If your knowledge of Superman is limited, you won’t be a whole lot more familiar with the guy by the end of “Man of Steel,” which is closer to “War of the Worlds” than a DC Comics adaptation. As we’ve come to expect from director Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”), the film puts its emphasis on aesthetics, from its intensive elaboration on the demise of Superman’s home planet Krypton to a climax that results in more urban devastation than a Roland Emmerich flick. There are some spectacular sequences strewn throughout – some beautiful, in fact – but this aggressively toned reboot is too disjointed to find a suitable pace, spending too much time on exposition and too little on character development.
Indeed it was time for Superman, a.k.a. Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) to receive a treatment congruous with the woes of the new millennium (probably the reason that Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” didn’t find much of an audience despite being a pretty good movie), and writer David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) is certainly adept at establishing a foundation for these comic book characters in a modern society. While thankfully “Man of Steel” doesn’t attempt to capture the same sociopolitical realism and mood-dampening tone of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy (and though this does have some of Nolan’s DNA, it is cut from an entirely different cloth), it still tends to get lost in the mechanics of its ostensible purpose, which, at least in part, is to shed Superman of any hokeyness associated with earlier incarnations of the character.
Taking considerable time to detail Kal-El’s origin but neglecting to explore his personality as a thirty-something drifter much beyond his vaguely virtuous traits, “Man of Steel” feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story, which is meandering at times, bludgeoning at others. In the opening, we find Krypton in the middle of military coup spearheaded by the ruthless rogue General Zod (Michael Shannon) as the planet threatens to self-destruct from an unstable core. In an attempt to save their newborn son Kal-El, as well as the future of their race, father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) send him to Earth along with the DNA of potential Kryptonians-to-be.
The film jumps into Kal-El’s adulthood as a strong, silent type named Clark Kent, periodically flashing back to his adolescent years on a farm in Kansas, where he was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) to keep his powers a secret. “Man of Steel” shows serious promise with this non-linear approach, an efficient but creative measure to establish a contrast between a young boy contending with the trickiest puberty ever and a grown man on a quest to find his true identity.
But once Superman emerges, “Man of Steel” quickly shows its hand as just another overblown display of FX and erratic camera work, a great concept stifled by an overzealous execution. When the suit is initially revealed (its existence is explained by an A.I. hologram of Jor-El, who comes in handy quite often in this film), its only purpose seems to be for combating Zod and crew, who descend on Earth with intention of replicating Krypton with giant terraformers and the genetic codex embedded in Kal-El’s body. But the villains wouldn’t exist without Superman in the first place; we end up with less of a superhero movie than a story about aliens who happen to be duking it out on Earth.
Fortunately, some borderline incoherent scenes are tempered – at least a little – by a solid cast, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne as her boss Perry White. Michael Shannon’s Zod is a sight more intimidating than Terence Stamp’s portrayal of the supervillain in “Superman II”. The suit fits Cavill well, but his talents are screaming for more depth.
Vacillating between grandiose science fiction epic and spastic summer action flick, “Man of Steel” is an uneven, often frustrating film that goes so far afield that at some point during its final confrontation, I stopped caring about what was going on. By that same token, Snyder, whose “Watchmen” was a near masterpiece, and Goyer, whose script for the “Batman” reboot was sharp and thoughtful, deserve a lot of respect for attempting such a bold departure for the world’s most revered superhero. Perhaps it will all mesh in the sequel.