The New “Man of Steel” Never Quite Takes Off

Man of Steel

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

The creators of the new Superman origin film, Man of Steel, managed to make one of the best trailers I have ever seen, and I am grateful to them for that. I just re-watched it (I really can’t get enough), and it’s a wonderful three-minute film. Unfortunately, add 140 minutes to that, and what you end up with is a rather unwieldy mess that never quite gets off the ground. Man of Steel does have significant strengths, which include the talented cast, but the frequently pedestrian script and the film’s relentless reliance on CGI mayhem weigh the entire enterprise down. Instead of floating like a Kryptonian in orbit around earth, it remains earthbound when it needs to fly, and then all too often careens out of control like a rudderless ballistic missile when it should be still.

For those of you who somehow don’t know the story of Superman, it goes like this. Many light years away from Earth, there exists an aging planet called Krypton, with an advanced humanoid civilization that has invented many wonders and mostly evolved beyond the kinds of war and violence that still plagues our own planet, yet is doomed to destruction because of willful neglect of some impending problems in its own solar system. Political conflict between the ruling party and the opposition – embodied by the renegade General Zod – creates an administrative paralysis that prevents Kryptonians from fleeing their home in time. Right before Krypton blows up (or collapses, as it does in this film), one of its great scientists, Jor-El, bundles his infant son into a specially designed spaceship – filled with devices that will later teach the boy, Kal-El, about his history – and sends him off to Earth. Since Earth is younger and smaller than Krypton, its yellow (vs. red) sun and lower gravitational pull guarantee that the refugee will grow into a being with awesome super powers (trust me – it’s totally legit science . . .). Discovered by a childless couple – the Kents – after his spaceship crash-lands on earth, Jor-El is renamed Clark, and is raised an all-American boy in Kansas. When he reaches maturity, he leaves on a “walkabout,” to find his true origins, and become the “superman” he was always meant to be.

First – the positives. Henry Cavill, in spite of (or maybe because of) his goofy grin, makes a fine Kal-El/Clark Kent. His impressive physique and gentle good looks make him a noble successor to the great Christopher Reeve, star of the 1978 Superman. Unfortunately, he is never given a chance to do much actual acting here. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are quite good as Jor-El and Pa Kent, respectively, though there’s no way that Costner is only in his late 40s, as the film requires him to be. Ayelet Zurer and Diane Lane are also good as Superman’s Kryptonian and Earth mothers, though the former isn’t given nearly enough to do for an actress of her caliber. Amy Adams makes a solid Lois Lane – the adult Kal-El’s love interest – but she, too, is not given enough screen time. And then there’s Michael Shannon, as the bad guy, Zod, whom I cannot stand (and who is given far too much time on screen). But then, I never do like Michael Shannon. He’s never met a line that he won’t mangle through overacting. He is the human equivalent of the unnecessary digital effects that mar the rest of the film.

More positives. I loved what the script did once Kal-El arrives on earth. As the baby’s ship approaches our planet’s atmosphere, there is a sudden flash-forward cut, and we find ourselves on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean where the adult Kal-El/Clark is working one of many jobs he has taken on his “walkabout.” A nearby oil rig is on fire, and he feels the call to save the men aboard. For the next hour or so, as the story moves forwards, we cut back and forth between the present and Clark’s childhood in Kansas. I loved this flashback structure, and loved the Terrence Malick-inspired cinematography of the Kansas scenes. Unfortunately, as Kal-El/Clark approaches the ice-embedded Kryptonian ship in the North that will help him discover his roots, the storytelling becomes a little too elliptical, as if the filmmakers had ended up with an overlong rough cut that they were trying desperately to cut down. To which I say, get rid of many of the ridiculous battle scenes at the end of the film, and put the earlier story back in.

Which brings us to the negatives. Kal-El is not the only Kryptonian to have escaped the destruction of his own planet. Anyone who has seen Superman II remembers that General Zod and crew – imprisoned in a jail away from Krypton at the beginning of Superman – break free and make their way to Earth to exact revenge from the child of Jor-El, who was responsible for their capture. In this new film, the plots of both Superman and Superman II are combined, and so, just as we are getting to know Kal-El as he explores his origins and powers, Zod and company make a sudden arrival, and the movie falls apart. As much as I dislike Michael Shannon, however, it is not all his fault. Somehow, the director Zack Snyder and his collaborators – screenwriter David Goyer and producer/co-story creator Christopher Nolan – decided that what we really want to see in an origin story is 30+ minutes of incomprehensible digitally enhanced fight scenes where super beings crash into skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper . . . you get the point. We know they can’t be truly harmed by such mayhem – or by the bullets fired at them – because they’re “super,” so there is very little suspense. But there is a lot of boredom.

<Big sigh>

When I re-watched the trailer this morning, I saw, again, great restraint and calm. But when I watched Man of Steel, the feature, all I saw – at least in the second half – was excess and mayhem. Or, as one of my friends said to me on the way out of the screening, a “lot of debris.”

<Big sigh again>

One final note – the 3D adds nothing. Superman Returns, back in 2006, for all of its many imperfections – which included 3D scenes scattered intermittently throughout the film, with little green glasses that would pop up on the screen telling you when to put on and take off your own pair – used the 3D format in more innovative ways then this film does. The airplane disaster sequence in that earlier film remains an extremely fine bit of action, and the 3D helped make it so. In fact, now that we have Man of Steel upon us, Superman Returns – which disappointed its studio at the box office – now looks to have been the better re-boot.

At least we have the Man of Steel trailer to treasure, years hence.

3 thoughts on “The New “Man of Steel” Never Quite Takes Off

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