With a title like Man of Steel, the latest superhero summer blockbuster to hit theaters, it’s clear director Zack Snyder wants us to understand the significance of that nickname. Sure, Superman, as he is rarely referred to in the latest adaptation, still dons his blue suit and red cape, but those jumping primary colors are dulled and washed out into a darker aesthetic and ethos. This version is a committed and dour reincarnation- meticulous both in its long storytelling and overbearing loud effects- more interested in the “steel” than the “man.”
Part of this heavier atmosphere derives from the screenplay by David S. Goyer based on the story he and co-producer Christopher Nolan wrote. The thematic and visual influence of Nolan, the famed Dark Knight trilogy director, is present throughout the film’s 143 minutes, filled with unnecessarily long pieces of action that seem only to serve Snyder’s lucid imagination. Unlike Bryan Singer’s 2006 light re-boot Superman Returns, this adaptation rekindles Clark Kent’s origin story through sporadic and consistent flashbacks to the Kansas cornfields, the slice of Americana that quickly and vividly becomes a playground for destruction. It also keeps the famed Kryptonian played by Brit Henry Cavill heavy and grave, making sure to descriptively retell his alien past and that infamous struggle to bridle or express his superhuman power.
The extended beginning to this voluminous work takes place on the imploding planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Kal-El’s (Superman’s) father, pleads with the high court to help its citizens flee from their erupting home after his wife illegally births her son organically (as opposed to the planet’s artificial, pre-destined growing fetuses). General Zod (A feisty Michael Shannon) leads a coup to attain the planet’s codex needed to escape but Jor-El prophesies its power and quickly sends his son to earth with it. His mother worries, but Jor-El reassures her that he will be a God amongst them.
This of course is a prophecy earned and not granted, especially under the watch of his adoptive father Jonathon and mother Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Our visions of Kal-El, now named Clark, jump from pre-pubescent tussles to various roaming jobs as a bartender and fisherman, but all environments sample his various life-saving, powerful feats. It’s his alien build however that worries his father, who preaches a morality based on turning one’s cheek and keeping his super qualities out of sight. Clark’s limits of exposure are tested to their extremes, realized in a disastrous tornado that beckons the frightful imagery from the recent midwestern disasters.
These often used and deftly handled memories are shot in a rustic, almost nostalgic raw quality but as we move towards conflict, Man of Steel separates into two distinct styles and its clear the second kind appeals much more to Snyder’s sensibilities. Credited with films like Watchmen and Sucker Punch, Snyder appears more concerned with form than content, with sci-fi action showboating than condensing its tedious testosterone-fueled combat. Its spectacle is grandiose but induces more cringes than bewildered gasps, whether situated in a small town’s Main Street or the imposing skyscrapers of Metropolis.
That’s where we meet Lois Lane (played fervently by Amy Adams), a severe ecological field reporter at the Daily Planet who stumbles upon Clark in the arctic, researching a glacier-embedded alien craft. Her story of this mysterious man and ship gain traction after Gen. Zod and his extra-terrestrial ship of warriors makes its presence known to the world requesting Kal-El, as he knows him, to turn himself in, or suffer destructive consequences. Lane ultimately becomes part of this ultimatum and even gains valuable insight from a vision of Jor-El. Unfortunately her fate as the romantic partner inevitably spurns Adams of a more integrative voice.
Cavill meanwhile, with his attractive screen presence, rarely shows an ounce of character, bottling any emotion into his mesmerizing bursts into the sky. The levity and colorful spark many previous comic adaptions provide have been sacrificed here, devoid of wisecracks or superhero spunk. Much of this is due to the near apocalyptic state Gen. Zod enforces upon the earth using his reptilian style aircrafts. Metropolis becomes prey to Transformers style demolition, recalling 9/11 imagery displayed so abruptly in Star Trek Into Darkness. Here, Snyder exaggerates the haunting terrorism to cataclysmic levels, only focusing on a few surviving soles amidst the mass fatalities. A final showdown between Gen. Zod and Superman, eyes glowing of magma red, feels less heroic, and more a personal battle over disaster relief.
Snyder confuses more maturity in his story arc for more three dimensional chaos. The first two thirds of the film seem intent on illustrating the mythology- the God among men and its biblical facsimile- while the last third indulges the arm extended soaring mid-air brawls. “Lead them to stop the mistakes we made,” Jor-El tells his son overlooking earth. Part of the comic book philosophy centers on socio-political critique within the cyclical Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. Man of Steel wants to be preoccupied with these elemental features, but Snyder’s brash tendencies see the armor in Superman’s tights more than their meaning.
Man of Steel opens today in Philly area theaters.