“Man Of Steel” (2013). At the time of this writing, I am staring at a comic book. Featured on its cover is a familiar figure: big, broad shoulders, dark hair cut short but wild and fluid, strings of black spelling snakes across a determined brow, costumed in blue and yellow and red. The figure is tearing something metallic and presumably evil into shatters, his teeth bared, fists clenched. This is Superman. This is Superman as most people in this world know him: striking an iconic pose, heroic and ever-present. Assured. In Zack Snyder’s brawny interpretation of the character, “Man Of Steel”, Superman is presented as such. The pummeling that was denied in “Superman Returns” is front and center here, as we bear witness to Kal-El of Krypton: Brawler. And like an extravagant splash page or a grandiose cover to a comic book, what you immediately see in this film is innately what you get: a Superman brutally trouncing his way to acceptance (or victory. Y’know. Whatever). Tragically, that’s the least of this film’s problems.
Written by David S. Goyer (based on a story crafted by Goyer and Christopher Nolan), “Man Of Steel” exists to contemporize Superman in such a bloated way that only a garishly thick and visually blunt director like Zack Snyder could direct it. The imagery is at once familiar and iconic, and is granted a poetry so aggressively majestic, that when it comes time to address plot, intention, and story, Goyer’s dialogue can only attempt a stuttering “durr” of expository garbage. It’s probably no wonder that Henry Cavill’s Superman (or just Kal-El maybe, as the name “Superman” is said aloud only once, and in the most embarrassingly stupid manner possible) has little more to do than clench his jaw and furrow his brow and emote stoicism, without ever accomplishing the ability to inspire. Superman and Lois Lane have historically shared a chemistry that could shame Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but instead Cavill and Amy Adams (here sporting her natural, but borderline blasphemous ginger locks) are instead thrust into a set of scenarios where the only viable end scenario would be obvious to anyone who has ever had a mutual crush on a co-worker. By film’s end, their romance isn’t earned, it’s obligatory.
Mirroring the gusto of Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie”, “Man Of Steel”’s casting is at once inspired and disastrous: for every Kevin Costner (understated and heartbreaking which, um, wow), there is a hammy and downright dotty Diane Lane (sporting liver spots and gray streaks instead of grace and wisdom). For every Russell Crowe (as an impressively superheroic and haunted Jor-El), we’re at the mercy of Michael Shannon (in the film’s most disappointing performance, the man looks at times that he is in wayyy over his head). As General Zod, Shannon plays the villain with taught mania at so steadily a clip that when he gives with the rationale, it reads as ravings instead of impassioned nationalism. That Kal-El would be torn at all battling against his estranged kin is barely an afterthought, and Zod amounts to nothing more than something Superman can punch really fucking hard. And punch hard they do, to the tune of 40 – plus minutes of numbing apocalypse in the heart of Metropolis, a battle more for show than for resonance. Yes, it’s a summer movie after all, and a superhero flick to boot, BUT: when we’re asked to believe a man can fly, a film must accomplish more than present a flying man, a film must make us feel that we can fly with him.