We first meet Kal-El exiting his mother’s alien vagina. It’s no different from an Earth woman’s vagina aside from, presumably, its reinforced structural walls, but the birth is of extreme importance on the dying planet of Krypton. The infant’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), has accused Kryptonian politicians of dooming the planet and its people through short-sightedness and ignorance. General Zod (Michael Shannon) agrees with Jor-El, but instead of talking it out with those in power, he orchestrates a violent coup to seize control.
It’s amid the ensuing chaos, both natural and man-made, that the baby boy is shipped off to Earth. More than two decades later Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is a quiet loner, traveling the world anonymously in search of answers to who he really is and performing amazing feats of rescue along the way. His lack of identity never gets in the way of his desire to help people, but when an alien ship is discovered frozen beneath the ice, his curiosity triggers a chain reaction of events that provides him with answers while simultaneously leading to the brink of mankind’s destruction.
Man of Steel is every inch a Zack Snyder/Christopher Nolan production, and there’s both good and bad in that statement. Snyder’s directorial hand ensures the film is a visual powerhouse filled with real spectacle while Nolan uses his producer powers to find the traditionally bright and colorful superhero’s darker, grittier and more angst-ridden tones, but they also bring with them a shared preference of imagery and effect over story and logic. Even worse, they bring screenwriter David Goyer with them, too.
“You are my son.”
Man of Steel is bursting at the somber-colored seams with excessive amount of side characters and plot details, but the core story comes down to this: Clark Kent, aka Kal-El, is not of this earth and wants to know why. Flashbacks to various stages of his childhood inform us of his struggles coming to grips with his burgeoning powers and his dad’s (Kevin Costner) concerns over what mankind would do if those powers were discovered. Trapped between the father who abandoned him and the father who raised him, Clark is searching for his own truly defining moment.
Wisely, one of the few things Goyer’s script gets right here is to explore Superman’s beginning in a non-linear fashion. After the Krypton-set opening, we jump straight to the present day leaving Clark’s earlier days to pop up sporadically when the film’s in need of an emotional push. It’s a welcome respite from the expected norm, and it’s not alone on the list of pleasant deviations. Less important but just as appreciated is the smart, red-headed Lois Lane (Amy Adams) already well aware of Clark’s abilities, the lack of Lex Luthor as the villain or Kryptonite as convenient Achille’s heel, and the absence of Clark’s tired, eternally non-sensical “glasses on/glasses off” shenanigans.
The film’s first hour is its strongest thanks in large part to those interactions between young Clark and his parents, but Cavill’s early explorations of the world around him stand out as well. He’s at his most human here both emotionally and visually as he deals with real people and relatable issues and does much of it sans cape. Snyder also finds some of his most impressive and beautiful images here including the time spent on Krypton where viewers experience an immense visual dump of information that holds little relevance but is still clear without the need for further explanation. These sequences are also flat out thrilling – including one where Jor-El rides a flying, dragon-like beast through an aerial battlefield. It not only looks fantastic, but it reminds us that this is a science fiction tale that begins far away in outer space. The people look like people, but their architecture, beasts and scientific creations fill the screen completely and quickly with real wonder.
But so much goes wrong in the latter half that even the film’s most modest aspirations get pummeled into oblivion.
Gone are the Snyder and Goyer who passed earlier information to viewers with economy and efficiency, and in their place is a series of holograms whose sole purpose is to spout exposition and details. The fighting strategies of both Superman and the US military are continuously inane, idiotic and ineffective. And Superman, defender of all that’s right and highly opposed to needless death, is seemingly unmoved and uninterested in the mass murder of thousands.
Ironically, in a film that features shots drawing comparisons to Terrence Malick’s work, it’s the excessive, non-stop fighting in the third act that eventually grows boring. I know, that doesn’t make sense to me, either. Characters brawl for nearly an hour destroying buildings, vehicles and what could conservatively be counted at tens of thousands of lives. Punching, kicking, buildings collapsing… this goes on and on, and unlike a fight scene in something like The Raid, there are no moves or skills to appreciate. Action scenes shouldn’t be dull, especially large-scale ones devastating half of a city, but that’s exactly what threatens to happen here.
And that sucks because it all looks so damned good. It’s epic destruction on a grand scale that at times dwarfs even the finale of The Avengers. From Smallville to Metropolis, the mayhem cuts a path of annihilation that needs to be seen on the big screen. Say what you will about Snyder, but the man knows how to please eyeballs. Unfortunately, while the fights are visually impressive, they stop being stimulating well before they stop.
The cast acquits themselves well enough with Cavill leading the charge of competency. His dialogue scenes feel limited for a title character, but he’s strongest when emoting silently through expressions of agony and rage. Shannon finds something resembling a heart in General Zod and rarely cuts loose with the villainous role like Terence Stamp’s take in Superman II; Adams finds Lane’s spunky side without being annoying or dumb; and Crowe does his best impression of a British stage actor. It’s Costner who shines above them all though finding Pa Kent’s love and fear for his only child through short, charged bits of heartfelt dialogue. His delivery of the four-word line quoted above just killed me.
Man of Steel is a fine fit alongside this summer’s other big budget adventures that seemed to choose spectacle over intelligence, heart or character. For many that’s the pure definition of a “summer movie,” and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. What’s frustrating is seeing a film invest in its own humanity and beauty only to beat it beyond recognition until it’s lying limp on the floor of the movie theater.
The Upside: Some beautiful moments; Kevin Costner; first hour is solidly engaging; action is insane (for a while)
The Downside: Second half devolves into Super Kickpuncher: The Movie; third act is so much visual noise causing the action to quickly grow repetitive and dull; exposition holograms; tonal disregard for tens of thousands of deaths; final minute is inexplicably idiotic; 3D adds nothing; women in the military are dumb and horny
On the Side: This review is dedicated to the late, great Taylor White.