I don’t know if I’d call it inspiration, influence or a not-so-clandestine effort to capture audience attention, but the weight of producer Christopher Nolan looms over Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel in many ways. Working as producer and given a story credit, the man that brought us Batman Begins and the entirety of The Dark Knight franchise oversees a similar journey of self as another superhero sets out on a path to serve the world he’s struggling to feel part of. Just as Bruce Wayne’s father guided him from beyond the grave (albeit in the form of an aging butler), so is the same for Kal-El (Henry Cavill), the last naturally born son of Krypton, sent to Earth as a newborn by his mother and father (Ayelet Zurer and Russell Crowe) so he could live on, following the destruction of his home planet.
The Earth’s sun gives his alien body strength and powers beyond those of a normal human being and at a young age his Earth father (Kevin Costner) suggests he keep these powers secret, worried the world isn’t ready for someone like him. He does so for 33 years, living like a nomad, picking up jobs here and there along the way. However, his identity will only remain secret for so long. A Kryptonian outcast by the name of General Zod (Michael Shannon) has finally tracked Kal down in hope of once again bringing rise to his people, and he isn’t worried about eradicating the human race in the process.
There’s an attempt at grounding the Man of Steel mythology in reality in whatever way possible, but where that was easy for Nolan’s Batman, given Bruce Wayne is just a 1-percenter with his own gadget factory and no special powers, it’s a little different when your central figure is an alien from another world whose wealth is measured in special powers, including X-ray vision, superhuman strength, eyes that can burn through metal and, oh yeah, he can fly.
In essence, Man of Steel plays like a deadly serious version of a Marvel movie and the comparisons don’t end there. I was reminded of the narrative structure from Batman Begins, the big battle between superhuman figures in a small town a la Thor, the massive big city finale akin to The Avengers, Avatar-esque flying creatures, catchphrases from Inception (“take a leap of faith”) and the numerous similarities to the Matrix trilogy. From a filmmaking perspective I can see why virtually every decision was made, but I can’t help the fact that each and every one of them played like borrowed plot points and story details, even if some of those details were borrowed from the original Superman in the first place.
For as familiar as much of it felt, you can also see how hard they were trying to not be like any of the previous Superman films, or at least hoping to bring not only a grander size and scope, but a more grounded human story.
Beyond the opening 15 minutes (give or take), which take place entirely on Krypton, the majority of Kal-El’s Earthly back-story is handled via flashbacks, which I normally loathe, but here they worked to the film’s advantage, never feeling like we were treading old territory and instead giving us the information necessary to get to know Kal-El’s (or Clark as he’s referred to on Earth) struggles.
The longer he’s on Earth the more he feels like an alien and the film plays heavily on this, though never abandoning his Earthly ties, specifically in a fantastic scene where he’s asked to make a major sacrifice in order to protect his superhuman abilities. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best scenes Snyder has ever directed, displaying the level of subtlety he’s always seemed to hope to achieve, though frequently screwing it up with too much ill-fitting music or too much slow motion.
For that matter, Snyder (Sucker Punch) tones it down quite a bit with Man of Steel. He gets to let loose in the film’s final 45 minutes, which amounts to one big action set piece after another following the opening 100 minutes, which play much slower and about 20 minutes too long. But, in all, he freed himself of the impulse to over-stylize each scene, allowing the story to play a larger role.
Visually speaking it’s impressive, but it’s quite dark, which may be a result of the needless 3D I saw it in, but I can only speak for what I saw. While many may tout the overall destruction that takes place during the several superhuman battles we see, Man of Steel is best when it’s at its quietest. My favorite visual move comes as Kal-El reveals himself to the humans, floating about 20 feet in the air above the desert floor as an army looks on. It’s one of the many God-like metaphors in the film, but thankfully not as obvious as the Christ-like pose we see later on, which has been previewed in the film’s multitude of trailers.
It’s hard to decide if Henry Cavill in the lead role is the problem or if the script (written by David S. Goyer) ultimately fails him. His portrayal of Kal-El is quiet and reserved with about as much confidence in himself as doubt. This works, and it’s probably why the sacrificial scene I mentioned earlier works so well, but in the end it proves difficult to accept him as the man the final moments of the film want us to believe he’s become.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane is simply the latest heroine in heels we’ve seen, the best comparison being to Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man films, but like the movie, she doesn’t play the character for fun as much as she plays her for realism. It works, but the relationship aspects between Lois and Clark all seem forced into the story as Lois is wedged into several scenes.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Michael Shannon as Zod and you really aren’t getting anything unexpected here. Shannon knows how to play mean and he plays it to the hilt here, but his ranting and raving gets a little tiresome. The more entertaining villain is his right hand woman, Faora, played by Antje Trau, whose every appearance is worth it. She isn’t as garrulous as Zod, which gives her words more weight. Zod gets up on his soapbox and it gets to a point you want someone in the audience to say, “Would someone turn this guy’s mic off!” A great twist ending would have been to reveal Faora as the one pulling the strings and having her blast Zod during one of his many diatribes.
I’m sure Hans Zimmer will earn his share of praise from the fans, but the score here is merely acceptable, especially when compared to his more impactful work from not only The Dark Knight franchise and Inception, but his many films with Ridley Scott and Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code.
Overall, Man of Steel is entertaining even though it runs about 25-30 minutes too long. It feels a lot like a film trying really hard not to fail more than trying really hard to work. With nearly 75 percent of it’s 143-minute running time used to set the character up, I’m curious to see where they take the story in the future as I think the one thing this film manages to do is convince us a Superman film can be good, but can they make one that’s truly great?