With the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, imminent, a newborn named Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is sent off by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in a spaceship bound for earth, bearing within him the codex for Krypton which will ostensibly allow for the planet’s rebirth. Once here, Kal is adopted by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and finds that he is greatly empowered by the proximity of our yellow sun. Gifted with startling abilities that he cannot fully grasp nor understand how to use, Kal (now named Clark Kent) drifts through his first 33 years, occasionally stopping in his travels to save someone’s life but never realizing his full potential. But when General Zod (Michael Shannon), a deranged exile from Krypton shows up in search of the codex with plans to destroy earth’s population, Kal must decide to fully embrace his ability in order to protect the world that has become his home. I feel kind of stupid summarizing the plot to a Superman movie given that his is one of the most well-known mythologies in the world, but one Man of Steel’s bright spots is its reinvention of the source material. Similar to what JJ Abrams did with Star Trek, the team behind this film (writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan) took what had become a fairly tired story and breathed a bit of new life into it while still holding (relatively) true to (most of) the established backstory. Man of Steel plays like an actual reboot rather than a remake of the 1978 Superman and in my mind that’s a good thing. To be frank, Superman himself is the most boring of superheroes in my mind and all of the previous Superman films are kind of terrible. The version of Superman presented here is much more approachable than any previous Superman has been and the darker tones that Man of Steel delves into serve the character well. It’s not a perfect script, especially when it comes to the dialogue and exposition, but it gives this franchise a much better foundation than I would have expected.
The cast of Man of Steel give quality performances and this goes especially for Cavill who was a huge question mark coming in. I’ve seen Cavill perform in perhaps three other films and was thoroughly unimpressed with his effort in each entry but here he embraces both the human and superhuman aspects of Superman quite well. He might not be Christian Bale but he’s certainly no Brandon Routh either. Shannon, truly one of the industry’s best actors, doesn’t get as much to work with as I might have hoped but takes advantage of every opportunity he gets. Of the two fathers, Crowe gets the lion’s share of the screen time but Costner’s limited scenes might be the most emotionally relevant of the film.
There’s a lot to like about Man of Steel and plenty of flaws that could be overlooked in most cases. Unfortunately, however, much of it is undone by the horrific direction, especially in regards to Snyder’s film technique. I was nervous about Snyder’s involvement when his name was announced but tricked myself into believing that the studio (and more importantly, Christopher Nolan) wouldn’t let him screw up a huge tentpole film like Man of Steel. I was wrong as it seems to me that the entire film is just a 145 minute adventure in Snyder showing off all the cool tricks he knows how to do with a camera. I’m not opposed to the hand-held/shaky camera style of filming. The format has its merits and can be very effective in the right situation and in the right hands. But a massive, all-encompassing, CGI-laden superhero blockbuster like Man of Steel is not the right situation and Snyder’s are clearly not the right hands. Almost the entirety of the film is shot in shake-camera format, much of it is out of focus, and Snyder continually insists on shooting in close-up. If you’ve ever wondered what Superman’s nose hairs look like, Zack Snyder has an answer for you. The film moves way, WAY too fast for the camera to keep up and as a result of all of this, the visuals within this film are brutally disorienting and headache-inducing. My wife wanted to leave and if we had been so foolish as to purchase 3D tickets, I think I might have walked out. It’s that bad from a visual standpoint and for me, Snyder’s massive missteps strip Man of Steel of almost any merit it may have beyond a general hope that someday there will be a sequel that Snyder is not involved in. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for comic book violence, some harsh themes, maybe a little language)
Note: My grade started out as a C/C+, jumped up to a B as I was writing the middle paragraphs, and finally settled in at a B-. Basically, it comes down to how much I appreciate the path Goyer has set this franchise on versus how much I loathe Zack Snyder's hideous work behind the camera. I recommend skipping this film in theaters and watching it on DVD/Blu-Ray when the maddening visuals will be less horrifically disorienting.