Review: 'Man of Steel' Is Frustratingly Close to Super

Man of Steel

"Tell me, how do you make a superman?" asks singer/songwriter Bob Schneider in the opening line of his song "Flowerparts." He then proceeds to run off a list of the expected ingredients -- "Courage and a steady hand / Conviction and a damn good attitude / Spiritual and moral fortitude" -- before reversing course and reminding the listener of what really makes a man super: "Don't forget the flowerparts / A soft touch and an open heart / A rainbow and some empathy / Compassion and sympathy."

Schneider isn't a widely known performer and "Flowerparts" wasn't exactly a hit, but after watching Man of Steel, it's hard not to wish director Zack Snyder had learned those words by heart. Much has been made of Superman's difficulty staying relevant in modern times -- the notion that an indestructible, morally upright hero is just too good to be interesting onscreen anymore -- and Snyder's way of dealing with the problem is to emphasize the horrible loss at the root of the character's story, then chase it with a whole bunch of good old-fashioned violence. It definitely makes for a Superman movie that's thrilling in spots -- and thanks to the CGI effects paid for by its gargantuan budget, it's also far and away the best-looking -- but ultimately one that may leave the viewer feeling hollow, if not genuinely troubled.

Perhaps that's Snyder's intent. None of his previous films have hinted at the level of control it would take to subvert the Superman mythos like that -- up until now, he's mostly come across as a master of form but not function, a guy who knows how to make stuff look pretty without putting anything under the surface -- but one of Man of Steel's bright spots is the case it makes for Snyder as a maturing artist. Part of this is due to the fact that he's dealing with such a well-established character that a lot of the heavy lifting has been done for him, but his style also really suits the material, and he's learned how to turn his camera into another actor whose mood changes to suit the scene. Tasked with rebooting Superman's story yet again, Snyder compensates for the well-trod ground he's traveling by hitting all the familiar beats in new and different ways.

There's actually a lot to like about Man of Steel, especially in the early going. For starters, this movie presents the most fully realized vision of Superman's home planet, Krypton, that we've seen in a live-action setting, and from the opening moments -- which depict his screaming mother giving birth -- it adds a palpable dimension of grief and pain to the story (which is, let's face it, about a baby who's sent to an alien world to escape the utter destruction of his home planet). His parents are often portrayed as sort of stoically noble, but here, it's clear that Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) are also motivated by the sort of desperate, fumbling love that any parent will be able to understand. It's touching.

But not for too long. Blockbuster law dictates that all exposition and emotion must soon yield to battle, and so it does on Krypton, with Jor-El facing off against the blindly patriotic General Zod (Michael Shannon), attempting a coup to counteract the planet's ineffective governing council in the face of the planet's imminent implosion. It's a scene that sets up Man of Steel's central conflict, but it also drives home what might be the movie's most important message: Kryptonians might be aliens, but they still fight like Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies. It's a lesson we'll learn again and again over the next couple of hours.

Snyder's treatment of young Superman's Earthbound upbringing is a similarly mixed bag -- there's really a lot to love in here, including some stellar work from Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry, the boys who play him at 9 and 13. Taking a page from Tom de Haven's marvelous book It's Superman!, Snyder (working from a script by David S. Goyer) hones in on the panic, frustration, and loneliness that he'd most likely experience growing up in a small Kansas town with no idea why he has super-hearing or x-ray vision. (Credit also goes to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, who add a lot of quiet grace to their scenes as his adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent.)

The scenes between Costner and Sprayberry are particularly sweet, and powerfully acted enough to anchor a different kind of movie. Man of Steel, however, is not that kind of movie, and Snyder makes sure we don't forget by zipping the narrative around; rather than making impatient viewers suffer through another straight retelling of a story most filmgoers already know by heart, he mixes scenes of grown-up Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, who plays the part Snyder gives him about as well as anybody could, and with an eye-poppingly Super physique to boot) living a nomadic existence with flashbacks to his childhood.

Clark's story leads, as it always does, to Lois Lane (a perfectly winsome Amy Adams), who crosses paths with our hero far earlier and more directly than we're accustomed, but in a way that most longtime fans should be willing to forgive -- and anyway, it gets us to the senses-shattering final act that much faster, with Lois playing a suitably beefed-up co-pilot role rather than the shrieking damsel in distress she so often was in the original trilogy. All in all, Man of Steel's first two acts present a relatively thoughtful version of Superman's origin story, and smartly constructed to boot -- aside from providing the Costner/Sprayberry scenes that provide much of the meat of the movie, they also lay out the important relationships that drive Clark's life on Earth.

But of course they have to get out of the way so stuff can blow up, and that's where Man of Steel, like so many big-budget, effects-driven movies, goes off the rails. You can feel Snyder tugging at his chain during the first two acts, laying out cool set pieces that barely hint at what's to come -- and then when Zod arrives on Earth looking for payback and it's High Noon in Smallville, he goes nuts, unleashing a ridiculous cacophony of violence that proves, once again, that big explosions are not an adequate substitute for genuine epic scale.

Not that Snyder isn't reaching for it. And at a couple of moments, he grazes it -- particularly one crucial scene in which a central character reminds Superman that he's capable of saving everyone. That's what we love about this guy, isn't it? The idea that there's a defender out there for everyone who needs one? The problem with Man of Steel is that Snyder shrouds that shining ideal under the crushing weight of genocide, terrorism, and tens of thousands of easily avoidable deaths that aren't even given a second thought. For about 45 minutes, the movie offers little but death and destruction on a jaw-dropping scale, from a Zod-engineered attack that has troublingly obvious 9/11 overtones to an extended Superman-on-Zod battle that, while occasionally nifty, leaves a lot more people dead than it had to.

It all starts to leave you numb after awhile, which is so obviously the opposite of what Snyder intended that it has to be regarded as a fatal flaw. It feels churlish to demean all this beautifully rendered work simply because Man of Steel isn't fun, because it seems likely that Snyder meant for it to be more than fun -- but then again, as Man of Steel makes clear, this is one hero who needs to have a light touch (not just light metaphors...or repeated Jesus symbology, for that matter). If the whole thing was as bad as that final act, you could dismiss it as the work of a well-budgeted hack, but it's so often so much more that the overall experience is naggingly frustrating. Man of Steel gets just close enough to the heart of Superman's greatness to remind you that yes, it is possible to put together a solidly entertaining movie about Krypton's favorite son, and then it loses itself in an orgy of special effects and thoughtless violence. It's an awful shame, and yet it offers enough hints of greatness that you can comfortably look forward to the inevitable sequel. Maybe next time, Snyder and Goyer will get it completely right.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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