The other night I went to see “Man Of Steel”, the new Superman film directed by Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”). I had seen the trailers and found myself very curious about this new iteration of the Superman mythos. Something about the combination of the heartwrenching music from “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the artistic shooting style and inner monologue made it seem like this was going to be a Terrence Malick-style take on Superman, which made sense to me. Superman is no doubt the most clearly spiritual of all famous superheroes. A film that charts Clark Kent’s origins and growth into Superman, focusing on his inner turmoil, his deep love for mankind and the sacrifices that he makes for them could be powerful and moving. So I was excited to see “Man of Steel”.
Unfortunately, I have to admit I was very disappointed in this regard. Don’t get me wrong, “Man of Steel” is a very enjoyable film, but only if you take it as simple fun. In the end, it’s just a big-budget special effects blockbuster full of wall-to-wall action. It’s far more Michael Bay than Terrence Malick. If it did try to go deeper, I have to say it failed miserably to achieve that effect in me. Here is the essence of what bothered me about the film:
Where is the heart?
I’m not a big superhero fan. On the whole, I’m a different kind of geek, but I do like DC’s two big ones: Superman and Batman. Superman is a decidedly different kind of hero compared to Batman and he should be treated differently as well. Batman is all about being broody and traumatised and living in a world of darkness. Superman, however, is not. He is a symbol of hope, of all the very best that mankind can aspire to. He is a simple all-American farmboy from Kansas raised by loving parents as well as the most powerful man alive. He should make you feel warm inside.
The old Superman movies got this. “Superman Returns” got this. “Smallville” got this. Even “Lois & Clark”, in all its deliberate cheesiness, really got this. “Man of Steel”, however, tries to “Batmanify” Superman. Instead of the warm colours and romantic sunsets of previous entries, Zack Snyder goes for what’s currently cool, which means grim faces and washed-out colours… Which wouldn’t be so bad, considering there are some gorgeous visual designs here, but Snyder ruins it for me by shooting the entire film in completely unnecessary shaky-cam and applying exaggerated lens flare effects that put JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” to shame, in extremely fast-paced scenes where no shot lasts longer than a few seconds. It’s like the whole movie is a trailer, even in its narrative structure. It tries to echo “Batman Begins” by fragmenting the story instead of telling it chronologically, but while “Batman Begins” used this technique so well you hardly noticed it, in “Man of Steel” the effect is extremely in-your-face and jarring. As a result, I stopped caring emotionally. And that’s what brings me to the core of the problem I had with this film: it lacked heart, in a big way.
The scenes that are supposed to shed light on Clark Kent’s youth and his relationship to his parents are so brief and so few that he seems to be completely detached from them. The budding romance between Superman and Lois Lane is handled like an afterthought. Even the moment when Clark finally learns who he really is and gets to speak to his real father (albeit a digital ghost-version of him… Or something) is simply used as a piece of exposition that ultimately amounted to little more than dad telling his son “here’s your costume, now go and be super and stuff”, never stopping to contemplate how all of this makes Clark feel.
Some of the characters are handled quite well, in particular general Zod, the villain. In fact, much like in “The Dark Knight”, I got the impression that the writers were mostly interested in the villain in this movie. Most other characters are not just one-dimensional, they are there as nothing more than mechanistic plot devices, with Jonathan Kent as the worst example. Clark’s foster father is reduced to a sickeningly cold and detached man who at one point even tells his son it would probably have been better to let a bus full of children die a terrible death than to risk anyone knowing he has special powers. It was one of several “What??” moments I had during the film. And I’m usually a very forgiving guy. I forgive stories that don’t make logical sense as long as they make emotional sense. Unfortunately, several key moments in this movie don’t make any kind of sense.
“Man of Steel” was clearly intended to be a more serious, darker version of Superman, in the hopes of reaching those people who always thought Superman to be too much of a wuss compared to some of the edgier superheroes. Instead of making Superman more respectable, however, the film just makes him more boring. There is no sense of joy here, unless it be the joy of destroying things and making lots and lots of noise. The action scenes are exceedingly long and over the top. Superman seems to actually enjoy smashing into buildings and causing as much collateral damage as possible in this film. While the mayhem is cool, it does get a bit exhausting and it focuses on Superman’s powers as a violent force, rather than something noble and beautiful he actually uses to save people.
All of the above sounds extremely negative, I know, but as I said, I still did enjoy the film, despite the big problems I had with it. For one thing, I loved the opening scenes, showing the final hours of Krypton. The designs were suitably fantastical and rich and it really felt like an epic space opera in which big and important events were happening.
I really liked Henry Cavill as Superman. He has the look, the voice and the quiet inner strength that the character needs. His acting is reserved but he radiates a sense of nobility that really works with the character.
I thought it was great that the story didn’t feature any Kryptonite and that the villain was both genuinely threatening and somewhat understandable.
And I really enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s memorable score, which evokes the promise of something epic going to happen the whole time. It never quite enters that lyrical realm, though. It never quite really soars, and in my opinion, it pales in comparison to John Williams’ majestic symphonic themes, one of the elements that I really missed in this film… But it was still a very good score.
All in all, I know I’m being unusually harsh (for me), but that’s because I thought this film had enormous potential and some incredible talent behind it, and I believe it could have been so much more if it had just dared to be quieter and more patient. If it had focused on the people more and if it had given them heart and humour and warmth. If it had just told the story, building anticipation to that great moment when Clark Kent accepts his destiny and becomes Superman, instead of pasting that moment almost randomly in a patchwork narrative.
As it stands, “Man of Steel” is just a big, cool spectacle to be enjoyed when you’re in the mood for something loud and big, and I’ve got nothing against that. It’s just that I really believe this film could have been something truly special, and now, I just don’t think it is.