The last time we saw the man that is Superman on the big screen, his fellow DC mainstay Batman had just been rebooted, and Marvel Studios was still a handful of years away from completely and utterly changing the game with their pictures. However, with seven years passed since Superman last took flight on the big screen, director Zack Snyder alongside producer Chris Nolan have taken to revitalizing the character for a new age.
Complete with a new, fresh, Hans Zimmer score and its fresh coat of action-centric paint, WB has brought us a brand new take on the Superman mythos. Too bad the franchise has taken a step or two down since we last saw him under the watchful eye of Bryan Singer.
Man Of Steel opens with a recounting of the Superman origin, but this time, with a little bit of a twist. We meet Jor-El, as his wife Lara Lor-Van is in the middle of giving birth to Krypton’s first naturally born child in centuries, Kal-El. With their planet about ready to literally explode from the inside, and the evil General Zod Hell bent on saving the Kryptonian race in any way he can, they send their newborn son to a place where he can thrive. Landing on Earth, he is taken in by the Kents, John and Martha, who see him as something truly heaven sent. Growing up as a kid from Kansas, Clark Kent (bka Superman aka Jor-El) keeps his truth to himself, until Zod returns to take back the Kryptonian property he sees needed to continue the species.
However, while that origin is itself one of the most interesting and thematically relevant origins in the world of comic books, this brand new adaptation of the Superman origin tale, and his first attempt at saving this planet, is a lifeless, dull and laughably inconsequential meditation on family, fathers, and one’s true place in the world.
With a script from David Goyer, the film’s biggest flaw is held within its inability to craft stakes for the viewer to truly sink their teeth in. Even in the film’s final, city destroying act, the film lays limp on screen, ultimately a completely inert amalgam of father/son meditating told through flashbacks, and poorly choreographed action set pieces that try to breathe life into the character but never finds its legs.
Snyder is at the top of his game visually, giving us some great design work, and the opening sequence on Krypton is genuinely great work in the science fiction genre. Everything feels right for that type of world, ranging from the costume design to the random beasts that we see off in the distance. It’s a nearly fully realized world, and it’s superb direction work from Snyder who is a filmmaker that is either overlooked by those scoffing at his action-centric focus or maligned by those who see him as nothing more than a speed-ramping action hack. Firmly one of this writer’s favorite filmmakers, but even though he may be the film’s biggest star, he’s also one of its major problems.
The action here is absolutely silly, verging on being unwatchable. Nothing more than invincible being beating up invincible being (a problem that, yes, is inherent within the character that is Superman), the film believes that the further a character goes after being punched makes for good action. With literally no physical stakes found within any of the film’s bombastic and histrionic set pieces, the film comes off as oddly sterile and in many ways icy cold and distant.
Also, Snyder has no interest in mining a single theme out of a rather interesting script from Goyer. There are a handful of truly great beats here, be it the “should I have let them die” interchange found in the trailer or a sequence in what looks like a train station near the end, the film is inherently a meditation on Superman coming to terms with his place as God in this universe. The only living being with the ability to destroy or foster entire planets, he holds within him the ability to create or end worlds. However interesting that concept is (and it’s enthralling) Snyder’s only interests are in a somewhat interesting relationship between Clark and Pa Kent, and completely uninteresting action sequences that feel as though they exist for the sole purpose of hushing critics saying the character is a “bore.” Well, sadly, he may very well still be.
Performance wise, the film is actually quite great. Stock piled with character actors, the film stars Henry Cavill as Superman, a young actor who gives a truly career making performance here. Ultimately wasted in a film that doesn’t do much with his actual character, he has the build, the look and most importantly the acting chops to make the dramatic sequences feel a tad more lively. Michael Shannon is wasted here as the completely superficial Zod, who has one emotion, pissed off, and never gets much beyond that. There is one moment, right at the end of the film, that attempts to give his character some depth, but its scoffed at as nothing more than set up for yet another dull and comatose battle. Kevin Costner is fantastic here as Pa Kent and so is Diane Lane as Ma Kent, both of whom are the only remnants of a still beating heart for this film. Toss in solid work by the always great Amy Adams, and you have a film that is saved from being an unwatchable slog of an actioner by a cast truly giving it their all with this material.
With a great score from Hans Zimmer and some interesting work aesthetically, it’s hard to call Man Of Steel a failure. But holding within it absolutely no emotional core or willingness to look at the themes that it feels so interested in only bringing to a surface level, Snyder’s film squanders away an opportunity to be this generation’s Superman tale. Only occasionally feeling inspired to get a rise out of the viewer, the film is nothing more than another unmoving summer action film.