I wanted to love director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” I really did. The man understands action, he knows how to frame a scene, and he can tell a story. The problems that generally plague his work are weak casting and a signature breakneck pace that doesn’t leave room to invest any sort of emotional stakes in the proceedings. But in “Man of Steel,” Snyder works from a script created by David S. Goyer and a story co-created by Christopher Nolan – emotional stakes, check – and his cast includes Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe. Stronger casting, double check.
Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder have gone all-out in a complete overhaul of the Superman mythology and do many, many compelling things with it. Here Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) gets his power not from the sun but from the adjustment to Earth from Krypton. He is referred to as Superman only twice during the entire film.
In addition, Kryptonite is notably absent as Kal-El’s source of weakness – there’s a more rigid scientific explanation. There is an extended (too extended, in fact) opening sequence on Krypton that is visually breathtaking and does an admirable job of providing us with the necessary back-story about the circumstances of Kal-El’s creation. They make Zod (Shannon) of “Superman II” into a compelling, layered villain. Amy Adams also gives a sensational performance as Lois Lane, written as an intelligent, capable, funny woman who is entirely aware of the Clark Kent/Superman duality for a change.
Gone is the goofy, period-specific Americana of the original film series – instead, “Man of Steel,” as superhero movies should, reflects the sociopolitical climate of its time with diligence and doesn’t shy away from big, loud set pieces guaranteed to satisfy.
While the changes to the Superman mythos are truly compelling, the script that contains them is fatally weak. It scratches the surface of insight numerous times without breaking the skin. Worse, this is an action movie that has never heard of pacing. It manages to be both too long and undercooked, refusing to tie up an incredible number of loose ends that don’t resurface for at least an hour.
After the opening sequence on Krypton, instead of showing us Kal-El’s arrival on Earth and subsequent coming of age, “Man of Steel” treats us to a fully grown and deeply tortured Clark recalling his childhood in flashbacks. These are successful and well directed. Unfortunately, Goyer’s narrative technique makes it impossible to invest in these moments. The non-linear storytelling undercuts the job of these scenes in the first place: it’s difficult to actually care about a boy you meet at age 7, 11, and 14 for a few minutes at inconsistent intervals. It’s a shame, because Henry Cavill is a capable newcomer, and it’s clear that he could command the screen with gravitas.
Snyder remains so gleefully committed to showing the audience what destruction must be wrought by two super-beings at war (Superman faces Zod and numerous other Kryptonian semi-fascists) that he goes overboard and ends up creating a noisy bore. In fact, noise – narrative and literal – is the movie’s biggest problem. Nearly 45 minutes of all-out destruction begin to blend together, and each time a new giant set piece is introduced it becomes more exhausting. Hans Zimmerman’s deafening assault of a score doesn’t help.
The flaws of this origin story don’t entirely overshadow its value as a piece of popular entertainment. A honing of its overblown action sequences would render them mind-bending. A fleshing-out of character development in the script could complement the breathtaking visuals. And some of its ideas – most notably that of Superman’s “no kill rule” – remain rich.
The attempt to synthesize the serious and the grand gives “Man of Steel” a definite tonal identity in a sea of faux-clever, toneless, assembly-line superhero films. As it stands, it’s an occasionally riveting, emotionally shaky, admirably flawed first step into what could be the start of a great franchise.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.