Man of Steel review: Zack Snyder's sensory-bludgeoning Superman movie lacks humor, charm, wonder
Two hundred and twenty-five million dollars buys a lot when you're making a superhero blockbuster. In Zack Snyder's 143-minute sensory bludgeoning, Man of Steel, the director spends almost a quarter of a billion smackers on planetary vistas, collapsing buildings, flying bodies, and a sound mix so aggressive you'll go blind as well as deaf. But seemingly, there's nary a line in the bloated budget for humor, charm, wonder, or even the slightest acknowledgment that we're supposed to be having fun.
Any justification for such a self-serious take on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's iconic creation is financial, not creative. Maybe humor, charm, and wonder don't play well globally. Maybe Man of Steel needs to be tonally consistent with Christopher Nolan's dour Batman trilogy (Nolan shares producer and story credits here) to better pave the way for a Justice League movie. Maybe Warner Bros. wants to distance itself from Richard Donner's delightful Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, which launched the superhero blockbuster era in 1978.
Whatever the reason, the elements that work in David S. Goyer's Man of Steel script and Snyder's hyper-polished visual style are nearly eclipsed by the problems that come with prioritizing the transitory thrills of CGI-destruction over character, emotion, and fun. After all, the reason Donner's Superman is still beloved after 35 years ain't the special effects.
Man of Steel: 'Are you not entertained?'
It's fitting that Man of Steel would co-star Russell Crowe, because watching such a relentless onslaught of sights and sounds, we're reminded of the scene in Ridley Scott's Gladiator where Crowe's Maximus kills six men in less than a minute and then wonders aloud, “are you not entertained?” After the umpteenth Man of Steel fight scene, one can envision Zack Snyder maniacally yelling the same line while standing atop a mountain of exhausted visual effects artists, actors, and craftsman. Undoubtedly though, we are entertained if only because Man of Steel insists upon it – and maybe if we admit the final battle between our hero and the villainous General Zod is the coolest thing ever, the movie will finally end.
Snyder loves to frolic in his effects-dependent comfort zone and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) continually feeds the beast, beginning with a lengthy prologue on the doomed planet of Krypton (conceived as a visual mash-up of Dune, Avatar, and Middle Earth). Here Man of Steel stays close to canon as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) load their newborn son, Kal-El, into a pod and ship him off to Earth. Before Krypton explodes, Jor-El faces off with General Zod (a fiercely effective Michael Shannon), whose genetically-encoded obsession with protecting the citizens of Krypton gets he and his cohorts arrested, frozen, and blasted into space.
The next we see of Kal-El is 33 years later, as the rechristened Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). A rootless wanderer taking odd jobs, Clark's heroic impulses emerge during a raging fire on a collapsing oil rig. Never one to skimp on the beefcake (see: 300) Zack Snyder gives us a shirtless Clark ripping off a metal door and entering the room with flames dancing off his shoulders and chest. It's quite an entrance – and it also advances the movie's only effective emotional idea, that Clark is torn between using his amazing abilities and heeding the advice of his adopted father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner, getting more rustically appealing with age) to delay revealing his powers for fear mankind won't accept him. Man of Steel pushes this theme repeatedly in flashback, as Jonathan scolds the young Clark for saving a busload of schoolchildren and smiles as Clark avoids a confrontation with bullies.
Man of Steel lacks emotional core
As for Clark's birth father, Russell Crowe has been advised by his director to act in a near-robotic monotone that befits his character's eventual status as a holographic “consciousness” haunting a Kryptonian ship buried in the Arctic. Such an affectless performance leaches the power from one of the story's essential relationships. A crucial scene, where Jor-El reveals to Clark his extraterrestrial origin, has so little impact that from an emotional standpoint nothing works from that moment on. That includes the relationship between Clark and Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
In Man of Steel, Lois chases Henry Cavill's Clark because he's a hot story, not a hot guy. She's a modern woman – a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist – and, well, that's really all we learn about her. This is the least interesting Lois Lane of any Superman film and Adams, hardly a heavyweight presence anyway, has so little to work with that she's nearly consumed by the bombast surrounding her.
Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Diane Lane (as Clark's adoptive mother) are all Oscar-nominees and/or winners with the ability to thrive under the distracted eye of a director who only cares about lining up the next green-screen shot. Less so in the case of relative newcomer Henry Cavill. The man is an undeniably gorgeous specimen and he looks just right in the beautifully-designed Superman suit by costumers James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson. What doesn't fit so well is Superman conforming to the Nolan-inspired, Warner Bros.-approved mold of dark, conflicted superhero that does neither Cavill nor Superman any favors. (Image: Henry Cavill Man of Steel.)
At his best, Kal-El is a combination of troubled teenager trying to find his place in the world and Christ figure charged with saving humankind. (Although the Christ imagery here feels more like a blatant attempt to cater to faith-based audiences disdainful of secularist Hollywood.) Turning him into a sour, punching machine who issues vague threats like, “I'm here to help, but it has to be on my own terms,” is just bending to the cinematic whims of the moment. It gives Man of Steel a cold heart that no amount of spectacle can compensate for and it renders Henry Cavill a fairly dull Superman, for which Zack Snyder must take the blame.
'Smashing' but ultimately tiresome action sequences
What Snyder should get credit for are some smashing action sequences. And we do mean smashing. Man of Steel's last hour lays waste to so many buildings, cars, and streets that if such destruction regularly awaits an Earth protected by Superman, then he should really go find himself another home. This marathon of mayhem begins after General Zod and his followers escape their frozen prison and track Kal-El to Earth. The resulting fight in Smallville truly feels like a comic book come to vibrant, vicious life. It's the film's action high point.
But that's merely the opening salvo in a tiresome succession of super-powered smackdowns so frenetic there's barely room to understand, let alone remember, each character's objective. At one point, Superman is wrapped in steel coils for some reason, while Lois, who has improbably discovered how to defeat General Zod, sits in a cargo plane that's attempting to crash one Kryptonian ship into another. Or something like that.
And just when you thought the ensuing 9/11-evoking destruction of Metropolis was the big finale, here comes the final mano-a-mano between Zod and Kal-El, a prodigious disgorging of ones and zeros that amounts to nothing less than fanboy fellatio.
'Thrilling, empty Man of Steel'
Unlike J.J. Abrams' clever, line-straddling reboot of Star Trek, this revisionist take on Superman's origin tweaks established canon in encouraging ways that are then either ignored or fail to live up to their promise. Zack Snyder gives us too little of the character and wit that elevated Joss Whedon's The Avengers and too much of the fighting and bombast that worked for Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, yet feels forced here. One figures that, intellectually, Snyder acknowledges the philosophical, religious, and even Nietzschean undercurrents flowing through Superman. Not fully exploring them is certainly justified in the context of big-budget tentpole fare. But the defining problem with the thrilling, empty Man of Steel is that he scarcely seems to care they exist. Not when there's so much left to blow up.
Man of Steel (2013). Dir.: Zack Snyder. Screenplay: David S. Goyer, from a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Antje Traue, Christopher Meloni, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Lennix, Michael Kelly, Dylan Sprayberry, Richard Schiff, Cooper Timberline, Mackenzie Gray, Richard Cretone.
Henry Cavill Man of Steel image: Warner Bros.