Like the one man trinity known as Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder have a difficult time maintaining a consistent cinematic identity with their “Man of Steel.” “Steel” is an origin story that tells how Kal-El was born, shows how Clark was raised by foster parents in Kansas, and finally how Superman came to be.
The movie kicks off by transporting us to Kal-El’s home planet of Krypton which has been over-mined for natural resources to the point of planetary collapse. As Jor-El (Russell Crowe) explains that his son Kal-El was conceived the old fashioned way, something that hasn’t been done in ages.
On Krypton, “workers, warriors and leaders” are predetermined and birthed via test tubes. Jor-El is not a fan of this, wondering if perhaps a child wanted to become something more (in his case, his child will eventually become god, but more on that later.) It’s here we first meet the main villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) who describes his ideal world as one run by the superior bloodlines, some loose Aryan reference by Snyder, and Jor-El realizes he must send Kal-El to another planet to protect him from Krypton’s demise. Zod kills Jor-El but not in time to prevent Kal-El from escaping with a codex embedded in his body. The codex contains the genetic code for Kryptonian people, so what better place to hide it than in a baby rocketing through outer space? Hopefully the codex is enough and Kal-El won’t need a female baby to repopulate the Kryptonians…oh, and there’s a scene where Jor-El rides a dragon above a laser blast fire fight, and mind you we’re not even past the first 10 minutes. The introduction to Kal-El is a terrific but entirely too long.
The scenes depicting a young Clark, played by Cooper Timberline at age 9 and Dylan Sprayberry at 13, contain the majority of Superman’s character development. Clark’s Earthling foster parents Martha (Diane Lane) and John (Kevin Costner) help Clark realize his powers and take responsibility for them. John and Martha know what they’re raising, and they do their best to coach Clark as he comes of age and encounters bullies and crises. Probably the best scene in the movie is Martha comforting Clark as his X-ray vision and super hearing overwhelm him during school. There’s been talk, since the scene I’m describing takes place at a closet door, that Clark is a stand-in for the acceptance of homosexuals in modern society. If that’s the case, Snyder and Nolan take an odd approach to the issue, suggesting that Clark’s parents should have control over when and if their son should “out” himself.
The third major plot point to discuss is Zod’s trek to Earth and his hunt for the codex and the now adult Kal-El (Henry Cavill). Unfortunately, the adult gets the most screen time and deserves the least; Cavill is a stoic and colorless Superman lacking in both wit and personality.
Overall, Snyder’s visuals are beautiful to look at with impossible camera angles and footage that would have never been imagined back when Christopher Reeve first put on the tights. The movie’s run time is just under two and a half hours, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that roughly an hour of the movie is devoted to exploding skyscrapers and seismic fistfights that would register on the Richter scale. I enjoy a good action movie but the action is empty without an emotional attachment to what’s going on. The movie falls flat when Cavill and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) interact because they have the chemistry of sriracha on Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I attribute that to the writing though since Adams is in an acting class of her own. With names like Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead,” “Watchmen”) and Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Memento”) I expected a lot and walked away disappointed. Maybe with the origin formalities out of the way the next Superman will be more satisfactory.
2 out of 4 stars