Richard Donner can relax. Charmless, soulless and assaultive, the misfire Man of Steel treads familiar ground—the origin of Superman and his battle with General Zod—replacing both the spirit and mythology of the icon with an angsty identity crisis and a lot of loud explosions and falling buildings. At nearly two and a half hours, it’s an empty, interminable picture, a $225 million hooey that works overtime to make sure we neither have fun nor are entertained. It worked in 1978 with endearing performances from Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, low-tech effects and a real lightness of spirit and touch of romance—how perfectly balanced that picture was—but this retread is heavy, portentous and empty, as only the modern, computer-generated franchise movies can be.
Directed by Zach Snyder (whose inventive 300 and Watchmen were visual marvels) with co-story and producing credits from Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel begins with eye-popping, Kryptonian grandeur, and while we well know the dying planet will explode and tiny Kal-El will be launched into the stratosphere, the sumptuous mounting and nifty effects—including the infant’s ingenious pod craft—give the opening sequence a touch of class, as does Russell Crowe as father Jor-El, mortal enemy of deranged General Zod (Michael Shannon amping up his usual tics). Zod threatens a military takeover and before Jor-El can be imprisoned, shoots his newborn into space before the spectacular destruction of the planet.
But then Man of Steel goes downhill faster than a speeding locomotive from one action set piece to another. Once in Smallville, Kansas, the child falls into the care of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane), who appear in both flash back and present, Costner looking bored and Lane aged with overt wrinkles and liver spots, both hampered by a screenplay that requires them to be mawkishly sentimental in lieu of having actual characters to play, spouting dialogues like, “You’re the answer to ‘are we alone?’ in the universe.
As a teen, Clark Kent (Dylan Sprayberry) wrestles with being different and learning to harness his otherworldly abilities, rescuing a school bus from the river only to be harangued by dad Jonathan, who questions whether intervening is the right thing to do, particularly during a late tornado sequence bearing allusions to the recent Oklahoma tragedies.
Adult Clark (Cavill) works at the local diner and fends off redneck bullies before meeting Lois Lane (Amy Adams, giving the movie’s best performance), now a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist for the Daily Planet on assignment in the Pacific Northwest to track a monolith buried in ice somewhere near Canada, and Man of Steel goes very wrong by dispensing with the Clark/Lois secret identity device, as Lois here knows Clark’s superhero identity from the get-go, and even gets an explanation for the “S” on his chest.
Eventually General Zod and his generic minions get around to following Kal-El to Earth in search of the “codex” that will help to repopulate Krypton, but they decide that Earth is just as happy a home and dispense with destroying everything in their paths, and the film’s final hour is a special effects assault that once again lays waste to Manhattan (um, Metropolis) in a cavalcade of fake CGI destruction, blatantly invoking 9/11. As the heavy machinery and artillery descends upon Metropolis, we’re even treated to war room scenes where military officials, jaws agape, ask such high-falutin’ questions as “What is it?” and “What does it do?”
Perhaps Man of Steel’s biggest misstep is its fractured story structure, weaving back and forth through ponderous flashbacks as Clark Kent comes to terms with his identity. Consequently, the characters are given little time to develop beyond rudimentary glimpses, the relationship between Clark and Lois is non-existent, and the human element is largely nil.
Cavill, handsome to a fault and obviously up to the role, is given nothing to do but brood for the picture’s first half and then wrestle with effects in the second; there’s no real charm, charisma or movie-star quality to the performance because the Nolan-esque demands of the story require such Dark Knight identity issues. As a result, we are handed a Superman who couldn’t be less super—a dull version of an icon who displays little awe and no larger-than-life persona. And that’s a shame, because unlike the manic Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 (a character who has veered into self-parody as to become unbearable), Clark Kent feels like a supporting player in his own movie. Cavill (Whatever Works, The Immortals), quite a good actor when given actual material to work with, takes stoic reserve to new heights with a minimalist and inward performance registering as anything but heroic. Revisionists will say that’s the point (or Nolan’s, at least)—I say it’s a miscalculation.
The 3D presentation is largely superfluous and serves to further dim the cold, ugly cinematography, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is wasted and Jimmy Olsen is completely absent, the jerky combat CGI is largely fake and the final kiss between Cavill and Adams is too little, too late, uncomfortably awkward in the fanboy universe of blowing things up.
Like its final battle royale, Man of Steel lays waste to a truly terrific cast, giving them nothing interesting to do—Crowe, Fishburne, Costner, Lane and Shannon, the always interesting actor with a patented edge, does what he can with a one-note role, but he’s never a complex enough villain to generate much heat.
As with most modern action movies, Man of Steel exists in a universe of artifice where nothing looks or feels real, and as a result, when things are destroyed there’s no sense of anything at stake—fake buildings are categorically dismantled ad nauseum in a series of fight scenes where one character punches another, who then flies backwards only to return and punch the other, who then flies backwards… Well, there’s a lot of this nonsense in Man of Steel, a movie so preoccupied with technology and effects it forgets what makes Superman super to begin with.
Man of Steel is ultimately a humorless, self-important video game and underwhelming in all regards.
1 1/2 stars.