This umpteenth retelling of the Superman story had a whole lot going for it. Directed by Zack Snyder (one of my favourite directors, despite his penchant for stylish and flashy visuals over dramatic substance) and written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (two of the men behind the highly successfully and recently concluded Batman revamp), Man of Steel was right up my alley. That’s a good thing, since I (like many others) thought that 2006’s Superman Returns was an epic waste of film. British actor, Henry Cavill was pretty well-cast in the lead role (especially after practicing his epic heroism in 2011’s Immortals). It didn’t even matter that he wasn’t an American, since this time around the story was going to focus on the alien origins of Kal-El rather than the quasi-American patriotism of Superman. When the opening scenes depicted a frenzied Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe, adopting a semi-British accent rather than his natural Australian) trying to help protect his wife and newborn super-baby from the forces of General Zod (played by Michael Shannon from TV’s Boardwalk Empire) who are taking over the planet, which is in its death throes. This version of Krypton is very cold and metallic (as if everything were made of lead) and a stark contrast to the verdant fields of Kansas, where the baby Kal-El ends up. There’s always a bit of narrative tension between focusing on Superman’s human/American upbringing over his alien heritage since he is such a symbol of the human spirit of heroism. Most movies touch on the latter very lightly, but not this one. Unfortunately, that was one of the things that troubled me about this film. After the prologue scenes on Krypton, the story moved slowly, and it wasn’t clear what the plot was going to be. Ultimately the story was about defeating an alien invasion when Zod rediscovered Kal-El’s location, but so much of the buildup of Clark learning to control his powers and become a hero were somewhat wasted (and it was actually kind of dull).
This time around, all the stuff about Clark’s childhood and adolescence was relayed through flashbacks of incidents when Clark saved people or resisted using his powers even when being bullied. The combination of memories was kind of strange because they put all the emphasis on how Clark was hiding his true self and not letting others see his full, superhuman potential. Pa Kent (played by Kevin Costner) even put his own life at risk in order to teach Clark to protect his own secret. This kind of paranoia is a bit off-putting in a story that is supposed to lead to his becoming a world-saving icon of heroism and justice. Later on when Ma Kent (played by Diane Lane) talks to Clark about how his adopted parents both believed that he was destined for something great (which I guess was his saving the world from Zod) but the hype of her words overlook the fact that the only reason the planet was in danger to begin with was because Kal-El was there. Frankly, that’s the kind of weak story-telling that plagued this movie. It was as if the writers were so busy trying to reshuffle and reinvent the Superman legend that they didn’t take the time to write an interesting and cohesive story in its own right.
The visuals were quite spectacular (as you might expect) and there was a whole lot of buildings being smashed and rubble flying every which way. I’m particularly glad that they perfected the CGI technique of making a man fly (I’m guessing it’s secretly the mission of every Superman movie to improve on that particular art form). Unfortunately, I found it just too much with the battle scenes. During the ninth or tenth tussle, as Superman was hurling Zod through another building, I realized that while the more recent superhero stories try to make things more realistic (that’s why the military always tend to show up, even though all they do is get in the way), a battle like that was probably as damaging as fifty 9/11s. Talk about overkill! It feels like the filmmakers just don’t know how to resolve these comic-book battles, so they just keep piling on the boom until the audience gets tired. In this case, not only did we get a lot of explosions and destruction, the bad guys were defeated by an extremely contrived story element — Jor-El’s holographic image tells Lois how to stop them (Isn’t it nice when the dad includes the girlfriend in his plans?).
The film got better as it reached its climax (contrivances aside) but it definitely lacked the sophistication of a Dark Knight film. Plenty of the writing was weak, and a few of the characterizations as well (I’m looking at you Amy Adams as Lois Lane) lacked the kind of spark that they traditionally possess. All in all, this was another disappointingly stale refreshing of a classic superhero story. Let’s hope they do it better when they remake Superman in another 7 years. (3.5 out of 5)