from one another, narcotizing audiences with violence so dissociated with storytelling or character that it must be a deliberate stylistic choice.

As is not uncommon with these updated franchise flicks, the modern filmmakers are clearly embarrassed by their source material. Here, “Metropolis” is never called by name, and the movie squirms awkwardly over the very name of its star. In the trailers, we see that Lois Lane begins to coin the hero’s name, but is interrupted at “Superm-” … later, a soldier tells his general that Superman has been sighted. “Superman?” the general demands, with contempt. “The alien,” says the embarrassed soldier. “That’s what they’re calling him.” That’s what they’re calling him, and everyone seems embarrassed about it.

MoS 02Despite, y’know, Hollywood, I had hope in this film. I’d hoped, from the trailers, that the filmmakers were going to challenge the grim battlefield of contemporary action moviemaking. The trailers emphasized Superman as a figure of hope against a modern dark-cinema backdrop, and if the essential positivity of Superman had triumphed over the relentless darkness of current Hollywood, we’d have a great film that still fed the apparent appetite for the bleak and black. The filmmakers would probably point to story beats that suggest exactly this, but in the end, the film fails to be about anything more than a bunch of meaningless destruction.

In the course of the film, something like 20 square blocks of unnamed Metropolis are utterly destroyed. Like a post-nuclear wasteland. But there’s no blood, no bodies, no grief. As the movie closes with a light moment in the Daily Planet offices, it appears that the global and local carnage wrought by Superman’s fight with rogue Kryptonian soldiers has been utterly forgotten.

That’s the problem with the whole film—when you make minimal effort to connect characters and emotions to your high-end effects sequences, the latter become meaningless.

MoS 09The highlight of the film is the casting of Henry Cavill and Amy Adams as Superman and Lois Lane. Though the script gives them so little to do or say, you can pretty much see the characters falling in love on camera in the yawning silences left by the filmmakers. That alone means I’ll show up for the sequel. Like Superman, I’m all about hope.

There are other good or interesting things: Adams’ Lois has real agency in the story, a novelty for movie handlings of the character. And there’s a reimagined Krypton that, while drawing from certain comics over the decades, is clearly steeped in pulp sci-fi, evoking the world into which Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first unleashed their costumed hero. And the focus on Cavill’s struggle to come to terms with his place in the world is a great one. Cavill is thus more like Smallville‘s Tom Welling than the great Christopher Reeve, and it feels right.

MoS 06On the downside: Too much Jor-El. He should die on Krypton and be seen no more. And the film leaves it utterly impossible to believe that Clark Kent has not been completely exposed as a flying alien. I’m willing to believe a chiseled space god can hide behind eyeglasses, but not when his superpowers have been widely witnessed, and an alien invasion has centered on his family farm. But that’ll be ignored as much as the world-shattering carnage will be.

Finally, and this paragraph flirts with spoilers, Superman finally defeats Zod by crossing a line that Superman should never cross. The movie clumsily (in context with the unseen thousands already killed) shows us that Superman has no choice but to cross an uncrossable line, but that’s the thing about Superman: There’s always a better way. Otherwise, you’ve written a really bad Superman story.

In the final analysis, I’m left with this: The screening started with a trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming thing about soldiers in giant robot suits fighting space monsters, Pacific Rim. That two-minute trailer gave me dark visuals, shouting military guys; brutal, oversized violence; and a sense of world-at-risk stakes without actually connecting me (it was only a trailer) to that world. The Superman movie was no different, and a Superman movie should be different. Despite its star, this movie is not worthy of wearing the S.