In Zack Snyder’s overwrought reimagining of Superman, the “S” on the hero’s costume is not an “S,” it’s “a symbol of hope” -- the generic, nebulous hope of flat platitudes and empty reassurance.
In this spirit, “Man of Steel” issues a series of half-baked parables, extolling the dangers of xenophobia and the importance of Doing the Right Thing and Always Being Yourself (except, of course, when it means other people will fear you). Though the Superman-Jesus parallel is as old as Kryptonite, “Man of Steel” sometimes plays like a companion piece to the “Left Behind” Christian apocalyptic series of novels, with in-your-face Superman-as-savior symbolism (he’s 33 years old, he performs miracles, he is suspended above the ground by a beam of light) all the way to what feels like an endorsement of creationism: A villainess who announces (apropos of nothing) that “evolution will always win” is shown in short order to be dead wrong, and the irony is clearly not meant to be lost.
Snyder (“Watchmen,” “300”) and screenwriter David S. Goyer aimed for a darker, imperfect superhero, which they signal with a young Clark’s classroom freakout, and later, in the muted navy and burgundy of Superman's updated suit. Yes, our hero lets one man die and causes the death of at least one more, but the internal conflict we’re supposed to be drawn into is skin deep and feels superimposed. “Did God send me here?” a wide-eyed Clark asks his adoptive father in earnest after learning of his cornfield delivery.
The filmmakers preserve some basic components of the original Superman’s origin story -- Kal-El is born to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van on planet Krypton, and his parents launch the infant to Earth just before their own planet is destroyed. In “Man of Steel,” however, there is an added layer of parable: Krypton’s destruction was caused by the depletion of natural resources! Get it? The arch enemy here is General Zod (an intense Michael Shannon, who can do better), a secondary villain in the original “Superman” movies. With some effort, we can glean that Jor-El and Zod have competing ideas about how to preserve the Kryptonian race, but there is much in these early scenes that remains indecipherable. I suspect even those who are well-versed in the Superman story will struggle to unpack the heavy-handed imagery and platitude-laden dialogue here, as Snyder and Goyer seem to have forsaken continuity and narrative in favor of protracted battle scenes.
For much of the movie, Snyder seems to be looking for an excuse to blow things up; if he can’t find one, he blows things up anyway. And more often than not, our Superman (Henry Cavill) is chewed up by the exploding scenery.
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It’s not that Cavill delivers a weak performance, neccessarily -- it’s just that he does what he’s asked to do, which is above all to be the best-looking man this side of the Virgo cluster. And does he ever deliver: Cavill’s Superman (who is not given the name until the very end of the film, and even then, it’s kind of a joke) is superhumanly handsome. And both the actor and the director are at their visual best when the hero, who has been trained by his adoptive parents to conceal his powers, first experiments with the gift of flight on Earth -- though the sequence might be just a touch overdone, the view is breathtaking, whether you are watching the hero soar through the atmosphere or observing America the Beautiful through his eyes.
There is only one sex symbol in “Man of Steel.” Amy Adams looks great, as always, but her Lois Lane remains headstrong and buttoned-up even after she falls for Clark, leaving us free to marvel in his gym-sculpted (and possibly CGI-enhanced) physical beauty. Adams' enthusiasm for her character imbues "Man of Steel" with an energy that is often otherwise lacking; her heroic efforts to elevate the movie to one worthy of her talents can't save the flat-footed script, but makes her scenes some of the easiest to watch.
The average viewer will likely struggle to follow the foundation laid down in the first act; but by the time you reach the so-called climax -- a narrative-free air battle sequence marked by explosion after pointless explosion -- you won’t even care to make sense of it. For a man who can supposedly leap tall buildings in a single bound, this Superman sure does take the long route to victory over his enemy, ultimately prevailing in a way that offers no good explanation for what took him so damn long.
Still, somewhere in the middle there’s a movie -- when Clark is in Kansas, either in flashback scenes or when he returns to visit his now-widowed mother (an excellent Diane Lane), “Man of Steel” is fully engaging, even gripping, as the alien life form struggles to reconcile his supernatural powers with his small-town values. And while most of the metaphors and symbolism in “Man of Steel” will elicit little more than a well-deserved eyeroll, the most important -- Kal-El as a living, breathing reminder that humans are not necessarily the highest life form in the universe -- manages to work. Sure, when General Zod makes threatening contact with Earth, we could be in any of the popular alien-invasion movies of the last three decades, but we love those movies. Here, Adams’ talent is put to good use, as Lois Lane realizes that the impossible is possible, and that her journalistic instincts are sharper than anyone is willing to give her credit for. If only the filmmakers’ instincts were half as strong.
Snyder and Goyer have obvious reverence for Superman and want to do right by him; their intentions are pure. But when you task men with re-creating their childhood hero, you run the risk that they will approach the assignment as a child might. It is not a requirement of good filmmaking that an audience knows what is going on at all times; but the filmmakers themselves should probably have a pretty good idea.