Despite the top casting and some dazzling action sure to please fans, with a bloated story, an exposition-heavy and context-via-flashback reliant screenplay, an unsatisfying and drawn-out final confrontation and wearying slews of destruction, to name a few, Man of Steel is fraught with issues. Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is at the helm of Man of Steel deemed a dubious decision during the production and confirmed post-viewing, with Chris Nolan (Inception, Memento) serving as producer and story co-creator (along with screenwriter David S. Goyer). Nolan has undeniable influence over the project, and I’d say a big contributor to the film’s darker tone, and as a result the non-existent fun value.
Man of Steel opens on the planet Krypton, which is facing imminent destruction. A scientist, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and a renegade military commander leading a coup, General Zod (Michael Shannon), face off to try and preserve the Kryptonian race. In a desperate attempt to save his people, Jor-El sends his son Kal-el, the first natural birth in a very long time, and Krypton’s genetic codex, to Earth and banishes General Zod and his followers to the ‘Phantom Zone’. But, upon Krypton’s obliteration Zod is released and sets his sights on finding Kal-El.
Raised the adopted son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Dianne Lane), Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is named Clark. His physiology has left him with superhuman abilities, powers he intuitively uses to help others but has to learn to harness. His father, to devlop Clark’s moral compass, advises him not use them publicly until he believes humanity is ready to accept him. He drifts mysteriously between jobs, saving stranded oil riggers and wandering through the Arctic. When Zod touches down on Earth searching for the alien hidden in the midst, Clark dons the suit, finding an unlikely ally in a 'Pulitzer Prize Winning' Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and sets about fulfilling his destiny.
Recalling some ridiculous moments - Lois Lane traversing that icy precipice, the trigger-happy military choosing to fire on any foreign being, even if he is clearly not an enemy, and the imagery of the stranded in the rubble that evoked memories of 9/11 - there are an incalculable number of niggling issues. This is on top of the fact that it is a lot of work to watch in 3D. Having not seen a single Superman film prior, this can’t all be explained as fan-boy disappointment. This very serious film is so determined to pound in its Christ-like savior messages that the supposedly affecting father-son drama is lost within the barrage of incoherent CGI visuals, a barrage of blows and catastrophic levels of destruction.
Most of this film is seemingly shot on handheld, which is of usually no issue to me. I respect tackling the flashbacks in this way, and desaturating the visuals too, to provide these relationships with a sense of intimacy. But, with visual effects so present, this rough work was not a viable accompaniment. The sharp zooms to show off the details wore out their welcome, and the relentless blinding from the lens flares was more than a little aggravating. The first action sequence was chaotic and incoherent, making it difficult to get immersed in the struggle or get a bearing on space and depth.
There were a couple of fine tracks from Zimmer’s score that felt removed from his familiar recent work, but for the most part it was a forgettable wall of cascading noise to accompany the equally excessive destruction surrounding it. This is a film of overstatements and it has a disorienting pace. The often-turgid action leaps over (and through) tall buildings at light speed, but at the same time the plot is often standing still, reliant on exposition-heavy lectures and recaps.
There are two sequences near the end that are an important piece in my personal reaction to the film. The first was one final blow for this film, and the other is an example of the film’s frustrating inconsistency. There is a flashback to Clark as a kid meant to suggest that pa Kent always knew that his son would become a national symbol of hope and peace. Clark is wearing a makeshift red cape and he strikes a pose imitating a superhero. Now, what knowledge of superheroes is he basing this on? Is the red cape just a coincidence? I didn't buy it, and this cheesy touch following the exhausting final battle served no favours. But, immediately following this is our launch into the story’s next chapter, and this sequence is one of the most charming in the entire lacklustre film.
The one easy source of praise here is the casting of Cavill. The man has plenty of presence and he managed to convey Clark’s moral complexities with more subtlety and heart than the script did. The film’s strongest sequences are in the middle when Clark allies with Lane – and Amy Adams is another great choice, here – and has to come to terms with the threat on Earth and his role in saving it.
Cavill is a great fit, portraying Clark Kent as a quietly charismatic, level headed guy who truly understands the world that has adopted him. I hope that in different hands, his portrayal can be properly fleshed out. Here, we learn that he saved lives with his secret super strength on more than one occasion, just as we learn that he had to resist the urge to pound in the face of his bullies…on more than one occasion. The big problem with the screenplay is that it is not only repetitive, but also dull. Despite seeing Krypton destroyed in the opening scene, we are then told all about it again by Jor-El’s consciousness, who seems to pop up conveniently to help out anyone in need. Young Clarke’s questioning of whether he should have saved the children on the bus leads to a lengthy Costner reveal of everything we need to know about his childhood until that point.
As unpleasant as my personal experience of Man of Steel was and as muddled as the ideas and the aesthetics seemed to coagulate, this is an event film that you should experience for yourself. I only hope you find it more kick ass and rewarding than I did.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.