If casting really were everything, Man of Steel would be phenomenal: Henry Cavill soars away with the
title Best Looking Superman Ever; Russell Crowe brings emotional depth to the
role of his father, Jor-El; Michael Shannon glowers as Jor-El’s power-hungry
nemesis, General Zod, yet makes us see that Zod believes he’s trying to save their
planet from destruction. (Why Jor-El has an Australian accent and Zod sounds
American remains a nagging mystery. Are they from different parts of Krypton?) Diane
Lane and Kevin Costner are unexpected but touching as the lovable and loving
Earth parents who found the baby Superman when his pod from outer space crashed
on their Kansas farm.
But this overheated action film reminds us that casting isn’t
everything. The film’s first half is engaging enough. We meet Clark Kent as a young
man with an identity crisis: to reveal
his superpowers or not? Cavill’s Clark is strong, sensitive, with a conscience — a Superguy for
our times. By the last hour, though, director Zack Snyder has turned the movie into
a gigantic bonfire of explosions for the sake of explosions and nothing more. It’s
a lost opportunity because Man of Steel
had the potential to be that rare thing: genre-plus, the kind of emotionally
resonant beyond-action crossover that the Dark
Knight series is.
That was a real possibility; the story is by the Dark Knight team of Christopher Nolan
and David S. Goyer (Goyer wrote this screenplay). As in their screenplay for Batman Begins, here they offer a hero’s origin
story. The opening sequences of Man of Steel
fluidly blend action and character, in a microcosm of what the whole thing
could have been: on Krypton, an embattled planet of glittery silver images and shape-shifting hologram
faces, Jor-El and his wife decide they must save their son by sending him away.
As General Zod makes a thwarted grab for power (yes, there are battle scenes)
we feel the parents’ wrenching loss and their
idealism about their boy’s peaceful role in a new world.
Yet all that X-ray vision stuff can make a kid an outcast,
and little Clark Kent, who doesn’t yet know he’s Kal-El, has a hard time
fitting in. As a young man he’s adrift, until one day his powers are discovered
by a certain dogged investigative reporter. Amy Adams plays Lois Lane as fearless
but also appropriately ordinary, with the kind of wholesome looks a farm boy
like Clark might go for.
Fathers and sons, Clark’s questions about his own origins, fraught
moral choices everywhere, including Lois’s journalistic dilemma about whether
to reveal Clark as an alien. What more could a story ask for? But all those juicy
elements are ultimately buried under Snyder’s onslaught of predictable,
visually unoriginal action. Zod attacks, a gas station blows up — as if we need to
see one more exploding gas station on screen — terrified people run down the
streets as glass shatters from skyscrapers, there’s something about pods syncing
up to restore Earth’s gravity to its normal pull, on and on … it’s exhausting
and eventually a little bit dull at two and a quarter hours.
All those explosions are exactly what an action blockbuster
needs, of course, and Man of Steel is
a perfectly good one on its own terms. If you love action, it’s all there; if
you don’t you can always gawk at Cavill. And if you want genre-plus, you can
always revisit a Dark Knight.