In our too-cool-for-school culture of the moment, there isn’t much room for simple enjoyment. There’s just too much cynicism (combined with a “Hey, I know, I know!” impulse) to let clichés go without a remark and a roll of the eyes. It’s understandable, if a little self-loathing, to think that something you can easily understand and process is somehow beneath you. This is not to condone bad writing, acting, or short-changing development with clichés as short cuts. Man of Steel (2013) certainly flirts with badness on a number of occasions, but it does have the bravery to be very un-clever, un-self-conscious, and relatively un-exploitative. Compare that with Iron Man 3 (2013), which was clever, self-conscious, exploitative and enjoyable. But it wasn’t remarkable. Sure, neither is Man of Steel, but for different reasons.
Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have had a child illegally. On Krypton, they have strict gestational rules akin (read: identical) to Huxley’s Brave New World. But Krypton is about to be destroyed due to these Kryptonian’s foolish exploitation of their own natural resources, drilling into the core of their planet for energy. Meanwhile, General Zod (Michael Shannon) has mounted a coup against the Counsel in a last-ditch effort to save the species from the Counsel’s stupidity. In the chaos, Jor-El stole the Codex, intent on sending it with his son, Kal, to another world to make it possible for his species to survive. Kal is sent to Earth and Zod’s coup fails. As punishment, Zod and his followers are sent into the Phantom Zone for a period of time.
On Earth, Kal, raised by Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), a Kansas family, as their own son Clark (Cooper Timberline/ Dylan Sprayberry/Henry Cavill), the boy absorbs the sun’s radiation and manifests a number of impressive powers. But this makes life difficult and he spends much of his life wandering around the world, trying to keep a low profile because his father, Jonathan, was afraid of what people would do to Clark if they ever found out. Then, when an arctic expedition finds an unusual craft in the ice, this brings Clark in contact with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Louis Lane (Amy Adams) of the Daily Planet (edited by Perry White (Laurence Fishburne)) and then things get more complicated.
I don’t have a problem with a cliché when it’s thematic or concerns story arcs. There aren’t that many story frameworks that apply to a super-hero story. What I do have a problem with is the repetition of a device. Independence Day (1996) has really created this fantasy device that will not be denied. Flying up into a thing’s oddly sensitive part that destroys the whole thing. Now that I say that, maybe I mean Star Wars (1977). No, I mean Independence Day because it isn’t just shooting the thing, it’s kamikazeing the alien craft with success. But who’s to complain, it’s a good device creating a moment of sacrifice and catharsis. But there’s that other device, which has never been good, possibly originating in Die Hard (1988), where a/the villain has one last shocking chance to do bad things. That’s never been good.
There are also some characterization flaws. When Zod finds his way to Earth, Clark has a moment where he has to make a decision whether to go to Zod (who has threatened to wreak havoc if Clark doesn’t surrender) and it’s a very isolated moment, a moment where Clark really has to decide who he is. But there’s a problem: he’s Superman and he’s the protector, so I’m just thinking “Go kick his ass, Superman!” rather than “Wow, this must be a difficult moment for him” (like it was for Batman or John McClane). Half of that is on me, and the other half is on the acting, direction, and editing. If director Zack Snyder really wanted to show that emotional moment, then he could have taken ten more seconds and had Cavill squat down and look conflicted. Instead, Cavill knitted his brows and I only wondered in what way and with what speed he would confront Zod.
But they never get the characterization of Superman to my liking. Why can’t he be kind of normal? Why does he have to act like a Mormon—you know what I’m talking about—just like Christopher Reeve played him. Yes, he’s an alien, but he’s been on the planet for this entire life. Human behavior shouldn’t confuse his as much as it does. And while we’re talking about confusion, Mark Wahlberg’s furrowed brow is getting serious knitting-envy for Cavill’s extreme head creases. Then, when Clark has his big emotional moment, it’s raar and then he looks around like he heard a weird noise, “Huh?” That’s bad editing, but there’s a strong theory that that’s the best Cavill had to offer. If we had David Fincher at the helm—uhhh—we could expect near-perfect acting. He would make Cavill act. But this is Zach Snyder and I’ve yet to see a movie of his that convinced me that Snyder recognized human emotion when he saw it. However! There was one element, acclimating to superpowers as a child, that I thought was very interesting and brought out something that was narratively sensible and had the possibility of affecting the young hero’s psyche. Not sure it did, but it was a nice touch.
Shall I now complain about Snyder’s direction? I think I shall. But only on a single point (unless otherwise discussed). These artificial jump zooms—I say artificial because these are CGI scenes and no real camera was in use. J.J. Abrams did it about six times (at a conservative estimate) in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Snyder must have done it three dozen times in Man of Steel. It was obnoxious. You want to show off your art? Give us a different angle that captures the scale without making me queasy. Did I say one? I guess I’ll have to forgo my irritation in ships flying through the city, destroying buildings and killing thousands of people without any sense of the gravity of the situation—roughly the same feeling is inspired when Clark flies through an arctic mountain.
Yeah, reading that over, you probably can tell that I liked Man of Steel. It was honest and straight-forward as I suggested in the opening. That meant that little bits of exposition, which happened only at the middle of the movie—and thus was mostly unnecessary—did seem like cynical screenwriting devices to tell instead of show. Man of Steel showed you everything you needed to know. Bravo to David S. Goyer’s screenplay (and story with Christopher Nolan) and to Snyder for making it happen. Goyer isn’t a comedic guy and his humorlessness works well with Superman because Superman isn’t verbally clever in that way. What’s more, he doesn’t allow Superman to be a punch line for every other character. That makes the whole thing work because, after all, Superman is the movie and if he’s a joke, the movie is a joke. If I’m giving Goyer too much credit, I’ll point out that the penultimate ending is a painful contrivance and his big climax is poorly executed.
I also liked most of the cinematography by Amir Mokri. I didn’t care for the ever-disintegrating cityscape, but I’ll put that to one side. Mokri/Snyder keep close to the characters when they aren’t throwing each other around or trying to fly. You can get that feel from the trailer. It definitely works on Earth, but a little less well in space or in action. I will point again to those jump-zooms as a culprit in this. It’s just so unreal to zoom in and then zoom in again to get even tighter on this flying four-winged dragon in the middle of an attempted coup where things are blowing up all around. It was not to my taste. In the action scenes set on Earth, it felt like things were often blurred, like it will in a 3D theater (I saw the movie in 2D). It was like someone had an open flame under the camera, causing a heat wave. I wasn’t big on that. But the impressionistic stuff of Kansas, I liked quite a bit. More impressionism!
Note also that this is an origin story and it follows the same roadmap of most other superhero origins: they are created, they learn, then they prove their power against a seemingly insurmountable foe. It’s this third part where most fall down. My favorite parts—and this is coming from a big fan of Heroes (2006-10)—are when Clark is in the world trying to be normal when he is not; either as a child or as a man. This is where his knitted brows and confusion make sense. When he’s a flying badass able to crush rocks into diamonds, his emotional passivity, including his apparent inability to register true joy, becomes a problem.
Hey, Richard Schiff!