Review: MAN OF STEEL: 'Ambitious' But 'Lacking'

Man of Steel review
Credit: Warner Bros.

Man of Steel
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane
Screenplay by David Goyer
Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Zack Snyder
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

There's a line in Man of Steel where Superman explains the symbol on his chest - "It's not an 'S.' On my world it means hope." After two and a half hours of screen time, however, I'd argue it stands for something else: "overwrought."

Or maybe, if you're being more generous, you could say "well-intentioned." Certainly "ambitious" would also apply. "Over-the-top." But there's one "S" word I wouldn't use to describe Man of Steel, no matter how much I wish it otherwise: "superb."

Which is ultimately a shame, as this movie starts off as powerfully as its Kryptonian namesake. Russell Crowe turns in the movie's best performance as Superman's biological father, Jor-El, as Snyder deftly introduces the doomed world of Krypton. It's a dazzling introduction, as this world evokes more than hints of Avatar's Pandora, with its winged steeds and rocky caverns - this beginning gives this movie its heart, a quality that it sorely lacks as it leaps ahead.

There's a question at the heart of Man of Steel, but the problem is, Snyder, Goyer and Nolan never really decide what they want that question to be. Is it about picking a world? A father? A direction? Free will? Is it about doing what's right versus what's expedient? Is it about finding trust, your place in society? This script offhandedly touches upon all of these questions, but answers few of them. As a result, even the soulful eyes of Henry Cavill feel hollow as we watch him drift, a 33-year-old with no job, no purpose, no sense of what his true heritage is.

People have used the word "joyless" to describe this Superman, his shoulders heavy with the powers of strength, invulnerability and heat vision. And there's a reason I haven't called Superman "Clark Kent" - even with Ma and Pa Kent, this movie is barely about the human, Clark side of his persona. The uneasy yet preternaturally calm Man of Steel owns this movie, for better or for worse. Yet Superman's discovery of a new alien ship - one with the history of his people, with Crowe returning as a hologram a la Marlon Brando in the hallowed Christopher Reeve films - feels rushed and arbitrary, shoving Superman into the rhinestone-esque tights way and discovering he can fly (which is less cool than the trailers made it look) before either he or the audience is ready for it.

But things have to move quickly in order for the plot to progress, even if it comes at the cost of hampering Cavill's potential as protagonist we can resonate with. There's definitely a sci-fi bent to this movie that's far more pronounced than it ever was in, say, Avengers, and it might be a little off-putting to those who didn't expect it. But the return of General Zod and his band of Kryptonian super-criminals has its own pseudo-scientific rules and explanations to get through, before Snyder subjects us to the biggest, loudest action sequences since Transformers 2.

Don't get me wrong, these sequences are among the most ambitious and visually epic scenes of the movie - there's a great beat, for example, of Kryptonian lieutenant Faora-Ul moving so quickly that she strobes in and out of our line of sight as she whales on the Army, and watching Superman and Zod fight across cities and up into a satellite is one of the moments where this movie lives up to its lofty hype - but the overall choreography is repetitive, and as a result, these scenes eventually drag. Add in what must be a gargantuan body count in terms of collateral damage (maybe it's not too late to go back to Christopher Nolan's gritty Gotham?), and it's hard to see Man of Steel as the story of a successful superhero.

The larger problem of Man of Steel is that it's not an action movie that lacks wit - it's an action movie that happens to have stilted dialogue and some truly flat performances. While his character ultimately helps motivate Superman in one of the most poignant and effective scenes in the movie, Kevin Costner portrays Pa Kent almost begrudgingly, as if someone threw him in front of a camera against his will; Diane Lane at least tries to put on some cheer as Ma Kent, who comes off as a flat caricature of what Midwestern mothers are like. The Daily Planet staffers are largely superfluous, with the exception of Amy Adams as Lois Lane, whose lack of chemistry with Cavill (and lack of charisma in the role in general) robs this movie of its beating emotional heart.

Finally, the overall story for this movie has more than its fair share of groanworthy moments. There's one beat where Superman rips open a space ship and is told "You can save Lois - you can save everyone!" And then... leaps out into space holding his arms out in the shape of a crucifix. The Daily Planet staffers also get a cheap bit of human drama (even as they try to lampshade what a bad job Superman actually did protecting them), and there are two huge ethical questions that this movie takes great pains to bring up... before failing to answer any of them satisfactorily or follow-up with the consequences in any meaningful way. These two scenes in particular are more effective than Kryptonite in murdering the Man of Steel, because afterwards, it's hard to find yourself rooting for him.

Maybe the "S" stands for "shame." And it is a shame - this is not a movie that fails because of lack of trying, but because of lack of understanding, because of lack of self-awareness. You can see just by the rubble in the streets and the battles in the air how much love and care Zack Snyder and company put into this film, but special effects do not an everlasting superhero story make. It's better than the listless, unambitious Superman Returns, but this movie also proves that the higher it reaches, the harder it falls, as well. There's a lack of focus, a lack of humanity and a lack of warmth to this cold Man of Steel, and that's something that all the superpowers in the world can't fix.

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