(by Dustin Putman
Seven years after Bryan Singer's reverential sequel-cum-reboot "Superman Returns" was released to a deemed-disappointing worldwide gross of $391-million, Warner Bros. Pictures has opted to recast and reimagine the DC Comics property once more with "Man of Steel," an ashen-grim, ludicrously bombastic adaptation from director Zack Snyder (2011's "Sucker Punch") and screenwriter David S. Goyer (2012's "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance"). The goal from the studio and filmmakers was clearly to emulate the gritty, more realistic style of Christopher Nolan's masterful "The Dark Knight," but without that picture's depth of character and classical storytelling prowess it more accurately resembles the joyless, destructive freneticism of Michael Bay's mechanical (in all senses of the term) "Transformers" series. It isn't such a bad idea to aim for a darker tone, but Snyder goes overboard, color-timing every image with a dark-blue/gray sheen and refusing to acknowledge that there is, in fact, such a thing as a sun. Relentlessly overcast, the characters moping around to match the gloom, "Man of Steel" lacks personality and—worse—the magic of its flying, red-caped title character. Article continues below
Krypton's core is collapsing, the planet's race facing certain extinction. In the midst of clashing with General Zod (Michael Shannon), who has decided to lead a coup against Kryptonians, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) transports his newborn son to Earth, where his space vessel crash-lands in Kansas. Adopted by a kindly farming couple, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and named Clark, the boy little by little begins to suspect that he's different than everyone else, culminating in a school bus accident at age 13 where he saves everyone onboard with his super-human strength. Jonathan tells him he is the answer to whether or not other life exists in the universe—a heavy burden for anyone to carry. Twenty years later, a grown Clark (Henry Cavill) makes further steps toward recognizing his heroic destiny after an ancient alien ship is found under the Antarctic ice. It is here that he meets intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), sniffing out a potentially huge news story, and eventually faces close scrutiny from military officials afraid of his otherworldly abilities and what he might be capable of. All of the above should be far more wary of Zod, who turns up to face Clark in a showdown that threatens the whole of Metropolis—and possibly the world.
One positive aspect of "Man of Steel" is that it avoids falling into the trap of 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man," which too often felt like a needless rehash of 2002's "Spider-Man," hitting most of the same plot points while doing little that was new with the superhero's origin and mythos. In different hands, this new telling of Superman's beginnings might have reminded of the 1978 original, the 1980 sequel, and the "Smallville" television series all rolled into one, but writer David S. Goyer tweaks it just enough so that it seems relatively fresh. Where he and director Zack Snyder hit a snag is in said plot's non-linear structure, the constant criss-crossing between past and present giving the proceedings a disjointed feel that keeps the viewer from properly identifying with the characters and becoming more involved in their conflicts. It doesn't help that the onscreen figures, most of them comic book icons, are virtually as colorless as the film's visual palette.
Henry Cavill (2011's "Immortals") is too self-serious to get to the heart of Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, not even a faint shadow of the disarming mix of boyish goodness and masculinity that Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh previously brought to the part. Simply put, Cavill just isn't that likable. As Lois Lane, Amy Adams (2012's "The Master") modernizes the image of a strong, independent journalist, but her role desperately needed a rehaul to match the abilities of the four-time Oscar nominee that's been cast. Very nearly nothing is learned about Lois beyond her profession, and Adams struggles to bring dimension to a character who has been written without any.
Michael Shannon (2012's "Premium Rush") has the wild eyes and unpredictable force to delve into the megalomaniacal frame of mind of villain General Zod. As committed as he is, not even Shannon can sell lines such as, "I was bred to be a warrior. Where did you train? A farm?" Likewise, a slimmed-down, in-shape Russell Crowe (2013's "Broken City") is commanding as ever as Clark's Kryptonian father, Jor-El; it's too bad his scenes are some of the most narratively murky. Last but not least, Kevin Costner (2008's "Swing Vote") and Diane Lane (2010's "Secretariat") deliver what may be the movie's most emotionally available performances as protective adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, and that's even taking into account poor Lane's tragically dowdy wardrobe.
If the first half of "Man of Steel" is mostly set-up, sometimes lugubriously so, the action proper soon gets underway, losing almost complete sight of anything other than pure chaos. Loud and overinflated to an ever-wearying, almost laughable, degree, the last forty-five minutes unsettlingly recall the events of 9/11 magnified by a thousand, the city of Metropolis toppling down around the characters as planes fly into skyscrapers, tanker trucks explode, and Superman and Zod fight to the death as they play their own part in destroying the landscape as they crash into buildings and barrel deep into the street's asphalt. How many human casualties are there in this extended climax, as technically impressive as it is irksomely unpleasant and disturbing? Thousands, certainly, but maybe even millions, and the film doesn't for a second take responsibility for its loaded insinuations. Indeed, when the setting returns to the Daily Planet at the end, one has to wonder how the building is still standing and in one piece. By then, the catastrophic events that have just been excessively detailed have been tidily forgotten about.
There is no denying that "Man of Steel" is well-shot (if too dreary for its own good) by cinematographer Amir Mokri (2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"), and the music score by Hans Zimmer (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") pulse-poundingly lives up to the picture's epic girth. Visual effects, too, are nothing short of marvelous, even if one will probably be able to appreciate them more by going with the 2D theatrical exhibition and avoiding the pointless 3D-converted version. Where "Man of Steel" rubs the wrong way is in its overall conception. The film is neither fun nor dramatically potent; it's an oppressively dour, increasingly overblown onslaught of enough pyrotechnics to seemingly blow up the planet, mistaking serious faces and shaky-cammed anarchy for what it so desperately needed most: a sense of wonder and a beating heart.