Man of Steel

I think many people were probably confused when they saw the trailers for Man of Steel. It seemed dark, almost arrogant – not Superman at all. Then another trailer came out and suddenly it seemed that things had largely reversed course, it’s all about hope and cute moments between Clark and Lois.

Well, the time has come, but I think that many people will probably be confused when they leave the theater.

Man of Steel presents us a very different Superman; let’s get that out-of-the-way now. Clark Kent has always been known as a man who simply knows the difference between right and wrong and acts accordingly. That’s still true, at the heart of it, but this film examines that attribute against the weight of Clark’s doubt. Likewise, there is hope in this film, but hope is always a choice. It’s still a version of Superman, but it’s Superman in a fearful world. I wonder what that says about the times we’re living in.

Readers of J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One will likely feel the similarities clearly, but there are enough essential differences to change the tone of the film and make it feel like more than just an adaptation of that comic.

As for the film itself, it has a lot going for it. Though he is a very quiet lead, Henry Cavill plays a fine Clark Kent, while, simultaneously, distinguishing himself from previous film versions of the character. Cavill is charming; essentially vulnerable; and, above all, honest in his performance, and that overwhelming sincerity carries his role through the crests and troughs of the film.

Cavill is joined by a strong cast, but, with a few exceptions, the entire ensemble feels like they know far more about their character than the audience ever could. The craft and subtly put into these characters’ inner lives is clear, however the film doesn’t provide enough context to decode their ticks and glances.

Standouts include Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El (though in the last case that may have even more to do with the script’s insistence than Crowe’s acting). Amy Adams might seem a strange choice for Lois Lane, but, while she lacks the fire in her belly that often defines Lois, she manages to give us a strong and truthful version of her. In the end Adams’ role shares the movies strengths and weaknesses; in many places her arc feels rushed, she occasionally acts as a slave to the plot, and (for better or worse) she is a very reserved character. Indeed, pretty much all of the heroes of this film are quiet or serene. Clark and Lois have none of the passion that defined them over the years, and all four of Clark’s parents, despite their strong opinions, remain composed at all times. You could practically hold your breath through the whole movie for fear of interrupting these moments. While I feel like I’m constantly advocating for greater subtly in comics on this blog, here it feels like a cop-out, asking viewers to matrix in their own thoughts and complete the movie.

Before I move off of the cast, I have to pause and mention Lawrence Fishburne. There was a lot of uncomfortable tension about an African-American actor playing Perry White, but regardless of where you stood, he did an amazing job. While his role wasn’t huge (not bad for Perry, though), Fishburne gave every scene he was in a touch of realism and simple dignity. Man of Steel’s Perry White is every bit the character fans love from the comics, but where some actors find it hard to balance staying true to an iconic character with bringing them to life as an individual, Fishburne has no such problems. His scenes, particularly those with Amy Adams, were all splendid, demonstrating his work ethic, his decency, and precisely why a woman like Lois Lane chooses to work for him.

Hans Zimmer (this is a Christopher Nolan production, after all), provides a sweeping score that carries the quiet scenes of the film as often as it overwhelms them.

One criticism I’ve frequently heard of Superman movies is that they tend to focus on the hero’s ability to lift things, well worry not critics, if Richard Donner convinced you that a man could fly, Zach Snyder show you what happens when you bring a Kryptonian to a fist fight. The film has an admirable focus on developing the scope of Clark’s powers and nearly all of them come into play during the film’s numerous fight scenes. The scale of these conflicts is clear to see and it really is quite impressive. Unfortunately, the special effects don’t hold up as well as they should. Snyder’s previous films, like 300 or Watchmen, have depended on CGI, but they were heavily, heavily stylized. In the more realistic world of Man of Steel, it’s frequently apparent that things aren’t real (perhaps most notably Superman’s omnipresent CGI cape). Compare the use of CGI in this film to the digital Robert Downy Jr. in the Iron Man films and you’ll see the difference right away.

Still, for any dipping into the uncanny valley, the movie is undoubtedly a visual spectacle. Krypton trades Richard Donner’s crystal architecture for a modern fusion of science, art, and metal beads. At times it seems like the world of Krypton is given too much focus or nowhere near enough, but by the time the movie ends, we have enough of a sense of that lost planet to justify its inclusion. The innards of alien ships and human interrogation rooms show that the film had quite the art team, but for all the beauty Man of Steel’s world has to offer, what matters is the eyes we see it through.

Zach Snyder, seemingly intent on outgrowing his reputation for breathtaking but juvenile entertainments, wrings every drop of gravitas he can manage from his camera. The colors of the film are dull but beautiful and the dust and sun of Smallville, Kansas tinges Clark’s memories of home with a sepia filter. There’s plenty of shaky-cam and a surprising number of circular pans. The effect is something of an empathic objectivity, decidedly third person but responsive to the character’s thoughts and insistent on showing you the truth of the situation. It’s impressive, though potentially dull. Still, for the beauty of the technical work, Snyder and David S. Goyer unfortunately drop the ball on the script.

In theory Man of Steel has a simple and tested premise, but the film nearly collapses under its own uncertainty. The film throws countless ideas against the wall, as if begging them to catch the audience’s interest. Half a film later, you’re likely to be reminded of a plot point only for it to be left dangling once again. The actors are capable but even they don’t seem to know what their primary motivation is among this web of plot threads. The story we get is big and iconic and powerful, but the details are muddled and constant. Everything is quiet and full of awe, yet we never get a moment to bask in wonder or even slow down and digest. It’s a movie that spends its time telling us the details of a story we’ve heard a hundred times, that can’t pick what its point is.

Even worse, the dialogue is frequently lacking. There are a few scenes, often those featuring Diane Lane, where we get a glimmer of connection, but for the most part, there’s just too much going on between an alien invasion flick and a superhero movie to get to know our characters. Banter and exposition during tense moments usually fall flat, coming off as trite, stupid, nonsensical, or some combination of the three. The prize probably goes to the movie’s dragon, who, after standing by while the villain explains his moral code, informs us that their lack of morality is an “evolutionary advantage” and, as we all know, “evolution always wins.”

What?

I can’t even begin to say how many things are wrong with that statement, and most of them are taught at the high school level.

Moments of potential character depth are revealed as one-liner set-ups, jokes are nearly extinct but always inappropriately timed, and important scenes are ruined by bizarre lines that the actors valiantly try to deliver with feeling.

Some of the script is good. The use of flashbacks makes this a notable and pleasant departure from most superhero origin stories and the structure of the film is solid, but weak dialogue and wonky pacing undermine every one of the filmmakers’ gems.

Worst of all, Man of Steel has real potential. Some of the ideas in the film are great, but get lost. The politics of old Krypton are actually quite fascinating, but, like most of Man of Steel’s most interesting details, they end up reminding me of old studio sets, well crafted but flat, with nothing backing them up. It’s a truly frustrating experience to keep seeing opportunities arise and watch them squandered.

Perhaps next time a dash of restraint will allow the excellent ingredients that make up Man of Steel to live up to their potential.

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