Accomplished but full of drawbacks, divisive to the point that recommending it becomes a grey area. Man of Steel is either good enough in some graphic visual aspects to elevate it beyond its shortcomings, or a gloomy disappointment that contrasts against high expectations. Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead,” “300”), is the grim and grime-heavy director, so controversial a choice at the helm. At best, he comes up with astounding theatrical concepts and a twisted spin on the DC Comic legend, once a beloved character. Superman now is moody and troubled, with a “Dark Knight” kind of treatment.
Beginning with an epic prologue on dying planet Krypton, it’s so close to the end of their race that we’re left flailing our minds for answers why. The intractable geniuses there can’t agree politically on how to solve their problems – many of the reasons are beyond us what they are, but Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is something of a narrative guide, serving us piecemeal dialogue with what toxically went wrong with the planet (both literally and metaphorically). Jor-El goes head-to-head with Congress and fist-up with General Zod (Michael Shannon), who rants feature-long about Kryptonian bloodlines. He seems to have some ideas about genocide and ethnic cleansing, but when it comes down to it he’s just a raving madman.
This section is also the most visually awesome of Zack Snyder’s (“Dawn of the Dead,” “300”) work. The flying hovercrafts, dragon-type creatures and grapevine of embryo life are an imaginative feat, and it crackles to life with drum-in-your-stomach excitement. The first scene is of Kal-El i.e. Superman’s birth, treated with the same reverence as Jesus Christ.
Holy serious epic! The star baby is transported to Earth before he can comprehend his origins and adopted by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both of them agonizingly sacrificial as parents). A few scenes later, after we’ve seen childhood and young adult Clark Kent scenes mashed up in a non-linear blender, we realize this will be a Superman movie of dread, distress and consequence. With teenage angst, he grapples with the difficulty of being different, with being displaced from somewhere he does not know.
During his young adult flashbacks, Clark Kent performs heroics without the cape. The anonymous hero stuff is emotionally gratifying for us, because the yearning to be philanthropic is true to Superman’s innate goodness. Acts of kindness stirs our faith. But he gets bullied and teased a lot by his “peers” who are clueless to what he is capable of. Asked to sulk, the magnificently cut and sculptured Henry Cavill is not allowed to be funny or benign superhero. Being gifted is a lifelong torment, a repetitive Snyder theme.
The signature costume and cape is found in the relic of the spaceship that crash landed when he was a baby. He puts it on, is lectured by his late father’s “conscious,” and becomes the man who could fly. The Man of Steel, referred to at first as an alien to be feared among us, is only a product of internet article hype thanks to Lois Lane (Amy Adams, less rosy than usual). When General Zod bellows his commands at Earth to hand over Kal-El, his decision must be to comply or fight back for the planet’s best interest. The U.S. military is naturally not an ally (when are they ever?), and Superman is at first a target himself.
It’s all war and speed-fighting, with no time for romance. The love story is impossible, or improbable, because Superman has trouble with his identity and what is called upon him. And Lois Lane is a story-first reporter who only gradually sees that revealing Superman is better left to discretion. I do praise Adams’ smart and resourceful take on the character, and after awhile her humanity shines through. She is often as cheerless as the rest, however.
Saving the planet, of course, is what’s at stake. The last third is 1980’s “Superman II” and “Transformers” collided into one, a CGI mass destruction frenzy imbued with yet more building damage 9/11 symbolism. 9/11 “relevance” is a trend of big and heavy action movies these days, but at least Snyder and writer David Goyer are conscious of the epic tragedy. I did love the Hans Zimmer score, his most drumming, and fiercest score since “Gladiator” (2000). But how many times do we have to see Superman and Zod fly and crush through buildings? I had more detached time to observe Superman is less than the Superman we know from past movies, and more like Thor. In the defeat of his arch enemy, Superman simply does a wrestling ring move.
The serious take on the uber-intelligent Batman reboot worked, because the character always existed in a world of noir. “Steel” (produced by Christopher Nolan) has less complexity, and really, it slings a lot of ideas at you that aren’t always comprehensible. As self-doubting as he is, Cavill has a enough magnetism that leaves you wondering if his human side of Clark Kent will ever be at peace with himself. One movie can’t solve this. A satisfying sequel would clean out his inner demons and give him something to smile about.
Last year’s “The Avengers” had humor, mirth and immense heroics that were accomplished with crowd-pleasing delight. “Steel” has power (as well as overload), but it is not a happy entertainment for the whole family. Our dark side is attracted to it, which isn’t the healthiest thing we need out of movies right now. What it does is trigger our lust for bombastic action and extraordinary heroics in the face of inexplicable evil. Dark side satisfied. Now lets get back to the light.
148 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
ACTION & ADVENTURE / SUPERHERO / FRIDAY BLASTOFF
Film Cousins: “Superman” (1978); “Superman II” (1980); “Superman III” (1983); “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987); “Superman Returns” (2006).