What is Superman’s driving ethos? What makes him sympathize with and care so much for the humans of Earth? How does he reconcile his Kryptonian past with his Earth present? Which father does he want to emulate more, Krypton’s leading scientist Jor-El or human farmer Jonathan Kent? Does he really need to choose one over the other? Questions, questions—and when you have a character like Superman, who has had various narratives and storylines about him since 1938, there are a wealth of different avenues to explore. But the problem with “Man of Steel” is that Snyder (who previously directed “Sucker Punch,” “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” and “Watchmen”) doesn’t provide us with definitive answers about any part of Superman’s personality, really. The character lacks a clear sense of forward movement, of proactive development on his own. Instead, “Man of Steel” allows fathers Jor-El and Jonathan Kent to take center stage in a way that undermines their son, that makes all of his decisions their decisions. It makes the film nonsensical and unclear in ways that harm it greatly, stripping it of consistent emotional resonance.
The film begins at the very start of Superman’s life, as he’s born to biological parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe, of “Les Misérables” and “Robin Hood”) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) as their world, Krypton, is in serious danger because of a depletion of their natural resources. The council of elders has stood by while Krypton has destroyed itself, and senior scientist Jor-El thinks they can save themselves somehow—but then military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon, of “Mud,” “Premium Rush,” “Machine Gun Preacher,” “Jonah Hex,” and “The Runaways”) storms the place, leading an uprising. He wants the Codex, which has the genetic codes of Krypton’s unborn children implanted on it, but Jor-El has stolen it—and sends it away with son Kal-El to Earth. Zod kills Jor-El; Zod is sentenced to hundreds of years adrift in a black hole; Krypton collapses in on itself and Lara dies. Countless miles away, Kal-El is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who rename him Clark and raise him as their own, an all-American boy with a dog.
But Clark isn’t like other boys: He can see and feel things other boys can’t; they bully and mock him mercilessly for it. There’s an innate goodness to him, though, that refuses to be contained, especially when his classmates are in any kind of danger—even the ones who are mean to him. And so Jonathan Kent tries to temper Clark’s need to use his abilities, impressing on him that “people are afraid of what they don’t understand,” that Clark’s existence will fundamentally alter what people think about humanity (and associated concepts like faith, belief, religion, and so forth).
But as Clark grows up (into Henry Cavill, of “The Cold Light of Day”), his need to defend becomes more and more insistent—he saves men about to die on a collapsing oil rig, he saves a waitress sexually accosted by a drunk customer, he saves and saves and saves. He saves so much that he attracts the attention of reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, of “Trouble with the Curve,” “The Muppets,” “The Fighter,” “Leap Year,” “Julie & Julia,” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”), who tracks him down and learns who he is right before Zod shows up on Earth, demanding Clark turn himself over. And Zod isn’t kidding around—along with second-in-command Faora (Antje Traue), he’s willing to kill millions of humans to get the Codex back and have a chance of re-creating Krypton. So it becomes up to Kal-El, Clark, Superman to choose between various identities—to decide which world is worthy of his help.
That all sounds pretty exciting, right? Identity issues! The question of self-sacrifice! The push-and-pull between two father figures preaching different things! But how Superman struggles with all these problems just isn’t there. Instead, too much of the film falls on Crowe’s shoulders, as he shows Superman nearly every element of his path—what his costume should look like, what he should stand for, how he should fight Zod. How clearly and literally he guides his son eliminates most of the film’s dramatic tension, and makes the scenes with Jonathan Kent feel particularly wasted. What’s the purpose of having two dads if the division between the two of them isn’t clear, isn’t continuously pushed forward? Similarly problematic is the underuse of Martha Kent, who here only exists to hug Superman when things get rough, and the overuse of Lois Lane, who for some reason gets pulled into Superman’s battle with Zod in an unexpected, unnecessary way.
All of this is to say, again, that there isn’t enough of Superman himself in this film, and that’s frustrating because although Cavill is spectacularly easy on the eyes—seriously, the man is beautiful—the film treats him quite often only as someone who is beautiful. The man has an expressive fact and can legitimately act, and it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get more scenes that challenge him; this Superman is so interior that he never wears his emotions in his face. That’s in stark contrast to Shannon as Zod, who is a wonderfully, fantastically Shakespearean villain—he’s so intense, committed, sneering, and well developed that you may root for his cause over Superman’s. Honestly, at least it’s more fleshed-out.
And so there is the problem of “Man of Steel”—it’s certainly a well-done action film, but we’ve come to expect more from Nolan, who helmed the “Dark Knight” trilogy and made those films more serious, but more fulfilling, in tone. The ideas he likes to wrestle with—faith, loyalty, masculinity—are here, but severely tampered and cut down to make room for more of Snyder’s (albeit, effective) action sequences. If Superman himself had more time to breathe, if there were more character development instead of our hero just flying through building after building, maybe “Man of Steel” would do the iconic character justice. As it stands, though, the movie is just another blockbuster—it’s not bad, by any means, but it’s certainly not the challenging, deep film you may have been hoping for.
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