When it comes to Superman, I don’t mince my words. I think he is one of the least compelling superheroes in existence. My deluge of disrespect stems from his invincibility, as well as the fact that a single pair of black glasses stupidly conceals his identity, but I digress. The mere fact that Superman has no weakness, outside of kryptonite, which apparently is extremely easy to find, makes any cinematic drama built around him null and void. Even more to that point, being that he’s an intergalactic stud with unbounded abilities, the only villain he ever faces is Lex Luthor, a man who hemorrhages money but can’t actually get his hands dirty. If there isn’t a reasonable villain to battle with Superman, outside of a power-hungry tyrant, what’s remotely dramatic about his adventures? Admittedly, my opinion skews heavily towards the film incarnations of Superman than the comics he resides in, but why hasn’t there been a film that honestly dives into the psyche of this all-powerful being? Why must kryptonite and land acquisitions be the cinematic lynchpin for America’s Boy Scout? Man of Steel reserves little time for the lore of past films. Instead, it squarely sets its sights on establishing a new brand, one admittedly mimicking the blue print Christopher Nolan established for his reinvention of Batman.
Opening up on the planet Krypton, a once promising planet buckling under its own grandiose weight, we’re introduced to Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a proud Kryptonian ready to send off his only son, Kal-El, to an unknown planet (it’s Earth for these tracking at home). In pursuit of the infant is General Zod (Michael Shannon), a rageful protector of the dying planet. Escaping Zod’s grasp, Krypton’s last visage of hope eventually lands on our planet, calling the United States home. Through flashbacks and Terrence Malick inspired compositions, we see Kal-El evolve into Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a boy bred with a Midwest earnestness. Festering within this intergalactic immigrant is a schism between his birth planet and the one he now calls home. For much of Man of Steel’s running time, Clark Kent wrestles with an existential crisis, which grows heavier when diligent reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) exposes his powers. The very strength Clark intends to hide from Earth is not only unearthed by the invasive journalist, but is transparently harnessed when General Zod visits Earth to treat the prosperous planet as a substitute to his now defunct home.
The moment in which Clark Kent unleashes his true identity is powerfully realized, due largely in part to the screenplay’s construction of his moral fiber. Through impressive flashback sequences and whispered legends, do we see the impact of the human parents-played wonderfully by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane-on Earth’s inevitable savior. Zach Snyder, a director known for garish, abrasive stylistic choices, restrains his worst sensibilities and allows these moments to live and breathe on their own. Granted, some of the flashback scenes feel a bit like trite monologues, but they ultimately work. Outside of a triumphant score from Hans Zimmer, our emotional connection to a man living on the fringe is deeply indebted to fine acting and some excellent character writing. This notion of dichotomy is a new wrinkle in the Superman cinematic canon, and one that definitely makes it feel more contemporary. But even with the best intentions, Man of Steel still has glaring fallacies, most of which revolves around the over tedious nature of its action sequences.
Being that Superman and General Zod are nearly invincible, the drama surrounding their battle quickly dissipates. In the film’s final hour or so, where action unloads at a ferocious pace, Superman and Zod slam one another into building after building. Initially, the special effects astound us with their fluidity, but eventually the continuous, over the top destruction becomes tiresome and uninspired. Of course, I’m not saying the action scenes are devoid of entertainment value, but the destruction just goes on and on, not really allowing a character moment to escape. Supplementing these boorish scenes of excess are moments where the film feels as if it’s playing loose with its own internal logic, undermining any potential drama that may develop organically. Even General Zod, played admirably by Michael Shannon, succumbs to the hyperkinetic chaos Zach Snyder can’t wait to unleash on the world at large. Buried under the rubble of Snyder’s worst tendencies is still a good film. Man of Steel truly takes flight when it explores the unique opportunities and constraints placed upon the broad shoulders of its titular character, and offers a great deal of insight into a character that has been, at least in this reviewer’s mind, less than super.