Man of Steel: Not So Super

by Ethan Alter June 14, 2013 6:51 am
<i>Man of Steel</i>: Not So Super

How do you solve a problem like making a live-action movie starring Superman? Although the Last Son of Krypton has been a comic book icon since the late '30s, contemporary attempts to translate him to the big screen have routinely bumped up against certain limitations, which range from the technical challenges of believably rendering his super-sized feats of strength or storytelling obstacles like finding some kind of relatable chink in his flesh-colored steel armor.

The various movies made to date have sought to navigate these problems in different ways. The Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve version, 1978's Superman: The Movie (and, to a lesser extent, the sequels that came after), treated the character as a colorfully-clad swashbuckler in the tradition of Errol Flynn -- a hero who swooped to the rescue whenever he was needed, driven by his love of justice... as well as his love for one woman in particular. And while he certainly carried around personal baggage that came with being a visitor from another world, he wasn't necessarily weighed down by it. On the other hand, the Bryan Singer/Brandon Routh Superman of Superman Returns was very much defined by the loneliness derived from being an orphaned alien, with the movie ultimately functioning as a kind of an ambitious (if dramatically inert) adoption parable where the central thematic throughline involved the hero having to decide which world he belongs to -- Krypton or Earth.

Now here comes the Zack Snyder/Henry Cavill version, Man of Steel, which also pivots on the character's alienness, but is far more interested in showcasing a side of him that technological limitations have made difficult up until this point: super-duper action hero. This Superman is a street-and-sky brawler, who isn't bound by gravity (as the wire-strung Reeve so often was) or the lack of anything equally powerful to hit (which was the case with Routh). If Snyder accomplishes anything with Man of Steel, it's giving comic book readers the kind of titanic throwdown they always wanted to see Superman engage in, one where he actually does actually appear to be moving faster than a speeding bullet, punching more powerfully than a locomotive and leaping (and destroying) skyscrapers in a single bound. As someone who play-acted more than a few of such battles with a set of Super Friends-generation action figures, I can't pretend that my inner eight-year-old wasn't tickled by the scale and scope of Snyder's climactic battle royale. And I might have enjoyed it even more if getting to that point hadn't been such a tedious slog.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that Donner's Superman -- the defining Superman flick of my particular generation -- doesn't entirely hold up thirty plus years on, with the seams in its special effects and creative choices being all too evident today. That said, the '78 film has one thing over every Super-film made since: a classically structured narrative that efficiently guides the character (and the audience) from birth to boyhood to man to hero. A rigorous structure is the primary thing that's absent from Man of Steel, replaced by a jumble of story ideas that have been cut-and-pasted into a form vaguely resembling a feature film script. As with the '78 version, the new film opens with a Krypton-based prologue centered around Super-daddy Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his decision to send his newborn son, Kal, off to Earth to avoid dying in his home planet's inevitable destruction; a sequence that plays like a beat-for-beat remake of the Donner film -- right down to the appearance of rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon, perhaps the only acceptable replacement for Terrence Stamp) and his subsequent sentencing to the Phantom Zone -- just slightly longer and with a higher effects budget. (It's also soon revealed to be an entirely pointless sequence from a structural perspective as when Cavill's Kal-El later encounters the tech-enabled ghost of his father on Earth, Jor-El ends up repeating every single plot point that was introduced not 45 minutes ago. Given the existence of this mid-movie "Previously on..." recap, a far more efficient and effective choice would have been to lop off the prologue entirely and allow the audience to learn about Kal-El's origins when he does, thus keeping us in his headspace instead of a few steps ahead.)

Anyway, after Krypton goes kablooey, the ship carrying baby Kal is seen about the crash-land on Earth... at which point, the movie jumps ahead some two or three decades to show us a now-grown Clark (née Kal), in the midst of a walking-the-Earth spiritual journey -- you know, like Caine in Kung Fu. Bouncing from place to place and job to job following a path seemingly without a specified destination, Clark's mind frequently flashes back to his formative years, when adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) provided him with shelter and salt-of-the-Earth nurturing. Those memories persist even after he finally learns the truth about his history and intended destiny, courtesy of a close encounter with a Kryptonian spaceship that crash-landed on Earth eons ago and lay buried in the frozen wastelands of the Arctic, with the movie frequently (and chaotically) leaping back and forth in time. I get what Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer is going for: they're trying to show us how Clark's past affects Kal-El's present and Superman's future. It's a thoughtful thematic choice, but a botch dramatically, both due to the repetitive nature of the flashbacks (to my ears, it sounded like Costner was giving the exact same speech to young Clark at least four or five times) and the way their almost random insertion kills the momentum of the present-day storyline without especially enhancing our understanding of the character. Thanks to the lumpy, misshapen storytelling, for much of its runtime Man of Steel doesn't soar -- it just floats in place onscreen.

Even if Goyer's script had displayed a coherent structure, I likely would have had a hard time keeping up with the film anyway due to the off-putting visual style Snyder employs throughout. Clearly seeking to expand his visual language outside of the stylized, slow-motion heavy sensibility of 300 and Sucker Punch, the director throws his traditional bag of tricks -- along with his tripod -- out the window, shooting the action with a handheld, shaky-cam approach that's meant to be gritty and real, but more frequently comes across as jittery and downright ugly -- and I say that as someone with a high tolerance for shaky-cam theatrics, including Paul Greengrass's Bourne sequels. (This aesthetic approach means you should avoid the 3D version as well; few things are less watchable for prolonged periods of time than shaky-cam in 3D.) The movie's visuals reflect Snyder's overall shaky grasp on the dramatic meat of this material. I don't think he's especially interested in exploring who Superman is, certainly in contrast to Singer, whose chief sin in Superman Returns was perhaps allowing his own identification with the character to render him too remote and removed for general audiences. And the rub of it is, Cavill could be a great Man of Steel; he's got an unmistakable physical presence and a sly charm that often creeps in around the edges. But Kal-El is written and directed as such a generic Angry Young Man that the actor never really gets the chance to show what would make his take on the character unique. (On the other hand, Amy Adams manages to work around the screenplay's limitations, playing Lois Lane with a hard-nosed professionalism that we haven't really seen onscreen before. It also seems to be a conscious choice on her part to not play up any romantic attraction to this super-powered stranger in her midst, defining Lois first and foremost as a journalist rather than a love interest; though she lacks his might, they're on equal footing in terms of their respective professional capabilities.)

There is a point at which you can feel Snyder finally connecting with his hero and that's when he's sending Superman into battle against a maniacal Zod, who turns up seeking Kal and the key to rebuilding Krypton that shared its Last Son's Earth-bound rocket. Going back to his Dawn of the Dead remake, the director has a demonstrated flair for choreographing large-scale action set-pieces, along with an understanding for how to move the characters fighting in them around the frame. I appreciated the way that Snyder made full use of the powers in Superman's arsenal; for example, in head-to-head combat against Zod's minions, he doesn't just plant his feet and punch -- he zips around them at lightning-fast speed or gets a good headwind going and slams into them at Mach 10. And the fight with his main nemesis happens high above the streets of Metropolis, with the two grappling and tumbling in mid-air, punching each other through buildings and causing all manner of devastation. (As extravagant as this sequence is, though, it's still outclassed by the aerial battle between Neo and Agent Smith that closed out The Matrix Revolutions a decade ago. In an ideal world, the Wachowskis -- rather than Singer or Snyder -- would have been given the opportunity to remake Superman in their own image.)

The third act also snaps into focus what kind of movie Snyder and Goyer have been trying to make all along: an alien invasion picture dressed up in superhero clothing, one that begins like Stranger in a Strange Land before morphing into War of the Worlds. (It's for that reason that I wasn't as perturbed by the apocalyptic levels of destruction as others have been in early reviews; from Independence Day to Spielberg's War of the Worlds, the annihilation of American cities comes with the territory in this particular genre.) That's clearly the influence of the movie's patron saint, producer Christopher Nolan, whose Batman series was built around the conceit of finding the reality in why and how a billionaire would put on a rubber batsuit and fight crime. Here, the big idea is to "realistically" explore the fall-out of a super-powered being from another planet growing up on Earth and what that might mean for the planet and himself.

It's an intriguing angle and, in the hands of another writer/director team, it might have resulted in a richer movie. Having said that, I have to question whether I'd even want a Superman film that was more serious-minded than Man of Steel. In their ongoing effort to distinguish themselves from their formidable competition over at Marvel Studios, DC appears to doubling down on Nolan's vision of ultra-somber, ultra-muted takes on comic book heroes. And while I'm by no means a Marvel movie zombie, I do give that studio credit for remembering that, on a certain level, this stuff is meant to be in good fun, and that characters can have relatable hang-ups but still find the pleasure in fighting the good fight. Even in its grand finale, Man of Steel is a curiously joyless experience, which, for me at least, represents the most obvious sign that Snyder, Goyer and Nolan don't really comprehend the enduring appeal of Superman. Yes, his past is marked by tragedy and his present is filled with all manner of complications, but when he puts on that suit, he's free to rise above them and take us along for the ride. Man of Steel keeps him -- and the aspirational spirit he represents -- grounded and it's a less heroic movie for it.

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