There are so many great things in Man of Steel and yet none of them quite knows where to go. I can’t readily think of another superhero movie which has this much pressure to perform, or which responds by flying in a hundred directions at once. Like its hero, it carries an enormous burden of responsibility on its shoulders. DC lags badly behind its archrival in the theatrical films category, and without a game-changer to make up the lost ground, it may get buried completely. Man of Steel must not only reboot the long-dormant Superman franchise, but set up a whole line of DC superhero films… most notably Justice League, whose ambitions positively drip with Avengers envy.
Accordingly, Man of Steel tries to be everything at once, and succeeds only fitfully at its task. It’s doubly frustrating because we can see legitimate, awe-inspiring greatness there. The film just can’t get out of its own way. Director Zack Snyder finds threads of gold in his material – conceived by producer Christopher Nolan and developed by screenwriter David S. Goyer – but one can sense the Warners brass breathing down his neck at every turn. There’s too many cocks in this henhouse, and the movie ultimately fails in trying to please them all.
After the perceived misstep of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, Man of Steel wants to resolutely avoid all things Donner-y. And yet its early sequences – once again charting the destruction of Krypton and young Kal-El’s arrival on Earth – hit all the same beats as the original Superman: The Movie. Once again, wise Jor-El (Russell Crowe) foresees the destruction of his planet and can do nothing to prevent it. Once again, he sends his infant son to our world to serve as a beacon of hope for us. And once again, the criminal General Zod (Michael Shannon, who damn near saves this thing single-handedly) vows to destroy the boy before a sojourn in the Phantom Zone spares him the coming apocalypse.
The interesting stuff lies in the details, where Man of Steel finds its identity. Kal is extraordinary on Krypton as well as on Earth, for instance (I’ll spare you the spoilers and refrain from saying how), and Zod’s reasons for hunting him hold a lot more dramatic heft than Terence Stamp’s marvelous-yet-one-note version of the character. It also provides Kal with an interesting dilemma: which of his two worlds should he defend? Humans certainly give him few reasons to trust them, and while Zod and his henchmen have serious bad things in mind, they still offer a viable alternative to the squabbling savages whom Kal must now protect. That helps break the origin story out of the doldrums and give us some interesting material to chew on.
The same holds true with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the inevitable introduction of the Daily Planet. It always sat as one of the most problematic elements of the Superman mythos (he puts on glasses and nobody knows who he is?!), but Man of Steel seems to have cracked that code. It sets Lois off to discover this figure before he himself realizes his potential, making her more sly co-conspirator than hapless dupe. It also hands Lois a truly delicious conundrum. She’s a hard-core journalist, with credentials in Iraq and other serious hot spots. Now she’s confronted with a man from outer space – something straight out of the Weekly World News – and she can’t turn a blind eye to it. Adams makes the character tough and assertive without being bitchy, and watching her grapple with an outlandish yet undeniable truth constitutes one of the film’s great pleasures.
Indeed, the performances are uniformly excellent, starting with Henry Cavill’s decent yet conflicted Superman, and proceeding down through Crowe, Adams, Shannon and the whole of the supporting cast. Particular kudos go out to the women, notably Diane Lane whose Ma Kent finally gets something interesting to do, and German actress Antja Traue as Zod’s sinister right hand Faora-Ul. They all feel so vibrant and alive, enraptured by the possibilities of this updated superhero and giving everything to bring it to life.
And yet, as much as it wants to deliver on its potent cocktail of themes, Man of Steel consistently finds a way to drop the ball. It doesn’t trust the quieter early sequences in Smallville, for instance, so it scatters them throughout the film in awkward flashbacks that constantly lurch us out of the action. Editor David Brenner can’t find a consistent follow-through for them, while struggling to link the film’s myriad other subplots together. Said subplots often end up tripping over each other’s feet, yanked away as soon as they find their footing and creating a hodge-podge of barely-connected scenes rather than a focused and coherent story. The new components of the narrative help out a bit, but whenever Man of Steel slips into overly familiar territory (the last son of Krypton, raised by a loving Kansas couple, etc.) it terminally stalls.
The second half seems to resolve some of those issues, as Zod lands and his requisite Fiendish Scheme trumps all other concerns. And ironically, that becomes even less engaging, as we devolve into a mishmash of indifferently shot explosions and fistfights. The film’s Avengers envy comes to a head in the conclusion, with a battle over Metropolis that evokes the awe-struck horror of 9/11 with none of the social responsibility or dark meditations. More importantly, it fails to engage us as simple action: all bellowing noise and complex choreography without any dramatic heft to engage us. Or, more accurately, the heft is there but Snyder can’t connect it to the images onscreen, maintaining Man of Steel’s fatally scattershot tone.
It’s hard to pinpoint one precise moment where it all goes wrong, or separate the film’s numerous great qualities from its equally numerous banal ones. Whatever the reason, Man of Steel ends up paying a frustrating price, as we catch glimpses of the classic it might have been lost in a sea of meaningless sound and fury. It’s a near thing sometimes, but the experience ultimately proves more disappointing than entertaining: a shaky first step for a would-be franchise and final proof that Marvel movies are still well and truly eating DC’s lunch.