Directed by: Zack Snyder
Premise: A reboot of the Superman series. An alien baby escapes the destruction of his home planet amid a political coup led by General Zod (Michael Shannon). The baby lands on Earth where he is adopted by a farming family in middle America. As the boy grows into a man (Henry Cavill) he discovers that he has superhuman powers and when General Zod invades Earth he uses his powers to defend the human race.
What Works: The style of 1978’s Superman: The Movie has dominated all subsequent incarnations of the character whether on film or television and in both live action and animation. Man of Steel is an ambitious attempt to break from that tradition and to reinterpret the character for a twenty-first century audience. Whatever its shortcomings, Man of Steel is unlike any Superman movie seen so far and its makers have succeeded in creating a unique picture within the Superman cannon. There are a number of bold choices in this film, chief among them the decision to be non-linear with the storytelling. The narrative jumps around the timeline, especially in the first half, creating a collage of Superman’s upbringing. The cross-cut editing connects Superman’s heroism with his formative experiences and in that way Man of Steel is able to present Superman as a much more human character than other incarnations. The inherent problem with Superman as a character is that he is invulnerable. He cannot be physically hurt and in most versions of the character he is morally impeccable. That is a recipe for a very boring character but in Man of Steel the filmmakers find a way around that by concentrating on Superman’s alienation from the human race. He is an intergalactic refugee trying to fit into a world that isn’t his and he tries to earn his place through his heroism. This makes Superman vulnerable in an emotional way that gives the action in the film some dramatic weight, at least in the first half. Man of Steel is also notable for the way in which the filmmakers deal with the fascistic elements of the superhero genre. Characters like Superman have an inherent strain of the Nietzschian Übermensch and their stories are underlined by an implicit authoritarianism. The filmmakers of Man of Steel attempt to unpack those ideas and ironically this film does that better than the film adaptation of Watchmen, also directed by Zack Snyder, whose source material dealt with those issues more directly. The backstory of Krypton and General Zod’s invasion of Earth dramatize these fascistic themes and for viewers who like to obsess over what superhero stories mean for us, Man of Steel provides something to chew on.
What Doesn’t: Every feature film incarnation of Superman reflects its director. Superman: The Movie showcased the showmanship and romanticism of Richard Donner, Superman III was in tune with the humor of Richard Lester, and Superman Returns was an expression of the nostalgia of Bryan Singer. Man of Steel is a Zack Snyder film, both for better and for worse. Snyder is a director who is capable of striking visuals and thrilling action but he also doesn’t know when to stop. Man of Steel is above all big and loud, especially in its second half, with the characters lost amid a cacophony of action. It doesn’t help that these characters, especially Lois Lane (Amy Adams), aren’t very interesting. It isn’t the actors’ fault. Trying to care about these characters in the midst of so much busyness is like trying to care about an insect on the freeway. The action scenes of Man of Steel frequently go on forever and the movie is more exhausting than it is inspiring. In essence, Man of Steel has the inverse problem of Superman Returns; it provides the thrills but it lacks the humanistic spirit that viewers associate with Superman. The moments of emotional resonance, such as the death of Jonathan Kent and Superman’s final rumble with Zod, are drowned out by the noise of the picture. This movie doesn’t inspire awe and it isn’t a whole lot of fun. In many respects the problems of Man of Steel are indicative of the challenges confronting big budget science fiction and fantasy films right now. This movie uses computer generated imagery to conjure grand images of mass destruction but like similar scenes in The Avengers, 2012, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Transformers those sequences simultaneously invoke the imagery of the 9/11 attack while purging that imagery of all human emotion. This is violence without consequence and as a result the climax of the movie is frequently cold, plastic, and joyless.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of Man of Steel have succeeded in cutting ties with the 1978 movie in order to push Superman into the 21st Century. The picture they have made is stylistically bold and thematically interesting but it lacks a soul. Should there be sequels, hopefully the filmmakers invest more time in the humanity of their characters, even if that means fewer buildings have to be destroyed in the process.
Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)