What Does It Mean To Be A Superman?
Man of Steel is being positioned as another attempt by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the superhero genres prominence before it goes the way of the western. A large red and blue shot across the House of Mouse's bow. Steel largely eschews the possibility of Batman,Aquaman and the rest of the Justice League existing in this world. Save for a couple of easter eggs. Could more films happen and be in universe? Sure. Steel is about Superman first and the universe second and is better for it. Warner Bros. is struggling to capitalize on it’s DC properties the same way Disney is with Marvel, and even with all the issues this movie has. It is a step in the right directs. Green Lantern it is not.
What Man of Steel is most interested in is our perception of the Superman. Spending the majority of the films 143 minutes wrapping the character in it’s own mythology, religious imagery, and then more mythology. Forgetting to actually make Clark Kent into a character. And then it becomes Transformers 3 at the end turning into a beautiful but hollow piece of blockbuster cinema. This film overstays its welcome and has major tonal issues, which damages what could've been a really interesting bit of film. Instead it is just half interesting cinema.
After the perfunctory, but kind of important, opening about the fall of Krypton the film jumps to 33 years to the present. As Clark Kent wonders across Canada, eventually making his way to a military site where they have discovered an ancient Kryptonian spacecraft. In between this A plot, we experience Clarks memories as he sees a bit of nostalgic imagery. Important moments that serve as the only real characterization of Clark. In these memories we see him learn to harness his powers and try and grapple with how to put them to good use. Such as saving his class from drowning after their bus goes off of a bridge. These are the moments where Clark feels like he has some kind of agency as he decides to do something. In the present Clark is constantly just reacting to the situation but even with these greater stakes it lacks all the emotion Snyder is able to get across in some of the handheld shots. Superman is a big character in many ways but the script does not do an adequate job giving these grander superheroic moments an emotional foundation.
There is really two and part of a third film in here. On their own they’d most likely be good watchable pieces of entertainment. Combined they contradict, confuse, and trivialize what came before it.
The most interesting part of Man of Steel is when it grapples with the question of what it means to be Superman and how does he act with this great power. While musing on it, Snyder not so subtly frames Superman as a Christ figure. After the third time it just gets a bit old and corny. These questioning moments wrap the character in his own mythology and others. All interesting moves but Man of Steel does very little to really characterize Clark Kent/Kal El. The film, despite staring him isn’t about him it is about what he represents. Henry Cavill is reduced to just looking stoic and being cartoonishly charming. The actors playing a young child Kent get to actually do interesting things.
David Goyer wrote the screenplay, based on a story from himself and Christopher Nolan. The Goyer bits stick out like a sore thumb. They provide the great action in the final act but to get there the film has to suddenly grow a plot after spending a better part of an hour ruminating on what it means to be Superman. It’s jarring at best and comes off as a poor (or perhaps better) attempt to be Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman-esque at worst. Multiple mcguffins are thrown into the mix to “raise the stakes” and propel the multimillion dollar film to it’s blockbuster status. The films latter half would have made for a better sequel story then origin.
These things make Man of Steel drag in spots. Making you feel the 143 minute runtime as you sit there hoping for another great moment to happen. The film didn’t need to be and couldn’t afford to be this long. There is a really good 2 hour movie in there.
When Zack Snyder was brought on to make Man of Steel he was coming off two straight films that underperformed in the critical and commercial sense. Even with the Nolan brothers backing it didn’t exactly breed trust in hardcore fans. Man of Steel is more in Snyders “good” wheelhouse (pre-established property with plenty of special effects) than bad (original thought). What I never doubted was Snyders ability to show beautiful imagery on screen and that is what Snyder does. There are moments that perfectly captured very powerful emotions. Snyder does not forget to add artistry to the very good high octane action cinematography that isn’t over edited. Allowing viewers to actually see and understand what’s going on. With how fast the Kryptonians move it would've been extremely easy to edit their sequences that way and make it all a blur.
This is a “serious” movie. It treats the world and characters and their problems seriously and with respect. If you ever wanted to wonder what it’d be like to see two Kryptonians duke it out, you get plenty of that. It fits and looks awesome. This seriousness is the only thing that saves the third act from becoming comical. But becomes a double edged sword at the end, becoming a bit odd. In its final moments it goes through sequences that are there because they have to be, not because they need to be. And that oddity just becomes comedy. Some massive stuff happens in this movie, lots of people die and it is all brushed under the rug because that doesn’t really matter. Contradicting everything that came before it. All that really matters is we end on a scene of Clark Kent coming into the Daily Planet.
Interesting by half, that is what Man of Steel is. Some interesting ideas, some great moments, and excellent action. All of which never fully gel and undermine one another in some ways that damage this movie irritability. Even with all these faults Man of Steel is still a really good bit of Superman cinema, certainly the best treatment the character has gotten outside of comics since Justice League on Cartoon Network.