Film Review: Man of Steel

Zack Snyder’s overblown, overlong and overdone Superman reboot features a charming star turn by Henry Cavill but buries him inside a drearily violent, flashback-riddled story.

Under normal circumstances, hearing the great Michael Shannon growl “Release the world engine!” while wearing an H.R. Giger-styled bodysuit would be a sign of much enjoyable high camp to come. But sadly, like most of the DC Comics films, Man of Steel takes itself too seriously to have any of that kind of fun. Director Zack Snyder is too busy blowing up buildings (those skyscrapers’ glass windows sure do shatter real nice) and jacking up the body count to pay attention to such matters; he has a new franchise to establish.

The pressures of creating a new bankable universe are everywhere in this overanxious, David S. Goyer-scripted (with a story assist from producer Christopher Nolan) film that mashes up elements from the first two Christopher Reeve films. After the hyperactive opening on a doomed and civil war-racked Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launches his son Kal-El in a small escape pod towards Earth, Man of Steel forgoes the tedious business of creating Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a character and instead focuses on what he can do. The film similarly skimps on developing nearly every other character onscreen, even as one-note caricatures. By the time Lois Lane (Amy Adams, superb in that apple-cheeked way) or any of her fellow scribblers at the Daily Planet get into trouble, there’s no reason to be concerned about what happens to any of them. Just five minutes’ worth of J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson hyperventilating cigar-chewing from last decade’s Spider-Man franchise could have done wonders.

Cavill is a superb choice for the hero, mixing humility with a do-gooder’s iron spine. But the film jumps immediately to Clark as a young adult, wandering the land Wolverine-style because he doesn’t trust people to trust him when they see the superhuman feats this Kryptonian is capable of. His childhood is outsourced to a series of flashbacks which have the plus of an earthy Kevin Costner as Clark’s adopted father but the negative of cutting into the story’s already stuttering momentum.

Having skipped over showing Clark’s gradual realization of his powers, the filmmakers waste little time giving him a typically dull megalomaniac villain. As General Zod, Shannon’s job is to fly around the Earth with his fellow renegade Kryptonians and threaten to annihilate the place, and the entire human race, with some overambitious terraforming. The resulting battle between Clark and Zod’s minions results in a three-ring circus of rock-’em sock-’em destruction that would make Michael Bay proud. Snyder brings some stunning effects to bear on the vertiginous combat that serves the 3D well, particularly a rushing, hyperkinetic camera style that zips along with the Kryptonians as they smash each other through entire city block’s worth of buildings. The body count keeps getting jackhammered up, needlessly turning the film into a bombastically violent PG-13 spectacle.

Zod’s evil gang and Clark spend so much time fighting, in fact, that the humans become practically irrelevant. The fun of the final scene is not just that it sets up the inevitable sequel, or possible Justice League gang-of-heroes film, so shrewdly, but that it features nothing but actors talking. There’s not a lot of room for that kind of story craft in Snyder’s Man of Steel, a middling effort which features neither the character-based wit of the Avengers films or the Wagnerian grandeur of the Dark Knight trilogy.

The least they could have done was keep the old John Williams score.