I approached Man of Steel under the mistaken impression that director Zach Snyder had set himself on a course for reinventing the Superman mythology. I expected a story where Kal-El was a refugee from a still surviving Krypton; a story where he would have to choose between his adopted home or his ancestral one. Choice is the operative part of that description. Choice is the thing which gave me hope for hero who, in my estimation, is shallow and boring. And choice is the one thing that’s missing from Man of Steel.
If anybody could pull off a few effective retcons with Supes’ back story, as well as redefining the sort of conflicts he has to face, I thought it would be David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. And while they seem to have given it the old college try, especially in terms of making Krypton seem like a genuinely alien place, there’s little in the story to overcome the typical Zach Snyder formula of movies that are big, loud, pretty, and dumb. Any changes to the Superman mythos are shallow and mostly slavish to established canon. Case in point: attempts to move away from gimmicks like Kryptonite are replaced with Kryptonite of a different name cribbed from War of the Worlds. Seriously, guys, there are still people who read. You can’t get away with bullshit like that without some of us noticing.
However, if this mess of a story does anything, it is to effectively divorce Superman on film from the legacy of Richard Donner. Which, if you enjoyed Superman Returns, man not necessarily be a good thing. Then again, Man of Steel isn’t so terrible that it precludes a sequel helmed by someone of a better directing pedigree, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Man of Steel’s plot presents itself as an amalgam of Smallville’s maudlin “Who am I? What am I?” hand wringing, mixed with elements of the first two Donner-era Superman films. After Jor-El (Russell Crowe) announces that Krypton is doomed, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military takeover to ensure Krypton’s survival in the wake of perceived incompetence from its existing leadership. Amid the chaos of Zod’s rebellion, Jor-El sends his natural born son, Kal-El, to Earth. Following that, Jor-El gets shanked by Zod, Zod gets banished to the Phantom Zone, albeit inside a pointlessly powerful starship, and Krypton blows up. Skip ahead 33 years and Clark Kent, after spending his life trying to hide what he is, finds a crashed Kryptonian scout ship. Using a magic key he is able to download an AI of Jor-El into the ship and trigger about five minutes of exposition/half-hearted attempts to build character motivations.
Since I have no particular loyalty to Superman’s story, I don’t really mind Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan turning Krypton into some decadent empire built upon qusai-religious controlled breeding and selective genetic engineering. In fact, it is kind of interesting in and of itself. But don’t forcibly exposit on all these details only to do nothing with them. Kal-El’s natural birth, as opposed to popping out of a “genesis tank” like every other Kryptonian, takes a back seat to powers bequeathed by the Earth’s yellow sun in almost every sequence of the film. The movie tells us Superman is special in this one way, but shows us why he is special for very different reasons. Would that this wasted potential is merely a one-off. The writing constantly introduces interesting ideas, developing them to some extent, but never letting them sink in as concepts to carry the narrative. It’s as if Snyder et al wanted the movie to be something grand and iconic, but forgot the more pressing need to give it a meaningful story. Thus the Kryptonian mythos, the farm flashbacks, anything with Lois, and anything that explores Zod’s paper thin motivations, contribute to inflating a 95 minute story up to a bloated 155 minute runtime.
Taken as a whole these missed opportunities are symptomatic of Man of Steel’s broader and much more manic need to make the audience FEEL everything that is happening. Seemingly every scene of note is designed to appeal to emotions rather than intellect. This begins with the destruction of Krypton. Then there are the excessive flashbacks of Clark’s life growing up in Kansas. This emotional freight train hits full steam when Zod’s attempt to restore Krypton on Earth comes with the iconic gusto of a dozen 9/11 attacks. To the movie’s credit, it did make me feel something, at least until the end of the first act. By the time we get to Metropolis’ skyscrapers collapsing amid Superman’s brawling with Zod and his goons (and Perry White trying to free people from rubble while covered in enough ash and debris to make me wonder “Is Lawrence Fishburn in whiteface?) I was just out of feelings to feel. Pathos is supposed to be used sparingly as a means of highlighting the importance of a single scene. Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay is so frequent and clumsy in its emotional groping that one would think it was sired on a Japanese commuter train.
Forgive me for saying it, but I like movies because of the medium’s inherent capacity to make me think. Man of Steel does not want you to do this. I’m not talking about critical thinking, either. Even the most simple interrogatives will evoke an entire laundry list of broken motivations and plot holes. Despite this, I know a pathos driven story will work for some people. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people will love doing nothing but feeling for two and a half hours. I’m just not wired that way.
Man of Steel was an opportunity to fix Superman, to make him more than a happy feeling associated with a symbol which has come to represent an innocent desire for an utterly righteous hero. And contrary to what the wags will tell you, making these changes would not have necessitated turning Superman into Batman. This movie ultimately goes wrong in presenting Superman with a non-choice between Krypton and Earth while attempting to pass it off as an actual choice. Offer Superman a living, instead of holographic, Jor-El as Zod’s thrall and instantly there is a meaningful choice for Kal-El. Instead, Man of Steel is just another big, dumb, pretty, and loud summer blockbuster, for whatever that is worth. What’s worse is that given that this movie isn’t overtly hostile to women, though it does reduce Lois to a bit part, it’s actually a step-up for Zach Snyder after the atrocity that was Sucker Punch. Let that one sit with you for a while and tell me how it tastes.
Man of Steel
Directed by: Zach Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe