When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.
5 Things You Need to Know About…
MAN OF STEEL
1) Man of Steel, the bombastic latest cinema incarnation of the iconic comic book legend, is a fiery hot mess of a movie that explodes at every turn with uncontrollable destruction of unspecific metropoli (meant to be Metropolis), characters that are not even attempted to be developed, and a world that has not earned the audience’s right to be saved. Like most pictures that have Christopher Nolan’s name attached to them (here he gets story and producer credits), Man of Steel is an ambitious work that does strive for a certain kind of greatness, but it focuses too much on the wrong parts of the tale (see: everything to do with General Zod) and not enough on the parts that genuinely captivate (see: Clark’s childhood travails with the perfectly cast Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent). Like most pictures that are directed by Zack Snyder, action sequences sure looks grey, grand, and ruinous, but he struggles to give us viable reasons to care and compelling people to care about. The character of Superman has always been a challenge to depict. As an alien creature to Earth with uncanny super powers, there is an inherent challenge in the character construction with audience empathy and connection. This is why Batman has always been that much more interesting because we, with some financial wherewithal and proper training, could envision a scenario where we could wear the cape and cowl ourselves. This is also why Superman stories (most notably in the long-running WB and CW tween soap Smallville) focus on Clark Kent and his growing pains assimilating to a world in which he is unlike any other. Batman and Clark Kent are relatable. Man of Steel flirts and dabbles with the Clark side of the equation (to much admitted success), but spends too much time mounting intergalactic warfare that amounts to very little substance.
2) It would be one thing to have given Clark Kent a more developed foundation, but Man of Steel, as any Superman telling must, spends too little time with his human surroundings. Snyder relies on our past understanding of the Superman world to fill in a plethora of character gaps. We only know that we are supposed to care about Perry White (Laurence Fishbourne picking up a paycheck now that his weekly CSI salary is off the books) because we have before, but there is so little energy given to his development that by the time he is the face of a city on the path of destruction, he doesn’t really matter to us. When one of his Daily Planet minions, Jenny (an intern perhaps, I don’t know and I don’t care), finds herself caught amidst a pile of rubble (of which there quite a few), are we supposed to care when crafty character actor (and a high point of House of Cards) Michael Kelly pulls her out? Do we really care when Detective Stabler (you left SVU for this?) comes around on Superman’s positive intentions or Toby Ziegler makes noteworthy scientific observations? I think Snyder thinks we will, but again, thirty-seconds of screen time caring for a character does not make. Lois Lane (played delightfully by Amy Adams – more on this in no. 4), strangely in the center of all alien (and very non-human) interplay and given a substantial amount of screen time, seems to make decisions without consequence, logic. or any degree of realistic motivation. She throws herself into every dangerous fray because we are told she is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, but we do not understand why nor do we get to access any part of her deeper inner self. To her credit, Adams plays her like there is more there, but I guess we will have to wait for the inevitable sequel. Finally, as this bullet touches on the people of Man of Steel, why aren’t there more people in this movie? Earth seems inhabited by maybe a couple of hundred (or as many extras that showed up). Metropolis sure has buildings to destroy, but it seems largely vacant from any human life. Unless you are an insurance company raking in property damage residuals, the stakes for Earth never seem that high because Earth appears to be a planet made up of a small town in the middle of Kansas, a fishing village in the Pacific northwest, and a ghost town of a Metropolis that has a thriving newsroom.
3) General Zod, played grumpily by Michael Shannon with a bad, late 90s boy band trim, is a terrible villain. When he is spitting out speeches about saving Krypton and furthering his race of his people or creating havoc in product-placed American institutions like Sears and IHOP, I am not sure if he is supposed to be funny or whether it is a good time to take a bathroom break. Either Michael Shannon is woefully miscast or General Zod lacks any charisma as a character. I would argue both.
4) Unfortunately, Man of Steel has some promising raw material that is never brought to fruition. Casting Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, Clark’s Earth parents, is expert casting 101. Costner is right at home as a dad on a midwestern farm (“If you build it, he will come!”) and is a perfect counterpart for the ageless and wonderful Lane. Their too few scenes together with younger versions of Clark are electric (as presented in this beautiful, misleading trailer from last summer) and would have been a better focus for this movie. Henry Cavill, especially when moonlighting as a fisherman/barkeep, is a captivating force on screen and could have been that much more effective had he been given more Clark time and less “punch out with Zod” time. His chemistry with Amy Adams (a performer who holds her own against many different types of leading men – see: The Master or The Fighter) has great potential, but sadly much of their more intimate time together is only alluded to. We gather that they have shared something important (upon a mutual visit to a Kansas cemetery), but Snyder decides not to show us the actual conversation (oops). I would have loved to have watched a different movie with more Cavill and Adams getting to know one another and more Clark growing up with Costner and Lane as parents. This would have been a Man of Steel that had some wings to fly on.
5) Man of Steel is movie of unrealized ambition and direction that unfortunately plows a path of story, character, and audience enjoyment destruction. It strives to be as iconic as its lead character, but plays the wrong notes too loudly and the right notes too softly and not frequently enough (I am not talking about the expected professional score from Nolan go-to Hans Zimmer). It could have been built on some wonderful raw material (the Cavill-Adams-Costner-Lane foursome could not be a better place to start), but the Kryptonian/General Zod infrastructure falls apart as easily as the CGI buildings Zod knocks down.