Man of Steel: C+
by Jon Christian
Zack Snyder aims high and falls short in Man of Steel, a stodgy and derivative mess that never escapes the shadow of better films.
Superman’s parents, played by a dour Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer, kick things off by loading their newborn into a rocket and firing him at the Earth, as their DirectX 10-looking homeworld, Krypton, folds into a glossy planetary explosion. Years pass, and Henry Cavill’s protagonist lands in Kansas and perfects a single facial expression of beatific resentment, which persists through his entire (but blessedly narrow) emotional spectrum.
Rejected by humankind at every turn because he can’t stop showing off his superpowers during convenient natural disasters across rural America, Cavill’s frowny Clark Kent is encouraged by his adoptive parents—Kevin Costner and, in awkwardly aged cosmetics, Diane Lane—to stick it out in the service of a vague messianism that’s never really followed up on.
He’s forced to go pro when his biological parents’ old coworkers-or-something, led by Michael Shannon’s eyebrows, bust out of Kryptonian jail and menace the Earth with forgettable plot devices. A romantic subplot remains advisedly low-key.
It’s not surprising that Snyder, who has previously adapted graphic novels in 2009’s botched Watchmen and 2006’s passing-grade-given-the-source-material 300, chose to play the familiar story with dirge-like sincerity. The effort borrows liberally from the Dark Knight, Avengers and Toby Maguire-era Spiderman franchises, but its emulation is glitchy, and sometimes it feels more akin to the unwatchable 2011 Green Lantern.
Lazy plot holes abound, some involving inconsistent technology in the fictional universe: Shannon and the Kryptonians—who are dressed like monochrome Power Rangers—can seize control of every television and computer display on Earth, but can’t hack the Daily Planet‘s email system (“It’s coming through the RSS feeds!” cries an onlooker, staring at her completely hijacked smartphone screen.) For that matter, neither can the fictional NSA, placing its capabilities significantly behind its real-life counterpart.
We are also to believe that Superman, having become accustomed to Earth’s lush atmosphere, keels over and coughs up blood when he breathes Krypton’s unfamiliar air—despite thriving, variously, underwater and in the vacuum of outer space.
A similar sloppiness pollutes the narrative, as when Amy Adams’ Lois Lane provides a voiceover seemingly drawn from a newspaper story she later decided not to write.
Worse, especially given the hamfisted Jesus metaphor, is the lack of meaningful temptation—or really any of the emotional struggle that motivates better superhero films. In the face of an embarrassment of thematic possibilities—vigilantism, nationalism, immigration—Snyder chose vigorous punching.
Better Superman adaptions—notably those starring Christopher Reeves, but also the best-forgotten 2006 Superman Returns—have shied away from similar big questions, but compensated with human drama. In this case, the immediate scope of existential interplanetary conflict eliminated that possibility.
Visually, the most compelling scenes are the few that depart from Snyder’s familiarly fuzzy digital haze: standouts are a series of briskly-paced battles in which Cavill and the Kryptonians tear through small town setpieces like Harold E. Edgerton photos, and one of too many expository intermissions, during which Crowe’s ghost-or-something trots Cavill through a history lesson on a beautifully-rendered art deco holodeck—which would have been a much more interesting concept for the rest of Kryptonian bling than the CGI dragonflies and puffy costumes that could have dribbled out of the same director’s sexist and boring 2011 Sucker Punch.
Snyder’s first feature film, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty good, likely due to its comparatively modest budget and the involvement of the talented James Gunn. Man of Steel embodied the cheap stylization and flaccid ambition that has dragged down the rest of his canon.
Takeaway quote: “It’s supposed to go all the way in!”
Verdict: Catch it on home release—or watch the preview, which hits all the main plot points.