Henry Cavill as Clark Kent / Superman
Amy Adams as Lois Lane
Michael Shannon as General Zod
Russell Crowe as Jor-El
Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent
Diane Lane as Martha Kent
Antje Traue as Faora
Laurence Fishburne as Perry White
Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy
Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van
Tahmoh Penikett as Henry Ackerdson
Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton
Harry Lennix as General Swanwick
Rebecca Buller as Jenny Olsen
Michael Kelly as Steve Lombard
Directed by Zack Snyder
Superman may be the most difficult of all the iconic superheroes to tell stories about. He is so powerful he defies the ability to fall into peril or crisis; he is so upstanding he defies the likelihood of meeting challenges with the darker sides of human nature. He defies all of the usual milestones storytellers use for creating conflict and drama.
Because of that, many writers are unsure of what to do with him — do they play him straight, risking making him humorless and dull, or do they mock how straight he is and risk making him a joke.
In theory, some sort of middle ground is the best way to go, but that is easier said than done and director Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”) has come down more or less on the straight side for “Man of Steel,” his reboot of the Superman franchise.
Unlike “Spider-Man,” it’s been long enough since Richard Donner first took the character on in the late ’70s that a reboot is not a bad idea. And it’s been said that Superman is so plot-breakingly powerful the only real story he has is his origin, his decision to become Superman in the first place.
The basic story should be familiar even to non-fans. With the destruction of his planet Krypton eminent, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) hastily builds a ship to send his only son (Henry Cavill) away, where he will eventually land in Kansas, planet Earth. There the unique atmosphere and solar radiation gives him power like no man has had before and with it a question he doesn’t even know how to begin answering; what to do with all that power?
It’s a good way to approach the character, but if Snyder’s film is anything to go by the answer mainly seems to be ‘beating up other superpeople and destroying lots of stuff.’ If that is the end all and be all of what you want from a superhero movie, then “Man of Steel” is going to be all that you’re looking for. If you want any more than that, particularly in the character and story department, you might be in for a little disappointment.
Not that it is completely absent in that regard. Screenwriter David Goyer (working from a story with his old “Dark Knight” co-hort Christopher Nolan) does seem to have actually thought long and hard about what growing up with Superman’s powers would be like, how that would affect the individual dealing with them, and how the world would react to discovering such a person living in their midst.
They’ve come up with several different answers to that, from Kal-El’s adopted Earth parents (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane) telling him to hide what he can do, to his own sense of moral questioning about his place in the world and whether or not he can actually refrain from having a simple human reaction to some normal human provocation.
But that sort of intelligent examination of character takes up a lot of time if done right, which would take away from time being devoted to superstrong people trying to bash each other’s brains in. We can’t have that, so character and thematic development have to be squashed to quick flash backs (devoted as much to showing young Kal/Clark using his super gifts as anything else) and short interludes to make certain this two-and-a-half hour movie never suffers from a lack of action.
The result, besides some often abbreviated character work (it’s unclear, for instance, why Perry White is even in the film), is an extremely uneven pace particularly the beginning which must rush through a quick and not entirely clear opening sequence on Krypton through Clark’s early childhood so that by the end of the first hour he has already grown up, traveled to the far north, met the ghost of his father, saved intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from an alien security robot and decided to become Superman. Complete with red boots.
And, oh yes, alerted his father’s age old enemy (Michael Shannon) to his whereabouts leaving the Earth with far more than just one alien to worry about.
Snyder has an excellent visual sense for action sequences and the unlimited power of Superman and unlimited budget of Warner Bros. create a great outlet for it — he has spent an in ordinate amount of time figuring out what these sort of action scenes would be like — the full scale of superman’s power is frequently on screen. And by frequently, I mean more than half of the running time. Fully the entire last half of the film is given over to extended battles between Superman and Zod (or his lieutenants).
Individually each is fantastic in and of itself, particularly the extended battle against Faora (Antje Trau) in Smallville, who actually makes a far better villain than Shannon who seems to bounce continually from being very flat and very over the top and never with the gravitas required.
But barely is there any breathing room from that sequence before the next is getting underway. In their desire to make sure the audience gets what they want out of “Man of Steel,” the filmmakers have ignored the most basic rules of story structure, skipping right over rising action in order to have a constant stream of climaxes, forgetting that without one the other doesn’t work. After a while, it’s just overwhelming and a little over done.
There honestly is a lot to like about “Man of Steel.” It looks great and is technically resplendent. Snyder has put together an excellent ensemble and when he bothers to use them, they shine. It’s just a little too rushed to make room for too many action scenes which we are ultimately emotionally dislocated from due to the lack of developed story. It’s not a bad start, but it could be better. On the optimistic side, there is a lot of room to get better and hopefully, with the start out of the way, the next try will be better yet.