Conventional industry wisdom (or, if not wisdom, then sustained chatter and idle speculation) suggests there’s a lot riding on Man of Steel, the latest cinematic iteration of Krypton’s favorite son. For the folks at DC Comics (now DC Entertainment, part of Warner Bros. and Time-Warner), it must be galling to watch their longtime competitor, Marvel Comics (now Marvel Worldwide and owned by Disney) launch franchise after franchise into the stratosphere while, with the exception of a certain bat-themed vigilante, their own stable of heroes seems unable to get off the ground. Even putting aside the billion-dollar Whedon-helmed Avengers, Marvel just appears to be getting stronger, with Iron Man 3, powered by the Incredible Downey Jr. Man, about to surpass the global box office of its two predecessors combined. Though it remains to be seen how well the second Thor and Captain America films will fare, it can’t be denied that Marvel is well into the race while DC is tinkering with the engine in pit row.
While this failure to launch must be frustrating for the execs at Time-Warner, it’s equally so for fans of the DC universe who want to see the Justice League with all its iconic (Supes, Bats, Flash, Wonder Woman) and not so iconic (Aquaman!) characters in action on the Big Screen. Nolan’s Dark Knight films notwithstanding—look to Batman for exceptions, not rules—the last two DC ventures were pretty unimpressive. Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns sported an overly meditative first act hobbled by a derivative, boring third act, and 2011’s Green Lantern proved that crappy storytelling is a bigger threat to the emerald knight than any amount of yellow.
So there was plenty of reason to anticipate and root for the Man of Steel as a fresh start both for the character and the universe.
If only this fresh start didn’t stink so much.
Oh, Man of Steel begins well enough. Director Zack Snyder brings his signature richness of design to Krypton, treating its final days like the end of a rollickin’ space opera upon which the viewers have stumbled. As Jor-El, Space Ranger, Russell Crowe is less spindly scientist (or bloated Brando head) than the character has ever been, and the final days of Krypton allow Michael Shannon to get a welcomed early start on chewing up the scenery as General Zod. (One could quibble that, for a member of the Scientist caste, Jor-El sure wears a lot of merchandisable battle armor and rides a cool, merchandisable dragonfly lizard, but this is the least boring Krypton has ever been.)
Once young Kal-El reaches Earth, action grinds to a halt, as Snyder breaks apart the classic “growing up supah!” montage, inserting it instead throughout the next lifetime—I mean, hour or so—of the film, which switches back and forth from childhood to present day and the now grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). There are a couple of nice superpowered ninja saves—a bus full of children here, an oil rig crew there—but mainly, the scenes consist of Clark looking angsty, Ma Kent (Diane Lane) giving comfort and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) giving increasingly dubious “advice” that culminates in a nice father-son assisted suicide.
Once Zod and crew reach Earth, the action picks up, and in the barrage of sequences that follows, the finally caped and costumed Superman ignores the safety of innocent bystanders in practically every encounter. (“Go inside,” he tells townsfolk before destroying every structure in an eight-block radius with cars, trains and superhuman cannonballs. Maybe he learns to draw the villains away from population centers later in his career?) Meanwhile, throughout both the boring and action-packed moments, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is everywhere, finding the Snyderian version of the Fortress of Solitude, tracking down an alien’s secret identity and teaming up with ghost-Jor-El (by then demoted from Space Ranger to Kryptonian GPS/plot expositor) for the first of two Lois ex machina moments. It was almost as if every piece of dialogue needed to be delivered by a principal (Adams if possible).
For some viewers, especially those unburdened by any great knowledge or appreciation of Superman in particular or comic books in general, there’s another story being told amidst the wreckage of pacing and sense. To them, Man of Steel may serve as a potent retelling of that original superhero, Jesus. It’s certainly meant to. Snyder (along with writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan) deserves some sort of merit badge of obviousness for taking a tale already high in Messianic resonance—a distant being sends his only son to Earth to protect and save those he is both of and beyond—and cranking up the Passion. Whereas Singer was content, in Superman Returns, with an occasional echo or posture evoking Jesus Christ, Superman, the Man of Steel director lashes the viewer relentlessly with New Testament flava. Snyder is like that pothead friend who, in the midst of a 24-hour toke-a-thon discovers, “Dude, blueberries are blue!” One regrettable scene two-thirds through the film in which a still un-spandexed Clark Kent agonizes over how to respond to a Zod ultimatum is so steadfast in its inclusion of a stained glass depiction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that I half expected the camera to just pan over to the image, completely excluding Clark’s head (and whatever he was saying) in favor of a hushed yet resonant voiceover solemnly intoning, “Because he’s totally like Jesus.”
Sigh. Until Man of Steel, I had enjoyed Zack Snyder’s films—even the maligned Sucker Punch—while not being sure how good of a storyteller he actually was. In his earlier films, he had proven himself a master of the serial comic book “tableaux-talky”—the composing of a succession of scenes in such a way that a story is eventually conveyed. But all the while, the question remained: how well would he be able to tell a story that was not already nailed down by panels and pages (as with 300 and Watchmen) or inoculated from traditional narrative demands through copious use of dreamscapes (Sucker Punch)? There hasn’t been such a definitive answer to a nagging question of directorial chops since The Last Airbender.
If heavy-handed allegory makes Man of Steel worth the price of admission for some, that’s great. If others have become so inured to bombast, sloppy plotting and the substitution of cliché for character in sci-fi blockbusters that they enjoy Snyder’s game attempt at the Superman tale, all the better. However, for those looking for a Superman tale well-told, or signs that the DC Comics universe may finally be ready to give Marvel a run for its money in the multiplexes—there’s nothing to see here.