By: Inkoo Kang
Man of Steel begins on the last day of Krypton’s existence. Rendered with art design straight out of a forties comic book, the purple-and-gray planet is on the verge of literal implosion. Its residents are strangely nonplussed, save for Jor-El (a Xanaxed Russell Crowe), Krypton’s top scientist, and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), who send their infant son to a distant planet – can you guess which? – so the latter can avoid being snuffed out by Jor-El’s foe, General Zod (Michael Shannon). The rest of the film is a portrait of the superhero as a young man – learning of his alien ancestry, dealing with it in fits and starts, and finally getting over it because he has better things to do, like preventing genocide.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing Man of Steel to the last solemn superhero franchise, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan served as a co-producer here, and like his pointy-eared movies, this update of the Metropolis Marvel is overlong, plays annoyingly coy with the protagonist’s hero-name, and throws out a lot of random ideas instead of asserting a coherent vision. But this Clark Kent also shares with Nolan’s Bruce Wayne a great origin story full of lovely moments and, at least with Batman Begins, a captivating love object who’s not an insult to women. It also departs from The Dark Knight in the best way by not being the least bit pretentious. Superman has always been the jock at The Breakfast Club of superheroes, and director Zack Snyder made the right choice not to burden his film with Bat-like brooding.
Man of Steel’s soul resides in its tender origin story, told in flashbacks. Clark’s powers make him more of a freak than a hero in his small town (shades of X-Men here), and his constant struggles to rein in his powers, which are a liability in the classroom and a barely restrained A-bomb among bullies – are touching, if familiar. There’s an intriguing suggestion of Midwestern conformity that makes Smallville less of a Mayberry and more like a real place. The flashbacks hit just the right note of earnestness without sentimentality and are edited so that you want more, even if another half-minute would be too much. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner look more like lifelong Californians with picture-perfect tans than Bible-belt farmers, but they bring a grounded sweetness to Ma and Pa Kent, as do the child actors who play Little Clarklet (Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline – such child-actor names!).
Unfortunately, grown-up Clark Kent is a lot less interesting. Star Henry Cavill plays Superman as an icon, not as the human being his character (sort of) tries to be. Snyder gets a lot out of trading card-worthy images of Cavill’s determined blue eyes and Schwarzeneggerian muscles, but the hero himself is as blandly all-American as product placement in summer blockbusters. (Rest assured, Sears, IHOP, and 7-11 all get the beauty shots they paid for.) In a different movie, maybe on Lifetime, the pre-superhero Clark, a suspiciously pretty rambler, might be an obvious serial killer. But in Man of Steel, he’s just an extraterrestrial variation of Your LL Bean Boyfriend – just as pretty, but glossy and two-dimensional.
Likewise, Shannon’s Zod is a disappointingly ordinary villain. He’s a thematically muddled character, cobbled together from a grab bag of super-villain motivations: Look, up there in the sky! It’s family rivalry! It’s eugenics! No, it’s nihilism! Snyder makes a point of the super-ness of Kal-El and Zod in the initially fun, then seemingly interminable fight scenes. Hurtling through skycrapers and toward helicopters, their battles are superhuman-scaled, making the fight scenes simultaneously more interesting – what else in downtown Metropolis will they collaterally obliterate while pummeling each other in the face? – and more tedious, since they’re both possess such invincible physiology it’s hard to get a sense of narrative momentum. As the action drags on, it becomes difficult not to feel numbed by all the violence for the sake of violence.
Bereft of a compelling hero or villain, the film at least offers a deliciously sensible Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as a consolation prize. Dressed in business-casual clothes for most of the film, Adams’ Lois possesses a keen sense of compassion and journalistic daring, and is as put-together as Clark is initially confused. Cavill and Adams have a warm chemistry, but it feels so much closer to that of platonic friends, or even a big sister/little brother relationship, that their inevitable lip-lock feels not just forced but kinda gross. Lois can do better than the Man of Steel, and so can audiences.