I’m a sucker for baldfaced Christ types. So when Jor-El sends his specially begotten son to be a god to the world, and that son waits 33 years to reveal himself and then starts spending time on boats and flying around in the shape of a cross and heeding the advice of the holy ghost of his father, part of my heart does a happy little flip. I really don’t care that it’s so obvious. But I do care when the rest of the story doesn’t do the metaphor justice. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Jesus?…in a joyless, fat-bodied, hugger-mugger movie that Fezziks from fight to fight, all sound and fury, trying forlornly to signify everything at once?
Man of Steel is a tale told, if not by quite an idiot, by someone (namely, screenwriter David S. Goyer) who, as a caveman to his thumb, has yet to discover the values of a solid beatsheet. The movie shows up to the party well-muscled and ready to perform, but breaks down into stop-and-go chaos after the first 25ish minutes. It’s all prologue, prologue, prologue, then climax after climax after climax (featuring a bad guy who won’t die and a good guy who won’t kill) and fizzles abruptly on a level of staggering lameness. Where’s the kryptonite? Wait—was that it? A bloody nose? (Or mouth, or whatever.) And General Zod just promised to harvest a new world out of Superman’s corpse–but I suppose I can only blame myself for looking forward to watching him try. The 100-minute Act 3 (there is no Act 2) never even peaks. Man of Steel is a tsunami that is all foam and thunder, no crest.
Here’s the thing. (Here’s what Christopher Nolan got so well with the Batman trilogy.) It is the responsibility of each individual remake/reboot to ensure that the audience both knows and cares about the age-old story figures. (You almost have to pretend like we don’t know anything; I promise we’ll play along.) Goyer shirks this responsibility with scant character development and cumbersome action marathons broken up by oddly ponderous breathers. The premise of the movie is the S on Kal-El’s chest: new hope brought to the world. But we don’t get to know that world at all. Lois Lane, we don’t really know her, either. (And could there be any less chemistry between her and Cavill?) We don’t know Perry White, we only sorta know Jonathan and Martha Kent. Goyer relies on us to fill in way too many blanks, not realizing that if there’s anything worse than not really deviating from what’s been done before, it’s shabbily doing what’s been done before.
Henry Cavill, let it be known, is Superman–distractingly so. (If only the camera would quit ogling his hysterically cosmic pecs.) But despite way too much boyhood backstory, I still can’t tell if he’ll succeed at being Clark Kent. (There’s a difference.) You’d think it’d be easy to connect emotionally with a gorgeous alien in a ball cap and farm clothes, but Goyer and Zack Snyder have proved me wrong. Grave, lonely, conflicted, and noble all get ample screen time. What’s missing is the charm of the ordinary Kansas kid and the satisfied feeling that I’ve been allowed inside the real guy.
Here, as in other areas, Goyer and Snyder use the 80 years of American love for and familiarity with Superman as an excuse to say too little, too indifferently. Instead of recharging the tale with new life, they drag a red cape, iron muscles, and random kryptonite (like so many props off an old stage) and puppet them around before our eyes: “Be engaged! Look, he flies! Behold, he cannot die!” Falling in love with your own material should be a prerequisite to writing or directing any film; yet Goyer and Snyder are simply content to go through the motions.
I will say this: Snyder’s best move in recreating the Superman story was getting Hans Zimmer. We all love John Williams (I more than almost anybody), but Zimmer’s intense, percussion-heavy score (featuring 12 of the world’s best drummers in sync) pounds such a gripping new pulse that it doesn’t seem disrespectful that he totally avoids even the faintest musical nod to the old trumpet fanfare. The new, somber, more harshly grinding score tells us that this isn’t our parents’ Superman–which can be, when done well, what a solid reboot is all about.
I also liked most of the father-son stuff. Russell Crowe is particularly strong–though I’m still confused as to why he and Lara didn’t jet out of Krypton too. “We couldn’t,” he says simply, and because his name is Gladiator, I want to believe him, but I can’t. Feels too contrived.
Speaking of contrived, that tornado…boy, is that the stupidest way to kick the bucket, or is that the stupidest way to kick the bucket ever? I don’t believe Clark’s anonymity is that important–not for a second; nor do I feel connected enough with Jonathan Kent (admirably portrayed by Kevin Costner) to be convinced that he believes his son’s anonymity is that important. The whole dilemma left me longing to be persuaded. It fits the Christ story, after all; I would have liked to see it work. Too bad.
General Zod is good (if we totally ignore most of his lines), though Michael Shannon strangely feels a little miscast. It isn’t that he doesn’t bring powerful dynamics to a part that could easily have been completely flat, it’s just that he’s better at sniveling Commodus-types (see Premium Rush, great little movie) than he is at genetically-engineered super warriors (just saying).
Overall, the movie’s strengths are its weaknesses. For once, Superman truly looks like he’s flying faster than a speeding bullet; the question is, does he ever slow down? The action is amazing; but when will it stop? The special effects are staggering; but when do I actually get to invest in real people? The madly galloping finale packs too many wallops with an ungodly surplusage of CGI, bludgeoning us with pointless retreats, weird regroups, and in-freaking-terminable fights that go nowhere and fulfill none of the promises made by earlier plot points.
Man of Steel is basically a hilariously expensive prologue to the real Superman/Clark Kent story (for which we must await a sequel). It’s big, it’s confused, and it’s darn whopping messy. And despite looking great in the tights, even Supes can’t save it.
What’s the S stand for? I was hoping for something better.