'Man of Steel' and the Smothering of Superman

In some ways, the most important moment of Man of Steel comes when the inherent silliness of Superman — the cape, the flying, the square-jawed earnestness — is referenced but then tossed away in favor of shaky-cam seriousness and half-baked attempts at creating a sense of realism.

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Note: I tried to avoid plot particulars, but standard spoiler warning applies.

There's a moment in Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder's new take on the Superman origin story, when Amy Adams, playing a dogged Lois Lane, almost calls our hero Superman, but she's interrupted by an intercom announcement. The name is said, as something of a joke, later in the film, but the brief bit with Lois is more significant. In some ways, it's the most important moment in the movie, when the inherent silliness of Superman — the cape, the flying, the square-jawed earnestness — is referenced but then tossed away in favor of shaky-cam seriousness and half-baked attempts at creating a sense of realism. It's neatly representative of the movie's myriad failures, Snyder and his screenwriter David S. Goyer smothering a fantastical yarn in lumpy, ill-applied globs of somberness and portent. What hath ye wrought, Christopher Nolan?

I mention Nolan because he's a producer on the movie and gets a story credit, but in a more abstract sense because Man of Steel is Snyder's attempt to do for Superman exactly what Nolan did for Batman. To varying degrees of success, Nolan, in his Dark Knight trilogy, imbued the Caped Crusader and his campaign against Gotham's evils with a slickness, a maturity that made everything feel important. The hoary themes of civic responsibility and the darkness of all men seemed, in fleeting moments, urgent and renewed. Of course the movies tended to disintegrate once you actually thought about them for a little while, but for those two and a half hours when you were in the theater, man did it feel like you were watching something big, something more significant than a comic book caper. And so, perhaps with a mind toward creating a similarly themed Justice League franchise down the line, that same aesthetic was applied to Superman. But it really doesn't work, for two simple reasons.

The first is that Zack Snyder is not Christopher Nolan. Though he showed great promise with the sly, jittery Dawn of the Dead, his subsequent efforts have all been inarticulate misfires. Sure 300 was a big eye-popping hit, but it's also a pretty tasteless, thick-headed film. Watchmen had great potential given its excellent source material, but in Snyder's hands it skipped and juddered atonally to a wildly unsatisfying climax. And, look, the less said about the gruesome and ungainly Sucker Punch the better. Maybe there is a Superman movie in some alternate universe that Zack Snyder would be the right man for, but not this Nolanized version, with all its dour humorlessness and desaturated drear. He and cinematographer Amir Mokri do make some gorgeous pictures together — particularly the wandering and lyrical flashbacks to Clark Kent's earlier years, and the thundering, lonely destruction of distant Krypton — but there's no character or depth of feeling giving spirit to all the grandeur. We barely get to know Clark/Superman, and he's the title character of the damn film. So it's an emotionally inert movie when it's trying to grab at our hearts, and when it's going for the gut with all its banging and smashing, it's senseless in the worst, uh, sense of the word. The final hyper-destructive action sequence involves the leveling of what looks to be an entire city — it could be a bracing and even terrifying sequence. But instead it's repetitive and thus meaningless, Supe and his enemy careening around like flies trying to find the window. Snyder spends so much time grasping for profundity, trying to create a towering mood, that he doesn't actually tell us a story.

The other reason this effort falls short is that, well, the Nolan treatment just doesn't really work for Superman. We are, after all, talking about a mystical alien from a faraway planet full of (in Snyder's version, anyway) monsters and spaceships that look like beetles and crab claws. An alien who is made super strong by our young sun's radiation, who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes and see through people's clothes and skin and into their organs. A rich guy who lives in a cave and makes wacky gadgets is one thing, he can sorta feasibly live in a world we recognize, but Superman? I'm afraid it just can't be done. And more importantly, it shouldn't be done. What's wrong with Superman being fun, having fun, existing in a world where, sure, he can go change in a phone booth and become unrecognizable when he puts on glasses? I've no doubt that Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan really are fans of Superman, but they sure do seem to find the world he once existed in to be pretty stupid. Hence the moment with Lois Lane, this little winking joke about how ridiculous a world in which people actually called someone Superman would be. They want it both ways — the high-flying adventure and the gritty real-world tone — and thus fail at both. We laugh, and not in the good way, at the more traditional Super moments, and roll our eyes when the movie goes for gravitas. Oh how I wish they'd gotten someone wittier, more whimsical to take a stab at Superman. Alfonso Cuarón's Man of Steel. Now that I would see.

But instead we've got this film, where Superman's superness is alternately muted for stylistic effect and used as a logical loophole. In Man of Steel, Clark and friends are squaring off against General Zod, a principled warrior from Krypton with some unpleasant plans for Earth. He shows up with his troupe of equally angry Kryptonians and they do battle with Superman in fancy suits that make them as strong as our hero. (But doesn't the sun make Superman strong? Wouldn't it then make the other Kryptonians strong? I'm not following.) So we get lots of thrashing, hard-punching action scenes, but they all feel pretty pointless. I mean, the minute that someone is as strong as Superman, who really cares? It's just two people fighting. I guess that's an inherent problem of Superman — what enemy do you get for the boy who has everything? Snyder addresses that question lazily, and with little attention to sense-making. The rules of the world change at random, making both everything and nothing possible. Fitting that the climax of the film involves a black hole.

As our hero, Henry Cavill looks like, well, a freaking god. (An Immortal?) But I'm afraid that on the rare occasion that he's required to do anything more than fix his gaze on the horizon, he's completely flat, his line delivery monotone and featureless. It's possible he was directed to speak like the vocal equivalent of waiting room wall color, but I have my suspicions about his abilities as an actor. He leaves exactly no impression beyond his almost too-chiseled good looks, though (dis)credit for that must also be given to the writing and directing, which throws us into the story without ever really introducing us to our hero. Amy Adams is a fine, sprightly Lois Lane, though the texture of her relationship with Clark suffers and gets lost as the film skips and jumps awkwardly in pacing and tone. As for our villain, it's not Michael Shannon's fault that Zod is rather one-note, but I suppose I was hoping for a little more odd nuance from this most prickly and surprising of actors. Would that a little of the comic glimmer that ran through his excellently drawn Premium Rush villain appeared here.

There is one hero in Man of Steel who almost saves the day. The best part of Nolan's involvement in the film is that he brought in his constant collaborator Hans Zimmer to write the score, and it is a soaring, rousing wonder. Zimmer manages to capture both the otherworldliness and utter Americanness of Superman with his blaring horns and marching drums, a thrilling, seat-rattling call to genuine action that I wish Snyder had heeded. Instead he's left us this dull and unsatisfying mass, a Superman movie that neither reinvents nor reinvigorates America's oldest comic book hero. Instead, he's just had his wings clipped.

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