I know that, in this day and age, we as a society seem to get off on tearing down our myths and legends and “humanizing” them, but seriously — when did Superman develop a split personality?
Before you jump to any conclusions based on that admitted “gotcha” of an opening line, allow me to state for the record that I didn’t actively dislike Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, it’s just that it spends its first half or so rather half-heartedly trying to portray its title character in more human terms than we’ve seen in previous iterations before finally throwing all that out the window and deciding that it actually wants to tell a story about a God who walks (and flies) among us, and the film definitely suffers as a result of this abrupt shift in tone.
But first the “plus” side of the ledger : Man Of Steel is pretty much the most awesome visual spectacle the movies have ever produced. I’m no fan of CGI as a general rule, but damn if every single effects shot in this flick isn’t enough to take your breath away, particularly the sequences on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, which Snyder and his WETA-employed staff depict in a markedly new and exciting “biotech on steroids” fashion. When the action goes earthbound, the optical awesomeness continues, never fear, so if spectacle is what you’re after, you’ll walk away from this well pleased indeed.
Pitch-perfect (with one notable exception which we’ll get to in a moment) casting doesn’t hurt matters any, either — Henry Cavill makes an immediate impression in both his Superman and Clark Kent personas; Russell Crowe is suitably above it all as his Kryptonian father, Jor-El; Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are almost too spot-on for words as his adopted human parents; Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is old-school newspaper vet all the way (even with the pierced ear); and the always-underrated Michael Shannon oozes psychotic menace as lead villain General Zod. Watching all these people at work is a genuine joy.
Granted, the script — by Dark Knight veteran David S. Goyer (from a story co-plotted with the head honcho of this whole enterprise, Christopher Nolan) — doesn’t do any of them any favors dialogue-wise (apparently Kryptonians have evolved beyond good, old-fashioned conversation and speak entirely in grandiose pronouncements — but it’s not like the mere humans in this film are any less prone to dull, dry, wooden, faux-poetic waxings themselves), but the players by and large manage to rise above the material they’ve been handed.
I say “by and large” (and here comes that exception I talked about a moment ago) because, sadly, one has been dealt such a losing hand that I’m not sure what she could really have done about it — I’m speaking, of course, about Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Goyer does some brave and interesting things in terms of shaking up the established Clark-Lois backstory ( let’s just say she won’t be sneaking glimpses of him at sly angles when his glasses are off to see how much he might or might not look like Superman), but the cold, emotionally distant nature of this particular big-budget beast means that the whole love story angle falls pretty flat. By the time Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder decide they want to play the Nietzchean uberman card for all it’s worth, the independent, confident journalist we meet at the outset is reduced to becoming more awestruck than she is lovestruck, and rather than being “Superman’s girlfriend” she comes off more as his disciple. Who just so happens to kiss him. I mentioned the abrupt tonal shift in the film at the outset of this review, and poor Lois definitely suffers the brunt of it.
The messianic poses Cavill is forced into during all the flight and battle sequences get pretty old pretty fast as well, it’s gotta be said, and with no real transition period in the way the story is structured between its “simple farm boy from Kansas” and its “demi-god here to save us all from the evil forces originating from his own homeworld” (that he inadvertently brought here himself, but hey, let’s not dwell on that) segments, well — let’s just say not much thought apparently went into how jarringly that would all play out. Hans Zimmer’s typically percussive, insistent musical score only augments the problem, and while there’s no way anybody was gonna have fans forgetting about John Williams, a “stripped-down,” “less over the top” orchestral accompaniment really doesn’t work when you’re trying to portray Superman as a fucking deity.
Superman purists, for their part, may also find themselves semi-outraged by more than the snakeskin-fetish-wear take on his costume. There’s no Jimmy Olsen here, no Lex Luthor (although the “Lexcorp” logo appears here and there on props throughout — as do the logos for Sears, 7-11, and an unending and highly annoying litany of corporate sponsors), and “Metropolis” is never mentioned by name even though the entire final act takes place there. So be ready for at least some “nerd-rage” on the internet. Still, if those were the only things that bugged me about Man Of Steel, I’d be feeling a little bit better about it as a whole right about now. Not that I’m all that pissed or disappointed —-just, well, kinda perplexed.
I can’t say that Man Of Steel isn’t a fun movie to watch, because it is — hell, it’s an absolute visual marvel, and if you want to shut your brain off and just be taken along for a wild adventure ride, you’re not gonna do much better this (or any other) summer Still —my mind kept drifting back to the famous first-encounter-between-Supes-and-Lois scene in Richard Donner’s Superman : The Movie (still the gold standard for all superhero flicks as far as I’m concerned) : when Lois asks him “who are you?,” and he replies, simply and with a smile, “a friend,” that told us all we needed to know right there. Sure, he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but at the end of the day , Superman as envisioned by Richard Donner, Mario Puzo, and Christopher Reeve was one of us.
By contrast, Superman a la Snyder, Nolan, Goyer and Cavill is above us. He’s not here to help humanity, but to redeem it. He’s not our hero anymore, he’s our savior — whether we want one or not.