Whatever happened to The Man of Tomorrow? In the late ’70s, when Richard Donner and Mario Puzo were making their Superman movie, they realized that the lead character, when in costume, lacked a personality. He’s tough, he’s fast, he can fly, and those abilities define him. It may be impressive as spectacle, but it’s a hard lead for an audience to connect with, and so they chose to focus on Clark Kent — in short and in a bad pun, theirs was a classic because it was more Man than Super. Now, with Man of Steel, Snyder, and his writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, do precisely the opposite.
The film opens with the usual prologue, though seeming far more extended here, on Krypton. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is arguing with the planet’s elders about mining the core of their world — he warns them that the planet has only weeks left before it implodes, and as soon as he’s dismissed, General Zod (Michael Shannon) appears and starts blowing the elder’s palace up. Jor-El escapes to his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), who has just given birth to their son, Kal-El, Knowing the planet is doomed, they place him in a shuttle and shoot him off to earth, but not before Jor implants a whatsit codex into the ship.
Zod attempts to intercept the shuttle, killing Jor-El in the process, but is overpowered, tried, and sentenced to the Phantom Zone, a kind of black-hole prison. Krypton implodes, and Kal makes his way to earth, specifically to the Kansas farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who adopt the boy and impart to him the lessons of compassion and anonymity. I will say that it’s clever of Goyer and Nolan to handle Kal-El’s childhood in flashback, lest we sit through another hour or so of an origin story whose end we already know.
Unfortunately, the time saved with that technique is padded with a further origin story involving a Kryptonian vessel buried deep within the wherever (Arctic). Daily Planet correspondent Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is sent to report on the military’s attempt to salvage it, and meets up with a mysterious team member who knows far more about the ship than he should. The man activates the ship’s control panel which in turn projects an image of Jor-El.
And, of course, the man is Kal-El (Henry Cavill). Jor-El informs his son of Krypton’s history and of his duties on earth while Lois noses around, eventually getting caught by Kal and left in a snowbank while he pilots the ship the hell outta there. Lois becomes obsessed with tracking down the fellow, and gets rather far along, until a strange spaceship shows up bearing Zod and his crew, demanding that earth turn over this super man.
I think it’s around here somewhere when the movie gets going.
By now I don’t expect any superhero movie to be short on setup, but even still it’s a long slog until we get some action. This isn’t excessive plotting on the level of Iron Man 2, but it’s extensive, slow, and isn’t particularly new to anyone who’s been living the past 80 years. And that ties into another trope of superhero films — that of the hero fighting someone whose powers are identical to their own, which in turn makes action very repetitive very quickly. They’re evenly matched; we get it, and they don’t know how to fight each other without using the same moves and powers over and over again.
Yeah, it’s impressive, the scale of the fights as buildings topple, trains get flipped and chucked, men crash through diners, and all that, but after a dozen or so times of seeing it, or seeing Superman appear out of nowhere to attack or rescue someone or seeing one character punch another into the next voting district, it loses its edge. And when someone is defeated, the method just makes you wonder why it wasn’t tried an hour or so earlier.
In any event, Snyder knows what he wants, but I think he’d be better served with a sense of escalation instead of climax after climax — in other words, we need to install in him a setting between “On” and “Off.” What we’re left with here is a film that staggers frequently into the realm of empty bombastics — from a trio who’ve done far better.
The lack of subtlety also spills over to the performances. Cavill, Adams, Shannon, Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet Editor in Chief Perry White, and Antje Traue as Zod’s acolyte Faora have little to do aside from posturing and looking awed. Lane and Crowe seem cast merely for their respectable presences, but lack the material to make their roles memorable. Only Costner leaves an impression, and it’s too bad that his exit is so goofy.
It’s big and loud and explosiony and has the most basic elements to pass as a Superman movie. If you’re so starved for simply the name, it’s not terrible, but it is disappointing. I’d end this with a clever pun on the title (I was trying to fit a Brainiac reference in there for a while), but I think not doing so is a more accurate summation of the film.