Man of Steel is a decent action flick.
There's only one problem. Man of Steel is not an action flick. Man of Steel is a Superman flick. Man of Steel is a superhero flick. Man of Steel is a film that's supposed to radiate the hope that the "S" on Superman's chest is supposed to symbolize. While I'd never fancy myself a true purist, Man of Steel is not supposed to be Transformers in a cape.
It's not. It's really not.
It's also not supposed to be The Dark Knight, though the dialogue heavy and over-plotted screenplay from Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer might have you thinking otherwise. This is Superman not Batman, though between Nolan and Goyer's gothic sensibilities and Zack Snyder's inability to avoid bludgeoning nearly everything in sight the film feels like the orphaned child of The Dark Night probably sent down from Krypton and into the Batcave.
There were moments in Man of Steel when we got a glimpse into the film this could have been and, perhaps, the film and inevitable sequel that Zack Snyder is setting up. The problem is that for every moment of spark and potential, Man of Steel has several other moments that are completely and utterly disappointing. I admire Snyder's attempt to move away from the traditional Superman vibe, a vibe that can be called folksy or even cheesy but a vibe helps manifest the awe, wonder and innocence that has made Superman one of the most beloved of the superheroes. Unfortunately, Snyder completely strips Superman of pretty much everything that makes him beloved in favor of turning him into simply another hardcore action hero with ridiculously solid six-pack abs and abilities that far transcend those of humans.
This superman is incredibly super, but he's remarkably devoid of true heroics in Man of Steel.
The film opens rather refreshingly with a considerable amount of time spent on Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have correctly predicted that their planet is about to end and have decided to send their newborn son into the universe in the hope that he can carry the future of Krypton into another land. General Zod (Michael Shannon), on the other hand, is a rebellious military commander who hasn't quite given up on Krypton and stages a coup that costs Jor-El his life and sets the stage for the remainder of the film once he is banished. Of course, we all know that Kal-El, as Superman was born, lands on earth and is taken in by the Kents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) and becomes Clark Kent. Man of Steel spends only fleeting moments in Clark Kent's childhood, mostly as a way to create a picture of Kent's inner turmoil as he increasingly realizes his gifts and struggles to learn how to use them. As a young adult, Kent (Henry Cavill) is mostly a misguided wanderer and occasional do-gooder until encountering Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and encountering a vision of his father that allows him to discover the truth about his past and glimpses into his future.
It would be nearly impossible for Man of Steel to show up with too many story surprises, though it likely won't surprise anyone that a good majority of the film centers around the action-packed conflicts between Superman and General Zod's legion along with Superman's effort to convince humanity that he's one of the good guys. There are certainly considerable liberties that Snyder takes with the film, ranging from dramatic changes to Superman's outfit to slightly more subtle changes to the story's plot that will only likely be noticed by Superman purists. What's most disappointing is that Snyder has truly savaged Superman of the fantastical nature, fun and heart that is so prevalent beneath the surface of the seemingly cheesy source material and early films.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane give the film its desperately needed heart, while Amy Adams offers a slightly different take on Lois Lane by embodying her as a bit more action-seeking of a journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Michael Shannon could play General Zod in his sleep, though to his credit he stays awake and turns in a credible performance. Laurence Fishburne is here as Daily Planet Editor Perry White, though his role is mostly one-note with the exception of a bit of a harrowing action sequence where he's allowed to show his humanity.
Then, there's Henry Cavill. I'll admit I was more than a bit worried by the casting of the British actor. While he's done fine in his British television work, Cavill has mostly disappointed with his Hollywood film work. While he lacks the wit and vulnerability that makes Superman one of the more accessible superheroes, he does project a charisma and humility that plays nicely and is far more convincing than one might have expected. He's certainly convincing in the hand-to-hand combat, though Snyder floods the film with such combat and it becomes almost mind-numbing after awhile.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours, Man of Steel is almost an exhausting cinematic experience with its non-stop battles, hand-to-hand combat, tossed buildings and vehicles, and overwrought special effects. Hans Zimmer's histrionic and forgettable original score overwhelms an already overwhelming film.
Man of Steel isn't a horrible film, but it's a film that makes you long for it to be directed by someone who clearly loves the source material rather than someone who simply wants to reimagine it and create a hyped up action flick. It's possible to create a film that does both. It's possible to create a film that reimagines the Superman saga without stripping away everything that made us fall in love with Superman to begin with. This Superman is just so disappointing because this Superman is driven by ego rather than sacrifice and by power rather than love for his fellow man. It's impossible to admire the few scenes of heroics that the film offers because they are so frequently surrounded by scenes of complete devastation where Snyder seems to be glossing over the fact that for every one person Superman has saved thousands of others have clearly passed away.
Some of you will like Man of Steel. Some of you may even call it the best Superman film to date.
I'm sorry, but you are wrong.
Man of Steel is a decent action flick, but as a Superman flick Man of Steel is a reminder that it takes a whole lot more than muscle and strength to make a true superhero.
It takes heart.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic