Zack Snyder's Man of Steel – a franchise-ready new version of the time-old Superman origin story with an entirely new cast, new design, new chronology, etc. – strips away a lot of what was familiar with the story in the hopes, I assume, of releasing Superman from some of the traditional corn-fed, aw-shucks, gee-whiz Boy Scout elements that some people feel are a detriment to the character. As is the wont of any reboot these days, we now have to contend with a “darker” version of the character (the dominant Hollywood ethos seems to be that by making something “darker,” you're making it more mature or interesting). Don't think for a second that Man of Steel isn't a concerted effort on the part of the studio to launch an eventual multi-superhero franchise of their own in order to make some of the bank that The Avengers saw last year.
A lot has been abandoned in this new version. Gone is the wide-eyed hayseed of all previous Superman iterations. Since the film also takes place early in Superman's career, he also no longer has a working relationship with Lois Lane. He doesn't really have an established secret identity yet, and he hasn't yet moved to Metropolis. Superman is not yet confident or resolute in his devotion to truth, justice, and the American way. The bright, little boy fascination with the character is gone. The exciting flying sequences. The sunlight. The innocence of the world in which Superman lives. Even the word “Superman” is used sparingly. Scenes of Superman rescuing falling helicopters, racing airplanes, putting out chemical fires, ripping apart steel doors, bending bars, and getting small cats down out of trees. In Zack Snyder's new version of things, all of these things must seem stale and old hat. Much controversy has even been made over the abandonment of Superman's traditional red trunks that he wears over his blue body stocking. Now he wears a steely, metallic, muted version of his outfit. Although his flouncing cape is still in place; some things are still too sacred to touch.
In the place of all the traditional Superman tropes is… well, not much of anything, really. Man of Steel focuses heavily on Superman's Kryptonian origins, and a lot of time is spent on Krypton with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his head-butting with the militaristic General Zod (Michael Shannon), who would stage a coup. Kryptonians are all genetically bred, and, like in Brave New World, are genetically coded at birth to work a certain job. The opening sequences on Krypton are a marvel of design (the outfits all look like brown, organic, swirling sperm sculptures, and there is a scene of Russell Crowe riding a dragon), and have a pleasantly bugnuts quality that might have audiences assuming that they're about to see the craziest version of Superman yet, were it not for the eventual deterioration of interest that comes with any film of this emptiness.
When Krypton not-so-unexpectedly blows up, only Jor-El's infant son Kal-El manages to escape alive with Zod and his retinue in pursuit. Kal-El flies through a wormhole and lands in Smallville, KS where his is raised by Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), and given the name Clark. Yes, being on Earth give him superpowers. Clark's upbringing in Kansas is told largely in flashback, seen in memories by the adult Clark (British actor Henry Cavill), and his memories consist mostly of Pa giving him a series of gravely intoned aphorisms about not revealing his powers to the world at large until the world at large is ready for a Superman. There is even a tragic scene wherein Pa Kent dies in a tornado right in front of Clark when Clark could have used his superpowers to save him. I can't, for the life of me, figure out why Pa Kent had to die like this. I'm not the type to harp on plot details, but this one bothered me. There was no reason for Pa Kent to die other than to manufacture angst later in the film.
Eventually Clark will find the space pod he arrived in, discover his Kryptonian origins, have conversations with a hologram of Jor-El, and meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams), an investigative reporter so tenacious that she discovers Clark Kent's true identity within the span of a montage. That's not a spoiler. It happens early in the film. Clark's drama is coming to terms with his alien powers, and pushing himself hard enough to eventually beat up Zod when he comes a-calling with plans to use his World Engine to destroy the world. Sadly, the use of the “World Engine” is not as pleasantly corny as it sounds (although Shannon, chewing scenery, screaming lines like “Activate the World Engine!” only brings a sense of pleasure).
In dialogue, it is said that Superman's conflict is between fighting for his newly-discovered alien heritage, or for his Earthbound upbringing. The problem with this approach is that we don't really see what Clark has to gain or lose by following either. Indeed, Superman is so blank and odd and broody in this version, that he hardly even registers as a character. He is often informed by others that he is fighting for the fate of Earth (which, on a technical level, I suppose he is), but I never got the sense that Clark Kent cared for much of anything, and couldn't get a clear sense as to what kind of ideals he was fighting for. Indeed, when Lois Lane eventually kisses him midway through the climax (and we'll get to the climax in a moment), it kind of blindsides you; there was no setup for a romantic moment between these two – they were previously cold professionals with no heart or heat. In trying to make him more fleshy and muscular, the filmmakers neutered Superman. He was a cipher. An avatar to dress a costume in. In this version of things, Superman's cape has more character than he does. A man of steel in perhaps too literal a sense. Zod, as well, establishes that he is programmed to behave the way he does, robbing him of any possible depth; he's essentially an angry killbot with no ideology to fight for. Although this lack of ideological thrust may not bother many audience members; I couldn't tell you what ideology The Avengers were fighting for either, and that film was one of the biggest of all time.
In addition to a blank hero and a blank villain, a somber tone, a useless out-of-chronological-order storytelling style, the film is also burdened with the longest and noisiest climax this side of Michael Bay, wherein Superman does massively epic battle with various superpowered villains, robot tentacle arms, spaceships, and several Metropolis skyscrapers (I didn't count, but I think eight buildings fall over in the film's climax). I suppose there is a clunky showmanlike integrity to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to a film's climax, but after 60 full minutes of it (and I don't think I'm inflating that number), the action is reduced to movement and noise; after a while it doesn't matter what you're watching. It just feels like an impressive special effects demo reel. Dazzling design and awesome computer effects be dipped. It all starts to blend together. “Awesome” isn't fun anymore. Filmmakers need to start focusing on “fun.”
So what we have with Man of Steel is a painfully soulless enterprise. Just another boring bloated action blockbuster in a long string of boring bloated action blockbusters. Whatever. It's just another one of these things. There is nothing in the film to raise the pulse, even a little bit. It's an impressively constructed, awesomely designed, and completely forgettable entertainment that is indistinguishable from its peers. It's the first proper misstep in a long string superhero films that, I sense, the public may be finally tiring of. We'll see how the film performs. I predict it will make $180 million in its first weekend, regardless of my review.
Man of Steel was conceived and written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan who made the last three Batman feature films. I don't have the wherewithal to go looking for it, but I assure you that there is a video on YouTube someplace already drawing the derivative plot parallels between Man of Steel and Batman Begins. Yes, they are rather similar. The Batman films were lauded by critics and audiences alike (and I personally like them a lot), so the writers went for broke, and repeated the formula with Superman. What they came up with was, well, just dull.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.