If casting were all it took to make a successful movie, Man of Steel would be a slam-dunk.
Starting with the talented, finely-chiseled Henry Cavill, the key roles in the
newest Superman film are cleverly filled. But writers David S. Goyer and
Christopher Nolan, who did such a good job reinventing an origin story in Batman Begins, haven’t fared as well
this time around. Or perhaps it’s director Zack Snyder who decided to turn the
film into a giant video-game-like demolition derby. This may please ardent fans
of the Transformers movies, but it
left me—a lifelong Superman fan—disappointed.
It’s especially discouraging because the movie starts out so well. The filmmakers decided to throw us a curve, and distinguish themselves from other Superman sagas, by telling the story in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit jarring at first but it plays fairly well, interspersing scenes of Krypton’s final days (featuring a stoic Russell Crowe as Superman’s father, Jor-El) with snapshots of young Kal-El’s rocky transition into a “normal” earthling. Kevin Costner is a perfect choice to embody the all-American qualities of Pa Kent. He offers meaningful advice to his son, who’s conflicted about harnessing or suppressing his super-powers. Amy Adams is a pleasingly plucky Lois Lane, who stumbles onto the secret of this superhuman shadow-figure and tries to track down his identity.
Then there’s Michael Shannon as General Zod, who locks horns with Jor-El on Krypton and makes himself Kal-El’s sworn enemy on Earth. Shannon is a refreshing villain because he’s not organically evil; we understand what drives Zod toward his single-minded goal of conquering humanity. What’s more, he’s not British. (No offense intended, but an American bad-guy is a genuine novelty nowadays.)
So what goes wrong? Man of Steel drags on much longer than it needs to (a familiar trait in Goyer and Nolan’s work) and loses sight of its characters’ journey as the focal point of the story. The latter half of the film is overwhelmed by destruction—of cities, towns, property, and people. A climactic story point involving a superhuman challenge to set the world right is so abstract and convoluted that it’s hard to know what we’re rooting for.
Clark Kent’s relationship with Lois Lane is barely developed here; I suspect they’re holding back for the inevitable sequel. Laurence Fishburne has little to do as Perry White, as we don’t spend much time at the Daily Planet. Diane Lane suffers well enough as Ma Kent, but she too has an essentially thankless role.
Henry Cavill is an extremely relatable Kal-El/Superman/Clark Kent, and provides many of the film’s best moments. This being an origin story, however, we don’t get to see him at work as a reporter; that, too, will have to wait for the next movie. He’s too busy tearing up entire city blocks in direct combat with General Zod and his allies. (A small-town iHop restaurant is even trashed in the process.)
I’d call Man of Steel half a good movie, which is better than an outright dud. In this age of preordained “franchises” and marketing-driven blockbusters, that may not matter, as the movie goes on to earn big bucks around the world. But it’s a crime that such a great character isn’t better showcased in this overlong, overblown epic.