Somewhere in the development of this film I imagine a conversation between an executive and a producer. The executive is getting ready to sign the check to make Man of Steel over to the producer, but has three important questions first.
“Does it have big, giant things that go pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH!!?”
The producer happily affirms. Indeed, Man of Steel has lots of big machines that go pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH.
Next, the executive asks: “Are we going to have to do that whole, nerdy, secret-identity thing?”
The producer shakes his head – Not exactly. The motif in Man of Steel is that if anyone knew about Superman, it would change everything. People would turn on him and reject him. So he keeps a low profile.
Finally, the executive wants to know: “Are we going to tell about Superman’s origins and how he grew up and all of that?”
Here, the producer just shrugs.
Through much of Man of Steel, I wasn’t even sure really what was going on. In the beginning, things were exploding and CCRRRSSSHHing and Krypton was being engulfed in flame. (We later find out that the planet was blowing up because its people used up all of the resources and its core “became unstable.”)
Meanwhile, some big, giant thing was forming in Space just beyond Krypton called “The Phantom Zone.” This you may recognize if you’re a real Superman fan; to me it looked like huge sausages burning and twisting. It is where General Zod gets sent with his team of military baddies after he shoots one of the elders on the council because he disagreed with them about something.
As soon as the planet blows all the way up (it takes about five minutes for a planet to go from threatening-to-blow to complete celestial splatter, for all you science buffs) the explosion knocks Zod free of the giant sausage cage, and he turns this prison into a spaceship.
We’ll come back to that later.
Where were we? Right – To ensure the survival of his race, Jor-El sends his only son to Earth before the planet is completely gone. Baby Cal-El blasts through Space for a few seconds and then we jump to him on Earth as a young man working on a fishing boat. He has a beard, so we know he’s older. Suddenly, he helps save an oil rig which is blowing up (pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH), and when he is recovering from bending steel and burning alive and floating in the aphotic water around the blast we flash back to his childhood.
This is how the rest of the film goes – a bumpy narrative of present events with flashbacks to the past showing Clark growing up. But in this tent pole movie iteration, the back story lacks any joy. Young Clark is busy trying to hide who he is, when all he wants to do is beat the shit out of kids who are being horrible little snots to him. When older Clark finds the alien ship / fortress of solitude, his beard melts off and he has a massive chin cleft which further distracts, and I’m lost once again not really knowing what’s going on.
The present-day portion suffers for its wooden characters. And the living-painting, visual style of filmmaking director Zak Snyder used deftly in movies like 300 and Watchmen further distance the story. I found myself longing for the blue-collar sensibility of Richard Donner, and Superman: The Movie, circa 1978. In that film, the characters had a space to live and breathe in. New York was a place. You could feel the vibe; all that paper blowing around in the street and overturned buses and people in peril; Clark Kent taking off his glasses and appearing a moment later as the hero and saving the innocents.
In Man of Steel, he doesn’t much save the innocents, even for all the huge muscles actor Henry Cavill cultivated for the role. My friend was squirming in his seat as he watched alongside me. “This is not Superman,” he said. “Superman would not be off doing this thing way over here, he would be helping the people.”
But Superman, like the filmmakers, was off going pssshhhhhkkkGGGGBBBllllttttCCRRRSSSHH with the giant sausage machine that Zod flew to Earth while hundreds of thousands of people suffered and died.
Then he fights Zod, and they do billions more in damage to the city, crashing through every skyscraper they come near. Michael Shannon as the imperious general is completely wasted. (No, not drunk – though that would have at least been something.) The talented actor from Bug and Zamboni Man and Take Shelter seemed riveting in the souped-up preview. In the actual movie, he is petulant and whiny.
Did I forget to mention Lois Lane is in this thing? That’s pretty much because she doesn’t do anything. She finds out about Superman, tries to write a story about him, he convinces her not to, she agrees, and then…uhm, Zod takes her for some reason and Superman has to save her. She’s the one person he does save, though she’s only in trouble because of him in the first place. Like the rest of our imperiled humanity.
Man of Steel does a dizzying dance around its own rationality that Superman’s identity needs to be kept secret; everyone does, eventually, find out about him. Zod demands that Earth give over Superman, and then Superman and Zod lay waste half of an entire city as they battle. But in the end, after Superman triumphs, he decides he needs to enter civilization and “blend in.” So he puts on glasses and goes to work for the Daily Planet. But despite having the central role in a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that saved the entire Earth, no one recognizes him. After he saves humanity, no one knows who he is.
(I’m not going to draw any parallels between Man of Steel and the story of Jesus and just end this review here. You’re welcome.)