To borrow a line from Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: This isn’t the Superman movie we need, but it’s the one we deserve.
To give it its due, Man of Steel is well-made sci-fi action spectacle on an immense scale, from the vistas of Krypton (part Pandora, part Coruscant) to the inevitable urban destruction sequences of the climax (rivaling or outdoing the Avengers and Transformers finales). There are some interesting new ideas and bold departures from the traditional story that make sense. The character’s Christological resonances and the morality that separates him from his enemies are both invoked.
It’s also way too much … and in all this muchness, something essential has been lost. The action, especially, is way too much. From a dragon-riding Russell Crowe as Superman’s father Jor-El battling the forces of Michael Shannon’s General Zod on Krypton to a numbing finale so catastrophic that a sequel would be hard-pressed to outdo it without destroying the planet, the film bludgeons the audience with scarcely any respite.
There’s too much plot, too many sci-fi conceits, too much technobabble, and almost certainly too many holes. Somehow, the filmmakers have turned one of the simplest superhero origin stories into an overstuffed tale involving a Codex, a World Engine, a Genesis Chamber and a Phantom Drive.
Characters are given almost no chance to breathe. Early scenes include glimpses of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), not yet Superman, drifting anonymously from one odd blue-collar job to another, occasionally leaping into action when a disaster threatens lives or a bullying trucker needs to be mysteriously punished by the inexplicable destruction of his rig.
Alas, amid all the catastrophic disaster footage of the last third or so, Superman’s defining trait — his concern for mankind and respect for life — is all but forgotten, until the very climactic scene.
Man of Steel culminates in a battle of perhaps unprecedented scale between Superman and Zod’s Kryptonian forces, raging from the streets of Smallville to the canyons of Metropolis. Countless skyscrapers and other buildings are leveled. If hundreds or even thousands haven’t been slain by the end, it would be a miracle.
In all of the third-act chaos, I recall exactly one person (a military pilot) whom Superman saves from death. I’m not saying he’s not busy, but it doesn’t exactly showcase the hero’s character. Superman makes no obvious effort to contain the battle or to draw it away from the densely populated city, as he did in Superman II. Nor, for that matter, does the action highlight the villains’ contempt for life in the way that the dialogue suggests. More than once, a female sidekick of Zod (German actress Antje Traue) taunts Superman, telling him that his morality makes him weak and gives his foes an "evolutionary advantage" over him — that they’ll kill far more than he can save, etc.
Yet, until the climactic moment, there’s no obvious effort to use this "advantage," to deliberately turn the villains’ powers on the populace in order to force Superman into a rescue posture or force him to surrender — again, like the villains did in Superman II.
Then, when that climactic moment does come — when Zod finally turns his powers against humans solely to punish Superman — well, suffice to say, the resolution doesn’t exactly highlight Superman’s reverence for life as we might have hoped, certainly in his inaugural outing. Not to mention his imagination or problem-solving skills.
Reverence for life is intriguingly expressed, on the other hand, in the Kryptonian back story. The film opens with a birth scene — Kal-El, of course — before later revealing that this live birth ran counter to centuries of Kryptonian artificial population control and genetically engineered children grown in pods, each for a predetermined purpose. In this regime of artificial reproduction, Jor-El says critically, "We lost something precious. Choice. Chance." In effect, as the first Kryptonian child naturally conceived in centuries, Kal-El was uniquely chosen not only by Jor-El, but by God, as the last representative of Krypton.
Like previous Superman movies, Man of Steel emphasizes the character’s Christological resonances. In a line that St. Joseph could have spoken, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) tells Clark, "You are my son, but somewhere out there, you have another father" — one who "sent you here for a reason."
The motif is actually overdone in a very brief scene set in a church, as a conflicted Clark talks to a priest, debating his next move — prominently framed against a stained-glass depiction of the Garden of Gethsemane. (Nice image, but too on the nose. And the scene is over so quickly that there’s no emotional heft; it seems obligatory.)
In the gritty, desaturated world of modern action blockbusters, it seems there’s no place for bright primary colors of wonder and awe. The screenplay gestures toward an aspirational vision of its hero that never materializes. "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive for," Jor-El tells his son. "Make a better world than ours."
On Earth, though, the prevailing opinion seems to be that if people find out about the strange visitor from another planet it will cause fear and chaos. Amy Adams is terrific as a smart, resourceful Lois Lane, but she’s intrigued by Kal-El without being awed by him.
The screenplay emphasizes Clark’s sense of alienation, of otherness. This was always present in the mythos, but was counterbalanced by a sense of belonging, of identification with mankind, mediated through the salt-of-the-earth Kents, whose heartland values their adopted son absorbed into his DNA. That’s atrophied here. I like Diane Lane as Martha talking down young Clark from a panic attack at school stemming from his inability to cope with the terrifying information overload of his supersenses.
But Costner’s Jonathan telling young Clark that protecting his secret is so important that, rather than risk exposing himself by saving classmates from drowning, perhaps he should have let them drown — I’m sorry, that’s not the kind of down-home moral idealism that turns the last son of Krypton into the world’s biggest Boy Scout.
Worse, this turns out to be Jonathan’s ultimate message for his son, culminating in a jaw-droppingly dumb moment of sacrifice: Protect your secret at all costs, potentially even someone else’s life. I don’t mind that this Clark has some attitude. I don’t even mind that he pushes back on Jonathan ("You’re not my dad"). I do object to the absence of any balancing sense of humility, of grateful trust in his father. In the 1978 film, Glenn Ford’s Jonathan has only one exchange with young Clark, but it’s brilliant and perfectly captures a lifetime of fathering and character formation.
Steven D. Greydanus
is the Register’s film critic
and creator of Decent Films.
Content Advisory: Much extreme superpowered fantasy violence and wanton destruction, largely bloodless; some objectionable language and a scene of a half-naked Superman. Teens and up.