The one and only time at which I managed to sympathise with a character in this film came somewhere in its lengthy third act. Superman, mid-battle with his Kryptonian foes, is launched through a series of skyscrapers, lands on a building site, and is repeatedly pummelled around the face with an iron bar. I sympathise mainly because the experience of watching Man Of Steel is a very similar ordeal.
We open with an extensive prologue charting Krypton’s final days. These scenes look fantastic, reminding us that, other flaws aside, director Zak Snyder (Watchmen, 300) has at least got a good eye. Russel Crowe gives some good gravel and gravitas as Jor-El, although a small part of me was still hoping that he might start bleating “one day more…”. These opening scenes, though, betray a problem that pervades the whole film. They are full of overly portentous dialogue, of speeches on the fate of civilisations, but very little else. You remember those voiceovers from the trailer? That’s all of the film’s dialogue. Nobody just has a conversation. The result is an experience that is by turns hollow and irritating.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare to Batman Begins, but this film is undoubtedly trying to make good on Christopher Nolan’s last big reboot (he’s on producing duties here). We have the same first act, non-linear origins sequence, the same moody shots of our hero wandering the icy ends of the earth, finding himself. We also have (perhaps this is inescapable in the superhero genre) the same big questions about the sacrifice of individuals for the greater good. But while Nolan is a smart enough filmmaker to realise that none of these ideas mean anything without a solid, interesting character to build them upon, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Snyder is just racing through them so that he can get to the cool stuff.
There are undoubtedly good things on show here, namely the cast. Henry Cavill provides an excellent take on a Clark/Kal-El combo that, while quite different from Christopher Reeve’s, is nevertheless earnest without being bland. Amy Adams is a suitably sparky Lois Lane, although it’s disappointing to see her thrown straight back into the standard ‘scream, fall, get saved’ set-up at the film’s climax. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are particularly enjoyable as Clark’s adopted parents, creating a believable family unit despite the script’s best efforts to saddle them with further rambling monologues on life, the universe, and so on. Lawrence Fishburne shouts at everyone, as is his right to do so, being Lawrence Fishburne.
Unsurprisingly, Michael Shannon is excellent. He brings a wild-eyed intensity (and goatee, thank heavens) to General Zod, that instills him with a sense of genuine threat. His arrival on earth, beamed across the planet’s television screens, is rather sinister, and teases us with another excellent concept that gets abandoned within moments of having been taken up. Zod himself is another wasted opportunity, as everything of potential interest is shoved aside in favour of the final reel’s abundance of Transformers-style technobabble. Highlights include “we need to override the direction of the phantom drive” and “release the world machine”.
In truth, that last act is what stops Man of Steel from just being a disappointing but passable origin story, and makes it downright dull. It’s awash with repeated, pointless quests to put the thingy in the thingy and stop the whatsit from doing that thing. Which would be fine, if that side of things was secondary to a high-stakes human drama. But it isn’t: there’s nothing else. The violence, too, is particularly irritating. For a superhero-messiah-figure, our man is pretty happy to let numerous buildings full of people be smashed to pieces. Presumably any future sequels will be dealing with the fact that about 40% of the population of Metropolis were squashed by some very clumsy flying. Michael Bay takes a lot of flak for producing extended third acts filled with special effects fighting other special effects, but I really don’t see how this is any different.
Snyder is a filmmaker without subtlety or nuance, and in Man of Steel he has found a screenplay to match. There are a series of good ideas on show, but a complete lack of development persists. Instead of progression, we get endlessly walloped with Jesus-imagery (oh great, he’s standing in a church), important debates on humanity, and, in the final act, punching, punching and more punching. This is a film that has confused repetition and scale for meaningfulness. What that leaves us with is a wholly misplaced sense of self-importance. If only there were more jokes on Krypton.