By Bruce Bennett
Man of Steel
Dir. Zack Snyder, U.S., Warner Bros
Bryan Singer’s 2006 live-action movie treatment of the Elvis Presley of superheroes, Superman Returns, slavishly paid homage to Richard Donner’s 1978 franchise starter Superman: The Movie, from identical opening credits to a digitally enabled postmortem cameo by Marlon Brando. Zack Snyder's Man of Steel pledges no such allegiance.
The degree to which the film stands on the shoulders of other more recent science fiction and superhero flicks, however, borders on consumer fraud. The marketing assumption that appears to be at work here is that the tent-pole ticket-buying public is a vast, multinational constituency of novelty-phobes. For much of its nearly three-hour running time, Man of Steel relentlessly recycles familiar spectacle. A lengthy opening passage depicting the last days of Krypton, birthplace of baby Kal-El (rechristened Clark Kent and, eventually, Superman, once he falls to Earth), deals in design, plot, and character cards drawn from the Star Wars prequels, Avatar, The Matrix, Prometheus, and SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, to name just a few.
The creative minds behind the Superman comics’ determinedly infantile and eccentric fifties-sixties heyday never saw fit to provide Superman’s birth father Jor-El with a loyal flying dragon who answers to “H’raka,” or syllables to that effect. Nor did they ever place him, as Snyder also does, in a building-to-building swashbuckling laser battle set against a rust-hued futuristic cityscape. But Otto Binder, Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, Robert Bernstein, and the other unsung architects of the Bottle City of Kandor (Krypton’s capital shrunk to party-keg size) and Titano the Super-Ape—to name two relics of Superman’s gloriously eccentric and determinedly anti-realistic vintage comic book persona—never saw the Monday morning box-office numbers from Avatar and Attack of the Clones.
The short-term memory Pavlovian recognition approach to storytelling at work in Man of Steel steamrolls a cast tasked with imbuing familiar and largely page-bound characters with some sense of verisimilitude or nuanced emotion. No problem for Russell Crowe, who plays Jor-El like the computer simulation the character actually is for much of the story. Similarly, Kevin Costner tosses the ball around Midwestern wheat fields as Clark Kent’s adopted father as if he’s been digitally repurposed from Field of Dreams with the software that resurrected Brando. Michael Shannon lends his particular gift for austere and focused characterization to the villain General Zod, a holdover from both the comics and the Donner film, and here defined by a lust for vengeance, an obsession for Kryptonian eugenics, and the odd habit of surrounding himself with henchpersons with Germanic accents.
In the title role, the U.K.’s Henry Cavill achieves an agreeable dignity, though while bearded and thumbing a ride through the Northwest in pursuit of the suit and cape it looked like Hugh Jackman had accidentally wandered in from an X-Men film. Indentured green-screen servitude in Tarsem Singh’s divertingly odd recent 300 clone Immortals likely helped the actor learn how to meaningfully lock eyes with an X of tape standing in for an opponent to be later rendered. Sadly, Cavill’s evident commitment is not enough to sell declarations along the lines of “You’re a monster, Zod, and I’m going to stop you!” as something anyone over the age of nine would actually say. Alas, poor Amy Adams gets the worst of it. There are very few performers equipped to convincingly trick-shoot a ray gun on cue from a solemn, RADA-accented hologram while running through an alien spaceship, and Adams is not one of them. As written, Lois Lane substitutes exposition-heavy dialogue for personality, while the actress’s face is subjected to so much postproduction digital coloring that it’s as if she’s been Photoshopped for a Mademoiselle cover in nearly every shot.
Snyder’s roving quasi-documentary camera and writer David S. Goyer’s determination to tell the familiar Smallville part of the Superman saga in nonlinear form do nominally break from the blockbuster style sheet. But Snyder and frequent Michael Bay DP Amir Mokri’s Malick-lite bucolic Americana long lens inserts share screen time with conventionally—and far more reverently composed—portraits of Smallville’s IHOP and Pizza Hut, two of the reported $170 million worth of behind-the-scenes brand participants who invested in the film’s creation. Goyer’s disjointed parsing out of the familiar Superman origin litany substitutes perfunctory martyrdom and cheap, repetitious sentiment for mythic wonder, while inadvertently recasting young Clark Kent in the role of a Super-whiner.
Man of Steel lumbers along with interchangeable displays of military and computer hardware of terrestrial and Kryptonian origin; a lexicon’s worth of weighty jargon about the “Genesis Chamber,” “Black Zero,” “uploading the codex” and “Phantom Drive,” and other convoluted crises; and composer Hans Zimmer’s martial boleros—all of this lends a feeling of leaden self-seriousness similar to co-scenarist Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Perhaps the most dispiriting indication that the boot-to-the-neck aspect of this re-boot belongs to Nolan is that Kal-El’s interstellar baby incubator (the only piece of space hardware in the film that has been part of the Superman mythos since its prewar pulp beginnings) is transformed into a mega-bomb armed and set to drop from what looks to be the same airplane that kick-started The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan’s gloomy, humorless, talky, and very loud approach to Batman rang up just shy of two billion dollars in first-run ticket sales over three films. My guess is that giving the similar labored grunt-, exposition-, and oath-heavy treatment to a character who, unlike The Batman, is synonymous with optimism, benign patriotism, and a kind of two-fisted altruism and restraint might not be such a sure economic recipe. Everyone dreams of flying, but only the brain trust behind Man of Steel seems to believe that the experience isn’t complete unless you gnash your teeth and scream while doing it.