Man of Steel is a suffocating experience. Anyone who has affection for the Superman character must watch a film that smothers, dampens and outright perverts the spirit of the character. As an actual film, it lacks direction, focus and cohesion. And as an action film, the style and execution is so droll and in line with the worst tendencies of action films that it is a chore to endure.
The film can’t even embrace the character. It’s afraid to say the name Superman. The film starts with a lengthy prologue and once Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) shows up on screen he spends a lot of time wandering around directionless until he happens to stumble upon something that leads him in the right direction. DC and everyone involved in the film seems so ashamed of how sincere and bold Superman is as a character that they begin to pervert and twist him into something more grounded, muted and dull.
It begins with the Kents. Clark is raised as if human by his the people who found his crashed pod: Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner) Kent. Instead of imbuing him with the basic values of human decency, the charge to embrace his difference, and the love and support that embody an ideal set of American values, Jonathan imbues the important value of being a coward and keeping your head down.
In a misguided attempt to craft parental strife in order to make Clark live in the shadow of his human father, Jonathan encourages Clark to be as human as possible, to take the punches, to let tough people walk over him because if he reveals himself, he’ll scare the world. Instead of telling Clark to pursue good, he just says that one day he’ll have to decide to be good or evil and when that day comes he’ll change the world. This change completely destroys the foundation of Superman as a character, one that leaves the film without a decent motivation as to why Superman would even bother to save the human race.
However, this is almost incidental because Man of Steel’s origin story of Superman is not about his relationship to Earth, the planet he swears to protect in Superman lore, but about his relationship to Krypton. The film opens with a lengthy prologue where his parents send him, Kal-El, off to earth with the last hope of the Kryptonain survival: the Codex, a device that can bring to life a machine that will start the Kryptonain race again. Kal-El’s escape pod narrowly dodges the military coup of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a man hell-bent on preserving the Krypton race at all costs, even if it means killing Kryptonian citizens along the way.
Therefore, the conflict of the film is the inevitable showdown where Zod discovers Earth, wants the Codex back so he can make a new Krypton on Earth. This could have made a decent third chapter in a Superman Trilogy, but as an opening, it fails to sufficiently set up Kent’s relationship to Earth meaning that his resolve to protect Earth instead of ushering in a new age of his old race is never sufficiently explained.
Also, the film wants to circumvent the obvious criticism of people have with Superman/Clark Kent, which is that his disguise as a human is flimsy. There’s an entire subplot where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) basically hunts down and discovers Superman’s identity. Far from alleviating the problem, it just sets up an even bigger problem in the final moments of the film when the writers realize they have to set up sequel potential.
While these complaints might seem like the nitpicking of a Superman fan, the reason they are so important is because it’s also the reason why the film is a poor story. It fails to properly motivate Superman or define his most essential aspects. Why does he care? What motivates him to do good? Why does he connect to the people of Earth and not his fellow Kryptonians? These are all unanswered (or at least poorly answered) questions.
As a piece of filmmaking, Man of Steel is equally insufferable. Beginning with the performances, the film lacks any life and exubarency. The film has a lot of great actors, but it’s clear that they were directed to be more muted and suppressed in their acting. Every performance feels stilted, dry and lifeless. Even Michael Shannon who’s been doing amazing work the past couple of years feels inert in all but a few scenes. They all give a performance like they’re in a Robert Bresson film but without an ounce of the artfulness.
Likewise, the visuals in this film are downplayed. The opening sequence on Krypton has a lot of great art direction ideals, but the mix of browns, greys and blacks make the planet of Krypton an eyesore. Once on Earth, this motif continues of dry, lifeless imagery. Zack Snyder has often injected great sense of vibrancy into his films (perhaps to the point of being lurid at times), here, not even a glimpse of that vibrancy exists, a vibrancy that would couple perfectly with a Superman film. Except for Superman’s costume, the film seems afraid of any vibrant color.
The one glimmering moment of strong filmmaking is a sequence in the film where Superman fights two of Zod’s henchmen through Smallville. As they fly through buildings, across farms, and fight against the Army, the camera has a great sense of momentum and pacing. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is plagued with rapid editing, shaky camera work and close-ups that continue to taint the Hollywood action film.
This action scene demonstrates another major problem: the absolute orgy of destruction. Much like Star Trek Into Darkness, the film relishes showing the spectacle of destruction where millions die without any sense of acknowledgement or reverence for the absolutely tragic loss of life. By the end of the film entire blocks are laid barren and it fails to have any emotional weight. It’s one of the most obscene and offensive exploitation of 9/11 imagery committed to film.
Likewise, Man of Steel once again tries to frame Superman as a Christ symbol. Even though they stripped away so much of the character, they’re not afraid to retain the Christ symbolism. Yet here it makes no sense because even though the film says Superman is a symbol of hope, it never expresses that sentiment. The film rubs the symbolism in the audience’s face: the crucifix pose and a tacky scene where Superman goes into a church and an icon of Christ is behind him. Not only is it not subtle, but it holds absolutely no weight.
Man of Steel fails to have any life, any joy, any hopefulness in a film about one of the most optimistic and hopeful superhero characters. The film goes out of its way to distance itself from the character and as a result fails to tell a worthwhile story. Even the promise of action is mostly lost in a film that takes the worst of Hollywood action films.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing