Title: Man of Steel
Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director(s): Zack Snyder
Release Year: 2013
When Zack Snyder is leading a property that is being released in the summer, I, and many others, know to expect a feast for the eyes. His style is undoubtedly his own, and he is able to change up the formula every now and then to provide incredibly rich and beautiful moments on screen. So it was no surprise when Snyder was announced to be directing Man of Steel, the latest attempt to reboot the Superman franchise since the abysmal Superman Returns. Taking a page out of Christopher Nolan’s superhero handbook (and even having the film produced by Nolan), Snyder’s Man of Steel is a flawed, but visually engaging attempt to reinvigorate one of the major characters in the DC universe. Attempting to balance a realistic take on the story of Clark Kent, as well as deliver the scale of bombastic action that one would expect from a Snyder movie, the film has a hard time soaring to the heights of other superhero films.
When the planet Krypton is about to implode, and General Zod (Michael Shannon) is attempting to continue the Kryptonian bloodline, Jor-El (Russel Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) send their newborn child, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) to Earth, in order to save him as well as create a new future for Krypton. Jonathon Kent (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) find Kal-El and raise him as Clark Kent, attempting to wrestle with the fact that their child is more powerful than any normal human being. Man of Steel is interesting because of how Jonathon struggles with whether to let Clark’s abilities be known to the world. Is the world ready for a superhero? Can the world be trusted with a superhero? These questions are the foundations of what could have been an extremely well-done character study and commentary on society’s outlook on anything that is unknown. David Goyer’s script touches on this several times, and though everything takes place after Clark leaves home, the audience is still presented with flashbacks to Clark’s time with his parents and how that has shaped him into the man he really is. It is wonderfully done, and there were definitely moments where emotions were beginning to swell to the surface, but by the end of Man of Steel‘s bloated 143 minute runtime, any attachment to the character of Superman is lost.
This can be mainly attributed to the action sub-plot which doesn’t really start until over halfway through the film, and every emotion is squandered for huge explosions and combat sequences that feel ripped from a video game. Snyder’s aesthetic senses override the story and create an unrelenting barrage of eye candy that loses its appeal after 20 minutes, but continues to assault the audience. It starts to become extremely ironic in how a film about a superhero who spends the beginning of the movie saving other people, completely disregards everyone else so he can focus his attention exclusively on the main bad guy. What The Avengers had going for it, and the same with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, is that destruction attempts to be avoided by the heroes. Captain America will divert from hurting aliens in order to save a group of Starbucks customers, and Batman will try his best to save boatloads of people (literally), while still focusing on the villain. It is clear that many of the human elements of Man of Steel were derived from Nolan himself, and he does get a story credit for the script to further that assumption. Goyer was writing a comic book movie focused on spectacle, and fortunately for Snyder, that’s the film he is best at working with.
However, action is very much left to the end of the film, with many sub-plots occurring that eventually coalesce into the main narrative. One of those sub-plots sees Amy Adams as the infamous journalist, Lois Lane, attempting to find out who Clark Kent really is. Of course, the romance plot is thrown in there and it isn’t handled terribly, but Henry Cavill has a hard time conveying emotions without being forced to yell at the top of his lungs. Perhaps it is the struggle of trying to do an American accent without breaking character, but whatever it is, Cavill winds up being a serviceable lead who can do Superman no problem, but when it comes to being Clark Kent, he is just barely able to accomplish that. Speaking of performances, Michael Shannon’s take on General Zod is one of the more disappointing roles Shannon has taken on, which is a shame because I had high hopes for him to break out of indie films and do some memorable mainstream performances. His acting feels very restrained even though he is still a menacing figure, but an unhinged performance would have added more excitement to the drawn out climax of the film.
The highlights of Man of Steel really stem from the technical aspects, however. Hans Zimmer delivers another summer movie score which I will likely listen to several more times, and none of the music feels mismatched with the action happening on screen. Even when that action is occurring quicker than you can process, everything looks nice with a style that is slightly reminiscent of Snyder’s last effort, Sucker Punch, but still uniquely its own. Some of the special effects look a bit bland, but costume designs and the extreme destruction that occurs looks incredible most of the time. If it had not been pushed to an unbelievable length of time, the final climax could have been something for which I would specifically watch the movie. Instead, when I go back to Man of Steel, it is going to be for every scene with Kevin Costner, who stole the show for me. Every scene he was in built the character of Clark Kent and also highlighted another strong performance from Costner.
Man of Steel is not the film with which to instill faith in Snyder as a director that can do more than make something visually dynamic. His attempts at character drama feel very obvious, and emotional beats will either tug at your heart strings violently or not at all. There is no subtlety in how the film comes together and that is what is needed for him to be able to make a truly incredible piece of work. Here he continues to show that even with a great cast and some genuinely emotional moments in the script, he isn’t able to restrain himself from going overboard with the visuals. Man of Steel is a solid effort, once again, but the script and some of the characters hold it back from being one of the best comic book movies. It is fun, to a point, but most of that fun gets beat into the ground by the inability to restrain the movie to a justifiable runtime.