It would be difficult to tell a superhero origin story better than was done in the 1978 “Superman.” “Man of Steel” is a relentless attempt, one handled with an abundance of violence and characters but near complete lack of humanity. Before, Superman was the embodiment of decency, raised by two plainspoken, kind middle-Americans who imbued him with the noblest of values. Here, he’s simply an angst-ridden alien, a switch that rests unconvincingly beside his classic invulnerability.
Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, “Man of Steel” has the distinct feel of an intellectual property controlled by creatives who don’t care for the material. Consider Lois Lane (Amy Adams), shifted from plucky girl reporter to plucky globe-trotting journalist. Lois discovers Superman’s true identity before the movie is half over. That is to say, Snyder and Goyer have completely done away with one of the most celebrated love triangles in the history of comics. Where are they to go from here with the romantic tension? “Man of Steel” reduces to Lois to a babe with whom Superman shares a secret.
As we see through flashback, this incarnation of Superman was raised by a version of the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) who take a decidedly negative view on the potential of alien-human relations. It makes sense that Superman seems more interested in being a really handsome hobo than a superhero during the film’s first half, given this upbringing, but Snyder and Goyer fail to make good drama of his transformation. Superman wanders, then he doesn’t, and there’s nothing more to it.
Snyder is a crackerjack visual stylist and this film is no exception. The effects are near-impeccable, with more building destruction in the climax than in the entire filmographies of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay combined (OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration). But there is a sense of wonder missing. I would have enjoyed seeing a moment in which Superman simply hovers above the earth and appreciates his own position as a man with godlike powers. “You’ll believe a man could fly!” was the tagline for the original film. I suppose contemporary audiences will readily believe anything, and that does present a challenge to filmmakers, though it is a challenge they should meet head-on instead of shrugging off, as they do here.
Even though the images are often outstanding in of themselves, they don’t quite fit the film. As “Man of Steel” unfolds, one can’t escape the feeling that it’s all wrong. Everything is dark and dreary, with even Superman’s costume looking closer to something an SS trooper might wear instead of the vibrant, optimistic colors this hero known for.
Some better editing would be welcome here on several levels, as well. The film begins with a lengthy sequence on Krypton, which is then succinctly recounted later by Superman’s father (Russell Crowe), prompting us to wonder if we needed to see it in the first place. In two key action sequences, the editing makes it remarkably unclear exactly what is going on and where and by who towards whom. Stuff is happening and that’s that, and those beautiful effects go to waste when one has to try and intellectualize what’s going on because the editing isn’t making it clear.
Some commentators have tried to co-opt the meaning of “Man of Steel” by labeling Superman an illegal immigrant, but really he is made somewhat of a Christ figure. One scene sees his visage framed in front of a church glass depiction of Jesus, while another sees him falling into space, his arms outstretched as if on the cross, a godlike creature who is humanity’s salvation. Have a field day with this interpretation, though it is difficult to argue that the filmmakers realized it in any meaningful way, as the film ultimately comes down to a punishingly long series of super-fist fights.
Henry Cavill is confident and appealing in this role, looking appropriately handsome and like a block of granite, his English accent effectively concealed, though the script does him a disservice. Christopher Reeve was the world’s most powerful Boy Scout, the invisible man who seriously strove to help the world while appearing not to take himself too seriously. His Clark Kent was a model of aww shucks goofiness, but in “Man of Steel,” Clark comes across as a bore. He’s the guy you would never invite out for a beer because there’s no way you could find a thing to talk to him about, in spite of his aforementioned angst.
The supporting players are given a lot of screen-time but little to do with it. After discovering Superman’s identity, Adams’ role consists almost exclusively of standing around with an awed expression as the wind gently blows that gorgeous red hair of hers. Russell Crowe serves mainly as a source of exposition, often feeding the characters information already well-known to the audience. Laurence Fishburne has more than enough talent to make for an engaging Perry White, but without a juicy line of dialogue or an action even vaguely essential to the plot, we simply wait his scenes out (“Daily Planet” staple Jimmy Olsen is nowhere to be found). As Krypton’s General Zod, the great Michael Shannon further proves himself to be one of the top actors of his generation, giving the villainous would-be destroyer of Earth an unexpected pathos, but in the end he’s relegated to mind-numbing battle sequences.
“Man of Steel” shows what happens when studios get under the impression that all of their old franchises can be revived by giving them an edge. As in “The Dark Knight,” the filmmakers even eschew the hero’s traditional name in favor of a secondary one, while also dramatically upping the violence and sense of gloom. Unlike with Batman, however, this approach takes Superman to places he’s not suited to be. “Man of Steel” isn’t gritty, it’s just dirty.