Home > Comics, Film, Reviews > Film Review: Man of Steel

Film Review: Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Probably the most consistently satisfying feature of Zack Snyder’s lavish re-launch of the Superman franchise is its impressive, insistent bigness. From the extraterrestrial pinnacles and shimmering organic technology of Krypton in the prologue to the epic architecture-smashing demi-god fisticuffs that occupy the movie’s later acts, Man of Steel does not leave its overweening enormity to chance, nor does it reconcile its problematic implications. So impressive in scope is Man of Steel that its motions towards a more intimate soulfulness and character-based emotional integrity feel rote and underheated.

This impression of the film as a thumbnail sketch of the sort of epic superhero origin story its scale aspires to is further supported by the unconventional, nonlinear nature of its narrative construction and pacing, at least in the first hour. The backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is imparted in contained, tenuously-connected vignettes, moving back and forward in time and space. His birth and escape as an infant from dying Krypton, enabled by his forward-looking parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) and nearly prevented by the grim super-soldier General Zod (the ever-intense Michael Shannon), might be the purest science-fiction-style telling of Kal-El’s alien beginnings ever committed to film, all operatic drama and CGI bombast and high-flown technobabble uttered to floating robot servants.

Further flashbacks depict his adoption by the rural Kansan couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both wonderfully naturalistic) who found his pod after it crashed to earth and his gradual process of growing up and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities and their social consequences. Young-adult Clark becomes an introverted Wolverine-esque drifter, laying low at his plain-spoken adoptive father’s counsel, working on fishing trawlers and in northern small-town bars under fake names as he tries to conceal his godlike powers. He occasionally fails to adequately normal up, saving oil rig workers from fires, chivalrically trashing a waitress-fondling jackass’ freight truck, and pushing his foundering school bus out of a river as a teenager.

It’s a version of Superman tailored to contemporary tastes, which tend to privilege heroes of all stripes that are moody, introspective, reluctant, and flawed. Clark begins to lose some of his hermit tendencies when a Kryptonian scout ship is found encased in Arctic ice and a hologram of his alien father informs him of his off-world origins and provides him with his iconic suit as a physical embodiment of his inheritance. A more public emergence is forced upon him, however, by two figures. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, a much better casting choice than she’s ever allowed to prove herself to be) traces him back to the Kent family farm, discovering his secret identity before he even properly has one. Then, in a more dire development, General Zod and his eugenicist followers are led to Earth by the lost son of Krypton’s activation of the frozen ship.

Zod demands that Kal-El turn himself in to the General’s custody. After a long night of the soul (which includes a blithely unironic confession to a priest that includes some blatant Christ-figure framing of Supes in front of a stained-glass window depiction of Jesus), he does, only to discover that Zod plans to terraform his adopted planet into a new Krypton. This process won’t be a pleasant one for humanity; a dreamworld nightmare vision of Superman slipping beneath a sea of human skulls prefigures the genocidal likelihood, and the New York City proxy Metropolis bears the brunt of the initial destructive power of this endeavour.

The inter-Kryptonian punch-ups and related widescreen action setpieces that this conflict deems necessary are impressively staged, conceivably “badass”, and shot with Snyder’s rare sense of corporeal clarity. But they are largely without moral consequence, even when they belatedly become openly about morality. The sheer inevitability of the romance between Clark and Lois is also not effectively rendered into a rapprochement that is not telegraphed or rushed. Cavill, though gorgeous and equipped with a triangulated masculine physique that appears nigh-on impossible, seems faintly ashamed by the Byronic hero Superman that David S. Goyer (writing the script with a story assist from Dark Knight trilogy auteur Christopher Nolan) places, Atlas-like, on his shoulders. He does better giving subtle humanizing colour to the classic stand-up all-American superhero, working with uncomplaining dedication to render this Superman as less of an übermensch, as the film would generally have it.

When Superman’s internal struggle externalizes, Man of Steel is undeniably entertaining blockbuster gristle. But the audience’s doubts grow as Clark Kent’s diminish. Without much investment in or engagement with the considerable comic-book cult around this foundational superhero to go on, it’s hard for me to say how Man of Steel rates as an adaptive text. This Superman is certainly not as resistent to large-scale collateral mayhem as the morally upright protector of humanity has tended to be; great swaths of both Smallville and Metropolis are laid to waste as he awesomely fights off his Kryptonian foes. Certain details of his Kryptonian origins and his Kansas upbringing (especially the manner of Jonathan Kent’s death) have shifted slightly, it seems. And of course Lois being in on Clark’s secret identity before it’s even required is a pretty massive canonical change whose dramatic implications are likely to ripple out into sequels, where her collaboration in protecting his secret might prove more narratively rich than a bizarre inability to recognize the square-jawed overman behind the thick nerd glasses.

The übermensch stuff is pretty resilient, though, and merges uncomfortably with the Christ poses (there are some literal crucifixion tableaus, the stained-glass visual association, the wandering in the wilderness, the trope of the saviour sent from above, and knowing references to his age of 33, to name just a few). Smashing a surveillance drone does not make this conception of Superman any less of an embodiment of authoritarian elitism; Christopher Nolan is creatively involved here, after all. Although his two father figures, on Krypton and on Earth, diverge on how this incredible boy should approach his inescapable specialness, they converge on the undeniable impression that his superiority would make on inferior beings. He will resemble Nietszche’s shining ideal of enlightened man, of that they agree. How the world will handle his example is less certain. How Man of Steel handles his example is made clear enough: Superman stands apart from humanity but ever above it. Man of Steel is this Superman’s movie, sure enough. It stands above humanity, and far too apart from it.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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  1. December 27, 2015 at 11:45 am

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