Making a Superman movie is hard. Maybe more than any other superhero, Superman has been engrained into our popular consciousness. From the long history of the comic, television series, and movies, Superman comes preloaded with ideals, preconceptions, and symbolism. Stumble in the cinematic delivery of that character, even a bit, and an audience will not be forgiving. I’m looking at you “Superman Returns”. So how does a studio approach yet another reboot of this legend? In the case of Man of Steel, Warner Brothers brought in the dream team of Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer. With the minds who brought us The Dark Knight and Watchmen behind this, it has to be a visual spectacle with a strong story right? Not so much.
Instead, Man of Steel combines the worst attributes of Nolan, Snyder, and Goyer. You take Goyer’s inability to write organic dialogue, Nolan’s propensity to over-explain every aspect of the plot, and Snyder’s insistence on extended scenes of computer generated action, and you end up with a drawn out. uneven, clunky bit of Superman lore that never quite finds its groove.
Take the extended opening on Krypton for instance. While it is impressive, and a bit fun, to see Krypton in this much detail this time around, it also runs as twenty to thirty minutes of fantastical plot points full of awkwardness and stiff dialogue. The conversation between two powerhouse actors, Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe, for example, could not feel much more staged and on the nose. If those two men can’t bring a line reading to life, your script probably has some fundamental issues.
That script, and Zack Snyder’s seeming general disinterest in it, is the fundamental flaw with Man of Steel. The plot is a bit too sprawling, attempting to jam too much world building into its running time instead of taking any time to develop any true relationships between characters. Characters care about each other because they say they do, the audience gets no real examples of the reasons behind these bonds. The basic filmmaking rule of “show don’t tell” is tossed away pretty quickly here. Alternatively, we get Nolan-esque explanation of Kryptonian technology and procedure, questionable lectures by Pa Kent(Kevin Costner), and a forced romance between Superman(Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane(Amy Adams).
With all that said, when the uneven and slow plodding plot reaches its climax it does reach some level of success. Snyder is at home in this part of moviemaking: the visual, computer generated frenetic set piece part of moviemaking. From the appearance of Superman in his suit, to the inevitable action, there are some real pieces of effective storytelling and nostalgia-tugging happening in the final third of the film. The problem, though, is that these successes wear thin pretty quickly. When you have a climax of our indestructible hero fighting our equally indestructible villains it ends up being an extended bit of punching and seemingly endless building destruction. The stakes never raise high enough for these sequences to have any real heft. The only real danger lies with humanity, and since the script never spent much time developing said humans, that danger seems slight and ineffective.
So while Man of Steel may work as a bit of mindless summer entertainment, it never really pays service to the lineage of the Superman legend. Instead we get a surface level exploration of computer generated visuals and an even shallower exploration of the characters within them.
Also, the term “World Engine”, sounds like it was named by someone who never took a science class ever.