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.
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 (or, mirabile dictu, a Justice League movie) would be hard-pressed to outdo it without destroying the planet, the film bludgeons the audience with scarcely any respite. (I say this as a lifelong lover of comic books and superhero movies, who put The Avengers on my 2012 top 10 list.)
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 (which I think gets converted to a warp engine, or vice versa, or possibly both). Not to mention all the gizmos and effects that don’t get special names.
There are three separate Kryptonian expeditions to Earth — one of which has nothing to do with Kal-El or General Zod. Not only does Jor-El speak with Clark (as in past iterations) long after his own death, he also gets action scenes (both in life and posthumously), saves Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and masterminds his son’s ultimate attack plan. Who’d have thought that at nearly 50 Russell Crowe would be saving Lois Lane, not to mention the world, in a Superman movie?
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.
The idea of the future Superman working a fishing trawler or waiting tables, like Bill Bixby in the old Hulk series, is intriguing … but the filmmakers aren’t interested in depicting Clark enjoying manual labor or bonding with his fellow workers. Each vignette serves only as an occasion for action, then ends.
In a way, you can hardly blame the filmmakers for giving people what they want. “Not enough action” was the rap on the box-office disappointment of Superman Returns in 2006, and the studio wasn’t about to repeat that mistake. Man of Steel is determined to be the anti-Superman Returns. Mission accomplished. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is best known for outsize action, and he delivers what Nolan and his fellow producers hired him for.
Alas, amid all the catastrophic disaster footage of the third act, one of Superman’s defining traits — his concern for mankind and respect for life — is all but forgotten, until the very climactic scene.
Man of Steel culminates in a battle royale 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. Rubble and debris rain down like urban rockslides. Cars, trucks and buses are heaved into the air by waves of mysterious energy and come smashing down again. Military helicopters crash into buildings. All the while, terrified crowds mill about. If hundreds or even thousands haven’t been slain by the end, it would be a miracle.
In all of this 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. As the brawl rages through Metropolis, 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. Bizarrely, at one point Superman actually gets Zod out of the city, off the planet’s surface and into orbit — only to come crashing down again … back into Metropolis. It’s like he’s trying to keep the battle there.
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. Zod himself later repeats this threat.
Yet, until the climactic scene, there’s no obvious effort to use this “advantage,” to deliberately turn the villains’ powers on the populace in order to force Superman to play rescuer, or to surrender — again, like the villains did in Superman II. I’m not saying I wanted more of a retread of Superman II, but look, the characters and options are what they are.
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 Kal-El’s birth before revealing that this live birth is 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 too quickly.)
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 iconic 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. Adams is terrific as a smart, resourceful Lois, but she's intrigued by Kal-El without being awed by him. (Even the score by Hans Zimmer is generic bombast, without even a glimmer of the triumphant heroism of John Williams’ iconic, unforgettable theme.)
The screenplay emphasizes Clark’s sense of alienation, of otherness. This was always present in the mythos (think of frustrated young Clark in the 1978 film kicking the football into orbit), but was counterbalanced by a sense of belonging, of identification with mankind, mediated through 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 Kent talking down young Clark from a panic attack at school stemming from his inability to cope with the terrifying information overload of his super-senses. 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. Is a new movie obliged to maintain the character’s iconic moral goodness? Yes. Especially when you’ve still got Jor-El making speeches about it.
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.
Should I even mention a scene in which a half-naked Clark steals some clothes? Perhaps not a big deal, but is that the hero who will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive for? Is that Superman? At the very least, Christopher Reeve totally would have come back and paid for those clothes.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Much extreme superpowered fantasy violence and wanton destruction, largely bloodless; some objectionable language. Teens and up.