The new Superman film Man of Steel ultimately betrays itself by not being sure what it wants to be. The two names attached to this film suggest two different movie-making philosophies: director Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen and producer Christopher Nolan of the recent Batman trilogy and Inception. The resulting film is promising, uneven, and frustrating.
For a portion of the running time, Man of Steel is a quiet, meditative origin story told through flashbacks, flash forwards, and through conversations with Clark Kent’s adoptive parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane). After an incredible opening sequence that reveals the world of Krypton and the conflict between Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the Minister of Science, and General Zod (Michael Shannon), the Minister of Defense, the baby Kal-El, tasked with the secrets of his people, flies across space from the dying Krypton only to land on the Kent farm in Kansas where he is then renamed. Jump to an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who is introduced as a nomad, wandering from fishing boat to backcountry bar, saving people and brooding about his fate. A chance discovery in Canada of an ancient spaceship encased in ice leads him to cross paths with intrepid embedded journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who begins unraveling his back story. Meanwhile, after the fall of Krypton, General Zod scours the universe to find the son of Jor-El and recreate Krypton. The opening scenes on Krypton feature exhilarating special effects, as does the interior of the space ship, including what can only be described as a silvery liquid metal frieze that comes alive to tell the moving history of the planet.
The strength of this film comes from its bold elliptical structure and its dynamic lead performances. Cavill carries an air of youth and gravitas simultaneously, lending his role just the right amount of wounded existentialism. He gets the scene right where Superman learns to fly, capturing the joy and fearful exhilaration of the moment. Both Costner and Crowe shine in minor roles, with both mentors appearing occasionally in memories or holograms; by structuring the film this way, Snyder allows himself to use more of these fine performers. David S. Goyer’s screenplay selects moments from Clark Kent’s early life to focus on instead of a purely chronological approach, and those moments are quite powerful, including an early episode at an elementary school and a terrifying bus accident. The weaving in and out of the past makes for a much more interesting and complex film with genuine moments of melancholy. An intense scene involving a tornado seems eerily prescient given the natural disasters of the past two months, and its devastation plays out powerfully. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod never bores, adding to the compellingly watchable mix of actors.
My frustration with the film comes from its bombastic, drawn-out fight scenes and its skimpy treatment of important plot developments. Snyder overuses the cinematic technique of tracking a moving object and then using a quick-zoom to follow it as it flies through the air. By the seventh or eighth time, I found it completely taking me out of the movie. Product placement distracted me during an exhaustive fight scene in Smallville, and the scenes with the Army and government are completely disposable; they could have been airlifted out of a Transformers film. In the bizarre third act, General Zod rains buildings down upon Metropolis as a terrible machine alters gravity and manipulates the earth’s core and can only be stopped by…I am not really sure. Snyder pours on the Christ-imagery and marries that to an overflow of 9-11 references, and since the final plot points are incomprehensible (including just exactly how these two superheroes can hurt each other), the climax just becomes a mishmash of broken glass, panicked crowds running in the streets, toppling massive structures, and the clamor of so much destruction. It’s difficult to care about Superman catching one person out of the sky as thousands undoubtedly die around him.
So, Man of Steel contains many wonderful moments and yet is sabotaged by its own chaos. Prominently displaying Christopher Nolan’s name in the lead-up to this film suggests an origin story and reboot with both intelligence and heart. Zack Snyder delivers that only about halfway, but that half is pretty enjoyable.