When Christopher Nolan signed on to “godfather” the newest incarnation of Superman, I was jacked. Like many others, I loved what he did with Batman; the way he grounded the character in a world that looked like ours (it wasn’t the gothic cartoon of Tim Burton or the technicolor disco of Joel Schumacher) but was able to reconceptualize characters we were familiar with, particularly the villains. An extravagant criminal in clown makeup would be a little difficult to completely accept in this new Gotham. But a homicidal punk anarchist with a death wish and a flare for the dramatic fits right into the new Gotham and is not inconceivable in our world, unfortunately. Nolan’s vision of a society on the verge of total chaos was a perfect fit for a tortured hero with a lot of money who did all of his best work in a cave.
But what fits for one superhero won’t necessarily fit for another, and that’s the case with Man of Steel. Superman isn’t a particularly dark character; he’s the ultimate boy scout. He doesn’t hide in the shadows like a bat. He lives in the open, grew up on a farm in middle America. His heroic persona isn’t black and grey, it’s red, white and blue.
But that doesn’t stop Nolan, writer David S. Goyer, and director Zach Snyder from trying their hardest to fit their dark vision onto Superman’s bright universe. And some of their ideas work. Highlighting young Clark Kent’s inability to control his x-ray vision and the resulting outbursts make him an outcast in school. There are a couple of questions I had (He was in middle school during the outburst shown in the movie. Wouldn’t he have adjusted to this by now, or did it spring on him all of a sudden? Is this a result of the onset of puberty?) and I usually don’t harp on details like that if the movie is working like it should. But the movie lost me very early.
Man of Steel opens on Krypton, which in this movie is so visually unappealing. All of the designs, from the vehicles to the interiors to the costumes, look like the designs of the ships that housed the hostile life form in the Alien movies and Prometheus; lots of greys and browns and all resembling insects and body parts. If General Zod was the head of Krypton’s military, and Jor-El was its leading scientist, then HR Giger must have been its leading architect.
And right away, the storytelling seems jagged and impatient, with a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards that only call attention to themselves by how they disrupt the flow of the movie. Some of this I blame on David S. Goyer, who wrote the script based on a story by him and Nolan. There isn’t any reason to believe the movie benefited from having the story told this way.
But a good part of the blame falls on the director, Zach Snyder. And even though Nolan served as the producer of Man of Steel, he’s not telling the story like he did in his Dark Knight trilogy, and the disparity becomes more apparent as the movie progresses.
Christopher Nolan is such a cerebral storyteller. Only someone who is so left-brained could have conceived cinematic puzzles like Memento, his debut film, and Inception. There is great care given to the way things work, and that sort of reserve works well when given the task of directing the Dark Knight movies; he’s not interested as much in thrills and chills as he is in cause and effect.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Zack Snyder fan. His remake of Dawn of the Dead was better than it had any right to be. And I liked what he did with Watchmen, which was visually stunning but lacked the truly out there vision of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel (this was more the result of some changes made in the third act. Perhaps only a David Fincher would’ve had the influence to keep the original gonzo ending of the book and kept the unsettling tone as well.)
But the two movies that present what Snyder has to offer as a filmmaker are 300, his best movie, and Sucker Punch, his worst. Both movies are about pure sensation. Neither has any real interest in plot or character, they just want to show your something really cool. These movies are like video games, with battle scenes followed by a fight with a big boss, followed by bigger battles and bigger bosses.
So even though Goyer tries to add pathos to Clark Kent’s back story, Snyder doesn’t care! He just wants to start knocking down buildings and blowing stuff up! And one of the set pieces, a fight sequence set in downtown Smallville (it has a 7 Eleven and a Sears and an IHOP, so I assume it’s the business district) is awesome! It’s one of the few times in Man of Steel that Snyder feels completely involved in what’s happening. The sequence involves Superman (Henry Cavill, who looks the part but isn’t given much to do), General Zod (a disappointing performance from Michael Shannon, who only presents the scary intensity he’s known for towards the end of the movie) and his lieutenant, Faora-Ul (played by Antje Traue, who I’ve never heard of, but she totally kicks ass and almost steals the movie) throwing each other into buildings, but the scene is so alive! Snyder gets to show off all of his visual tricks (though, thankfully, none of his gratuitous slow motion.)
Unfortunately, then movie just devolves into nothing but people throwing each other into big buildings for the next thirty minutes. And the epic showdown, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, is nothing but an overblown fist fight!
In the midst of all this, honorable mention must be made to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Ma and Pa Kent. They are wonderful. They play everybody’s idea of middle American, salt-of-the-earth types, but they bring such empathy and grace to their roles. Whenever they’re on screen, you always feel the confusion and the absolute love they have for this child whose gifts they can’t fully comprehend. They just hope, for what turns about to be the greater good on a planetary scale, they can guide this special child they found in a field down the right path. It’s what any parent wants from any child, all of whom are special. They’re the parents everybody wished they had. It’s too bad the movie didn’t truncate the Krypton sequence in favor of showing more of the Kents of Smallville.
One of the most precious things we have is our ability to connect with other people. The Richard Donner-directed Superman knew this (with its bright colors and screwball banter, that movie has more in common with the current Marvel Studios mold than the Nolan/DC Comics template.) In Donner’s movie, Superman loved the Kents and they loved him. Superman loved Lois Lane and she loved him. This is why he protects our planet. People love and are worth saving.
In Man of Steel, Superman’s love of the Kents isn’t as fully realized as it could’ve been, and his relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows no chemistry whatsoever. Man of Steel has no interest in people; everybody is an island. You may be able to get away with that in Gotham. But not here.Follow @filmbyfelix