Man of Steel (2013)
Dir. Zack Snyder
2.5 out of 5
There's a refreshing confidence to Man of Steel, the new Superman film from divisive geek auteur Zack Snyder, that’s most apparent in the way it regards its charge to recount an origin story that’s already familiar to a large chunk of its audience. Indeed, the most unusual thing about this iteration - aside from the absence of John Williams' stirring theme from 1978's Superman - is that its biographical touches tend to be an afterthought, if they’re even dwelt upon at all. In Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s version, Clark Kent is an itinerant wanderer and seeker of odd jobs, concealing his identity as Kal-El, the solar-superpowered last son of Krypton, obeying the instructions of his adoptive father (Kevin Coster) to keep his extraterrestrial lineage a secret. All bets are off when Clark discovers a hologram of his biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), haunting a spaceship buried deep beneath the Arctic; he decides to embrace his Kryptonian legacy just in time for his father’s old foe, General Zod (Michael Shannon), to drop in with designs on conquering Earth.
But while many pieces of the Superman mythos are presented with a pleasing and economical matter-of-factness (the iconic costume simply appears after Clark’s first heart-to-heart with Jor-El, saving us from some goofy explanation about the practicality of a bright Lycra bodysuit), the truth is that these choices don’t make the film any more agile. It begins with an overlong prologue on Krypton that’s weirdly reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels with its focus on dull, stilted exposition and its contrary desire to cram another movie’s worth of action into a mere 15 minutes. The skipping over of Clark’s childhood is just a tease, as the information is conveyed in a series of increasingly cloying flashbacks: in an unsurprising development, Superman is the latest pop culture icon struggling with daddy issues (and not just the obviously extant Jor-El ones). The script's generic bent is unfortunate for Goyer - best known for writing The Dark Knight - but at least he avoids the temptation to bring Superman’s minimal level of angst up to code with modern expectations. It falls to an overmatched Snyder to gussy up the simplistic arc, mistaking repetition for theme and relying on the achievements of his (admittedly talented) production designer and visual effects artists to serve as a distraction from the transparent machinery of the story.
All of Snyder’s films wind up as some sort of technician’s fantasy, which is the only directorial stamp that’s apparent in Man of Steel. Unfortunately, the movie rarely makes room for Snyder to interject his trademark tableaux, rushing from one objective to the next on its oversize “to-do” list. It is saddled with the same problem of visually exhausting, logically challenged, and character deficient action that plagues many blockbusters, with elements that could be used as connective emotional tissue - like an underutilized Lois Lane (Amy Adams) - tossed about like laundry in a washing machine. That being said, this action is often exhilarating on a purely visceral level. On the few occasions that Snyder connects the external whiz-bangery with Superman's roiling internal conflict - whether his god-like ability will endear him to the citizens of his adopted planet, or alienate them - it feels transcendent. (The less said about the movie’s dialogue, the better. Not even a superlative actor like Shannon can redeem material like “I will extract the codex from your son’s corpse and rebuild Krypton atop his bones.”) But dropping some intriguing crumbs for the inevitable sequel doesn’t make this one feel like any less of a chore.