June 13, 2013



MAN OF STEEL:  Watch It At Home – Another Guy In a Cape

“Kneel before Zod!” the villain of that name roared in what’s probably the best-remembered piece of dialogue from Superman 2.  That line isn’t in the new MAN OF STEEL, but its filmmakers seem at times to have incorporated it into their attitude toward the audience.  They’re not out to entertain us so much as crush us, make us bend to their superior will by way of massive, non-stop special effects and deafening sound.  Their message to us is:  You’re gonna enjoy yourselves, damn it, whether you like it or not.

As soon as the roster for Man of Steel was announced, the obvious question was how the very different sensibilities of director Zach Snyder and producer/co-story writer Christopher Nolan were going to fit.  The answer is that the mash-up doesn’t do much of a favor to either one.  The movie has the somber gravity of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but Nolan comes by that weightiness honestly, combining it with truly epic sweep and sociopolitical consciousness, giving his protagonists existential character arcs and leavening it all with doomed romance and ferociously violent humor (not just the obvious Joker but also Scarecrow in Batman Begins and even Bruce Wayne’s sardonic wit throughout the series).  It all forms a cohesive world-view that’s miles away from Snyder’s jittery unwillingness to let 5 minutes go by without some CG spectacle or giant action beat, and like Snyder’s Watchmen, Man of Steel is weak on character and virtually humorless (until the last 5 minutes, and then it’s just strange–as though people suddenly started quipping because someone at Warners called Snyder on the set to order last-second comedy punch-ups).  The result is stylistic incoherence.

Man of Steel also suffers from the fact that by now, the menu of superhero options is a very, very long one, and the movie chooses some of the most familiar dishes.  Extended scenes of Krypton-set infighting might as well have come from Thor, Clark Kent’s adolescent failure to fit in recalls Peter Parker’s in the various versions of Spider-Man, and didn’t anyone notice that the climactic Metropolis battle, skyscrapers tumbling from the skies, was a virtual copy of last year’s The Avengers?  Add to that Snyder’s penchant for quoting other fantasy movies (a nightmare sequence has imagery lifted from Terminator 2) and the movie might as well come with footnotes.

The main innovation of Man of Steel, as envisioned by Snyder, Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer, is to emphasize Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fundamentally alien nature.   While the Christopher Reeve Superman series portrayed him as a traditional American hero, this Superman (that name is only spoken in one scene, by the way, and not by a major character) feels himself neither wholly human nor Kryptonian, and his central issue is whether he can dare reveal his true identity to humans who might attack him for what he is.  (There’s also a very distinct religious undertone to all this–Clark is 33 years old when he faces the possibility that the people of earth will reject him, he flies at times with arms outstretched, he pays a visit to a church to discuss his unearthly nature, and more.)  One of the oddities of the movie, though, is that having tortuously had this conflict raised over and over again by both his fathers (Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent), and even by the evil Zod (Michael Shannon), and having young Clark, at one point, fail to rescue someone from death just to preserve his secret, it all comes to nothing at the end of the film, as though it had never been all that important to begin with.  Whatever psychological depth was supposed to be imparted by all this–which is limited, because although Henry Cavill looks every bit the superhero, he’s not exactly an emotive performer–is lost.  And near the end, when Superman does something that’s supposed to be emotionally disturbing to save the world, the moment seems overblown, because we’d never even known this particular thing was an issue for him before it happened.

In their concentration on the gigantic, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer also forego many of the pleasant details of the Superman myth.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) knows who Superman is almost at once, so there’s none of her comically divergent feelings for the superhero and Clark Kent–a foolish trope, to be sure, and perhaps impossible to pull off in 2013, but always a fun one.  In this version of the story, any interaction between Clark and Perry White would have to be in the sequel, and there doesn’t seem to be a Jimmy Olsen.  And this Man of Steel takes part in life (and planet) saving tasks only, no helping out little kids or old people out of sheer kindness.  Instead of giving him stature, all of these omissions make the movie feel much colder than the more cuddly superheroes we’ve grown used to in the Marvel universe.

The plot that replaces all that is even more nonsensical than the norm, something to do with Zod needing a “codex” that Kal-El’s father sent with the baby to Earth in order to recreate Krypton (killing all humans in the process).  The stories in these movies are rarely their strong points (I’m still not clear on what Bane was doing in The Dark Knight Rises), but this one is more annoying than most because Snyder insists on pushing it at us, making us ask questions we shouldn’t be worrying about, like why Jor-El  even wanted the codex to survive, what his son was supposed to do with it (especially the way it turns out to have been smuggled) and the nature of existence on Krypton, which sounds more like a dystopia the more we learn about it.

Man of Steel is a monument to bigness, and even the very fine supporting cast has little opportunity to break through.  Costner and Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, do best, with the advantage that they’re not involved in most of the more outsized set-pieces.  Crowe keeps more of a straight face than Marlon Brando managed in his turn as Jor-El, while Amy Adams is very well cast as this movie’s version of Lois Lane, a bit more sophisticated and experienced than the norm, but is given little chance to interact with the hero.  It’s a measure of the movie’s incompetence when it comes to character that even when Lois and Clark’s mother are in the same place, we never get to see Clark introduce them to each other.  Meanwhile, you’d think Zod would be an ideal part for Michael Shannon, but as conceived here he’s far less interesting than other madmen Shannon’s played over the past few years.  Other good actors, like Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, are simply wasted.  (One of the bizarre failings of the movie is that with the gargantuan finale set in Metropolis, the only major character who’s there at the time is Perry White, who up to that point has had perhaps a dozen lines of dialogue–at least when the Avengers blew up New York, they were there in person to witness it.)

Even in the universe of superhero epics, Man of Steel has its weaknesses.  The special effects are of highly variable quality, some excellent but others seemingly from a movie with a much lower budget.  Snyder’s Metropolis has none of the personality of Nolan’s Gotham City (Steel‘s production design is by Alex McDowell), and the gritty photography by Amir Mokri (even darker in unnecessary 3D) lacks grandeur.  The movie drifts on for about 3 more endings than it needs, although that may have become par for the course these days.  With little emotion on screen, Hans Zimmer has to paper over most of the movie with overemphatic music.  The product placements for a restaurant chain and a department store are painfully crude.

There are good things in Man of Steel, like the surprisingly creepy effect used to convey Kryptonian x-ray vision on Earth, and the sequence where Superman shows off some of his powers before a room of military observers.  It’s never atrociously bad in the way that Green Lantern and Green Hornet were.  But in an era where we have plenty of big-budget spectacles to choose from, this one is a relative Man of Styrofoam.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."