In the opening scenes of Zack Snyder‘s “Man of Steel,” the planet of Krypton announces itself with the director’s customary visual smorgasbord: canyons bathed in stark golden light, frenzied aerial battles for the planet’s future, and a host of CGI creatures and machinery zipping around. It is a garish, worrying sight, saved finally by silence, as a mother laments her son’s future on Earth. “We’ll never see him walk,” Lara Lor-Van (Ayalet Zurer) quietly says to her husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, solid throughout his considerable role). The line connects, both actors retrieving the film from gaudy chaos for a moment of humanity; the child departs, leaving his parents to their planet’s fate. Thankfully, down on Earth, we proceed to see him walk, run, and then fly in Snyder’s impressive, bold take on the Superman mythology — one that strains under its helmer’s indulgent action tendencies, but succeeds on heart where brawn will not.
After clutching form and content close in “300” and “Watchmen,” what a pleasure it is to see Snyder, along with screenwriter David Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan, refract, delay, and confront Superman’s origins with questions and revisions. Scratch crystal fortresses and time travel from mind; this is “Close Encounters of the Krypton Kind,” as we witness a world’s first reaction to an alien from the alien’s perspective — albeit one in the decidedly charming form of Henry Cavill.
The most successful part of Snyder’s vision is two-fold: the laser-focused emphasis on Clark Kent’s journey into Superman, and the impressive ease with which Cavill slides into the lead role. The British actor brings a cagey physicality to Clark/Kal-El, projecting a tired resignation to his powers that helps when their boundaries are seemingly unlimited. We also see a welcome sight — Superman thinking. As Cavill shuts his eyes to the Antarctic sun during his first spin in the suit, he trusts Snyder and how the camera will regard him. He trusts he’ll appear the part. We believe it.
The film’s style and tone are less assured: oftentimes, Snyder feels restless, laying the same tempo on flashbacks to Clark’s childhood as the more action-heavy sights (and there are many). Thankfully, he’s sacrificed his usual visual gimmicks, but the overeager embellishments survive: a school bus river rescue prizes cinematography over consequences, while the aerial scenes of Superman flying — convincingly realized and paced — feature digital smash-zooms that grow staler each time they appear.
Luckily, Hans Zimmer is one composer able to match the director in terms of bombast, and his wonderfully layered score — alongside DP Amir Mokri‘s bracing (in our 2D version, at least) handheld imagery — creates some true transcendent moments. Snyder’s vision of the Midwest — all billowing clotheslines, IHOPs, and department stores — lands as a bit simple, but his destruction of those elements remains topnotch, as in an exhilarating Smallville collision between Superman, the U.S. Army, and the forces of General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Through thick-shouldered armor, a gallery of grotesque battle helmets, and those unblinking death pits he calls eyes, Shannon wrestles out a Zod of mangled patriotism, never kneeling but struggling to restore the race that exiled him. His fierce utilitarian mindset means an engaging, one-note result — most scenes involve furious screaming with brief moments of reflection; however, Zod’s confused purpose strikes at a key, winning question of the film: what faith means in the midst of superheroes.
This query flares up promptly, as Pa and Ma Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) shelter their adopted son from their prying Kansas community. Snyder notes Costner’s paternal anxiety: whatever religious beliefs he had before Clark are uprooted by his existence, and the actor delivers his sage wisdom to his son with a fine nervous touch. Meanwhile, his wife suffers by comparison. Diane Lane is mostly sidelined, reduced to narrative cheerleader and emotional bait, and that slackened hold on the film’s female characters continues with Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
As much as Lois may evolve in future sequels and DC crossovers, in “Man of Steel” her role is frustratingly nonexistent. She retains her Daily Planet journalist position: obstinate, ego-driven, and with the added influence of blog culture hovering over her editor-in-chief, Perry White (a muted Laurence Fishburne). Adams cuts through any daffy airs of the character, more foolhardy than simply foolish; she readies herself for a personal arc that the script never provides. Goyer writes her relationship with Clark/Superman as a gradual loosening of professional distance, but Snyder shoots it with an oblivious sterility; you wonder if their failed connection is better than Lois’ hopeless crush of yore.
Humor continues to elude Snyder’s work: aside from a few choice visual gags — a toner-less office printer flashing red as danger nears — the surroundings and characters remain pensive, coiled up. Especially so in the latter half of the film, set in Metropolis as Zod’s plan for Earth and Superman becomes clear. Squint a little at the overlong noise of spiraling logic, toppled skyscrapers and countless pedestrian deaths, and you’d think the final reel of “The Avengers” had been spliced in. At this point, the central relationship between comic superheroes and cities is inescapable; the future looks grim, though, if adaptations stick to this tired blueprint.
We finally sigh in relief as the film returns to a farmhouse backyard, where a boy tries on the role of his future self while his father observes. The scene is an intersection of the film’s attention on nature versus nurture — a person’s designed path against the outside influences that fight it. Goyer and Nolan have crafted in “Man of Steel” a taut, exploratory vision, and Snyder’s later inheritance of the material indeed proves his best work since “Dawn of the Dead.” Together, they’ve humanized an icon in ways not unlike Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln,” although they’ve undervalued the integral supporting roles in much of the same manner. The difference is that Snyder carries a franchise flexible to second attempts. [B]