Man of Steel is exactly the film its creators were always going to make, and too little of the film it needs to be. Obviously, with director Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, a grotesquely serious, stodgy take on teenage wish fulfillment is expected, and a great deal of the unease about the film before its release was directed entirely at his superficial eye for fetishistic violence-porn. Indeed, the concern was not only valid but imperative. Very little about Man of Steel indicates that Snyder thinks of Superman as anything else than a fist with a body attached, and the final act leaves no doubt. The man in the blue suit being carted around the film hurts and broods and bruises. He has the rippling abs and the stoic back story, but he is an imposter, plain and simple, a mechanical man with a fancy suit.
Which doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film – that is David S. Goyer’s job. Goyer, who somehow found his way into Christopher Nolan’s overly-dense Batman movies and generally made a mess of human activity and thought, does for Superman what he did for the Caped Crusader – indulge with him. Which was fine when he and Nolan were opening up a maelstrom of pure chaos in The Dark Knight, but that film was still hampered by Goyer’s over-worked, exposition-heavy writing style that frequently feels more like a lecture than a script proper. In comparison, the behemoth that is Man of Steel is, for one, far too long, itself part of the Nolan/ Goyer aesthetic, and far too mechanical, exposition-heavy, and clinical – frankly, part of the Nolan/Goyer aesthetic as well.
The grandiosity of the material is no problem, but the self-serving sobriety most definitely is. Specifically, the festering, omnipresent doom and gloom of the material grows exceedingly old exceedingly quickly, and the relentless gray and brown regions of the film (when it isn’t being orange and teal) feel muddy and grungy for a work without much of an idea how to script depth or emotion. Man of Steel could have been a refresher and a palate-cleanser had it aimed for and bettered something along the lines of, say, the gee-whiz smash-and-bang of Captain America (or the still to come Guardians of the Galaxy, for a more successful refrain to the pride of comic book fiction, no graphic novels allowed). As it is, it is far too pretentious to ever work on its own terms as an operatic return to the stars for superhero fiction, after the genre’s long-time dalliance with the grimy regions of Earth.
Still, the film isn’t all bad. The quieter moments of weathered small town Kansas and middle-Americana feel intimate and even cinematically potent, moving away from some of Goyer’s cluttered tendencies as a writer and just allowing everything to sit and mill around for a moment or two. Snyder also emerges as a surprisingly tender director of feelings and reflective pseudo-Western mood in these scenes where the film takes some time to breathe. As for when it is more interested in bellowing than breathing, the earlier moments on Krypton do have a certain baroque fantastical quality about them that feels like a genuine pop realization of all the feverish golds and Outer Space Rome tones so long imagined in the minds of teenagers and in the pages of middle-century science fiction.
The film also boasts a surfeit of quality performers all around, with Henry Cavill’s somewhat stilted inability to emote being a perfect match for the fish-out-of-water stodginess of Clark Kent and Superman, more an icon than a true human being (attempting to tease out the heartbreak of such a character would generally be a fool’s errand, and he is better served as the blank slate he is). Michael Shannon seethes with a veritable cartoon intensity as the Snidely Whiplash figure General Zod, a villain with no real sense of place or purpose and a character completely ill-fitting to the movie, but at the very least he brings a certain zeal to the material that is never less than watchable even if it is never more than that.
All four of Clark Kent/ Superman’s parents are winners (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane playing the adoptive human parents and Russell Crowe and Avelet Zurer the biological Kyrptonian parents; oh, by the way, baby Superman is born on Kypton and is sent to Earth when the planet explodes to live among the human species, in case you didn’t know). That being said, Lane and Zurer are let down by a boy’s script with little interest in its female characters as anything more than plot devices, and the same is true of a more-than-competent Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
For the better part of an hour, Man of Steel is a fairly solid, if circumspect, character drama about a boy growing up in an alien land, but the second half is a real downer. And a corporate downer at that, playing like any trade-in from any other gargantuan mouth-feeding blockbuster released by the likes of Michael Bay or, well, Zack Snyder at any point during the past decade. It has cacophonous spectacle, sure, but no soul. Worse than the lack of character motivation to prop up much of the conflict is just how ungainly and monotonous it is, helped to no extent by the modern industrial color palette that sucks any life from the movie as it trudges along. It’s all very neutered and even robotic, with a depressing dearth of comic book style or buoyancy. Not to mention, the great long battle at the end of the film almost entirely invalidates the central ethical parable of the piece entirely, and in this context, all the hullabaloo around the very final decision Superman makes is largely irrelevant.
For a great long time, Man of Steel is busy flying around in neutral, not even willing to show off the ornaments of great production value because it is so invested in convincing audiences of a false, largely non-existent maturity. It feels like a lie. And it feels like every other blockbuster. Any good will the movie earns early on is burned right up into the air, becoming as milquetoast as Kent himself. The light poetry and quasi-majesty of the early portions, while not fully able to bat back the rickety prose about free choice and destiny and identity also clogging up the works, is fitfully soothing for a good long while, but it ends long before the movie does. The endearing camp and even the screwy comedy of the earlier Superman films is long gone, and it has been replaced with something as cold as, well, steel.