Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe.
I will come right out and say it: I was bored out of my mind watching Man of Steel. The entire film was basically one explosion followed by a bigger explosion with no character development or any genuine sense of conflict in which the outcomes were at stake. As a result, I could not have cared less about any of the characters or countless battles.
The movie starts well enough. There are impressive visual effects as Krypton is attacked by the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon), and it is fairly exciting to watch as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) hurries to save his newborn son by sending him to earth. There is a sense of uncertainty and real conflict in the dialogues between Jor-El and Zod. In the brief opening moments, Crowe receives enough screen time to bring a sense of empathy to his character, which makes his death tragic and poignant. Unfortunately that urgency and emotion never returns to the movie after the opening scene.
The movie then jumps to Earth where the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) drifts aimlessly with a scruffy beard and no sense of purpose, very much like Bruce Wayne in producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Clark occasionally rescues people displaying his Superman abilities, but then quickly disappears to guard his secret powers. After a while he decides to search for his true purpose and identity, and he receives training from his father in an isolated arctic environment (also like Batman Begins).
Clark’s years as a child are filled in via flashbacks. There are scenes of him learning to focus and overcome his sensory overload, working in a diner, and saving a school bus that blew a tire and fell into the river. The last incident led to him being lectured by his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) that he must keep his powers secret so the world would not hate him. This belief culminates in a totally unbelievable scene in which Clark decides not to use his powers. The other flashbacks, which could have been touching and created empathy for the characters, are cut short by Clark misusing his powers, once as a petty act of revenge. There could have been an intriguing learning curve for Clark as he grows into the icon of Superman, but the scenes of him being a jerk are just played for laughs and then forgotten as the film wears on.
A major difference between Man of Steel and Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, or The Avengers, or the Iron Man Trilogy, or (name nearly any superhero film) is that all those other films have characters the audience cares about. Henry Cavill is a fairly flat Superman, but David Goyer’s script is just as much to blame. Amy Adams spends too much time being a know-it-all to feel like her Lois Lane is ever in jeopardy. Even the talented Michael Shannon is hardly menacing as General Zod. The only character who brought any interest to the movie was Russell Crowe as Jor-El, effective both in his action scenes and in his role as a mentor.
Those other superhero films also all have storylines in which the outcome is at risk. Or if the outcome is predictable, at least there is a sense of fun at watching the heroes go through their routines. Man of Steel has neither uncertainty nor fun. The film takes itself every bit as seriously as Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy without a villain that remotely challenges the hero, like The Joker and Ra’s al Ghul challenge Batman. For all its plot-holes and absurd twists, Iron Man 3 clearly enjoyed itself, and even the villain in that film felt closer to succeeding than General Zod ever is.
Admittedly in a Superman movie, the audience knows that ultimately Superman will triumph over the villains, but there should be the possibility of the villains succeeding. General Zod’s ultimate quest to kill Superman is clearly impossible, especially in the reboot of a major franchise. The filmmakers should have shifted his quest to focus on retrieving his desired object, not killing Superman. Even if the audience knows Superman will ultimately save the world, there could have been a period of real uncertainty had it seemed like Zod was capable of acquiring the object he needed.
Even the action scenes have no risk or urgency to them. Superman and the Kryptonians simply take turns pummeling and throwing each other through more and more buildings. By the end of the film, if Zod’s goal had been to eradicate mankind, he should have come close to succeeding, but it appears no one died (or at least no one important) despite the catastrophic damage that would rival that of an atomic bomb. There were even three giant explosions that cause the screen to white out. Normally one of those is the apex of the action, and the film then wraps up, instead it drags on to another bigger battle.
The conclusion was another problem. Once Zod’s threat had been eradicated, the filmmakers still crammed one more fight scene into the film, even though it was obvious that Superman had won at that point. This final fight served no purpose to the plot other than to drag the film out and suck out the little energy it had left.
How apathetic was I toward Man of Steel? How is this for a litmus test: Superman’s final action may or may not have been unethical and a complete betrayal of the character. By that point I was too bored to even care, and was just grateful the film was finally ending.
Content Advisory: Incessant explosions and bloodless action violence; some crass and mildly suggestive language. MPAA rating: PG-13
Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: D+