Man of Steel: The Latest Attempt to Make Superman Interesting Again Fails
It was a nice try, a nice thought: let’s get Christopher Nolan on board as a producer to the constantly-failing Superman franchise, which hasn’t seen a good movie since the days of Superman: The Movie and the goofy Superman II starring Christopher Reeve. He resurrected Batman, so maybe his helping hands could resurrect Superman. Why not? I often try to figure out what went right with the original Superman movies that the others haven’t been able to capture. Of course, Superman III and IV were just the products of squeezing life out of a successful franchise. Superman Returns was an attempt to go back to the days of Superman I and II, but conveniently forget things that happened in those movies, and totally forget that Superman has an aversion to kryptonite, right after weakening him with kryptonite. And something stupid about land.
It’s been mentioned many times before that the character of Superman is difficult to make interesting. The main reason is that he’s got unlimited power and is technically impossible to beat, and only when you give him kryptonite does he ever get weak. And when he gets weak, he’s totally weak, like less dangerous than a baby. The original Superman definitely throws kryptonite in the mix, but Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman, is such a terrific “comic book” villain, that his crazy schemes seem plausible within the rules of the movie. Before Luthor’s plan enters into the fray, it’s Superman saving a whole bunch of people in the usual montage fashion. And, there’s the goofy fun of Clark Kent trying to make a living at the Daily Planet, and somehow a pair of glasses conceals his identity. Christopher Reeve seems to be the only one to have been able to get both characters right (and apologies, I never was a Smallville or Lois & Clark fan, so no idea how those TV shows went about it).
But technically, Superman was “unbeatable” in those movies, too. But somehow, those first two movies were the only ones to be decent, even though they also have their crazy flaws. Making Superman darker isn’t going to make a difference, but that’s what the new Zack Snyder-directed Man of Steel does. With obvious Nolan/Goyer touches, this is still a Zack Snyder movie, sans super slo-mo. Snyder’s 300 was pretty good, his Watchmen probably underrated, so he has a good comic book pedigree. But the problem is Superman, and with Snyder’s eye for visually-striking action, the movie is unfortunately trapped in a neverending cycle of unbeatable heroes and villains slamming each other fruitlessly into things and tons of explosions.
We return to the origin story of Superman, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is once again having a hard time convincing the governing council of Krypton that their planet is about to die and everyone needs to get the hell off it. Enter General Zod (Michael Shannon), who agrees with Jor-El but wants to take a more fascist approach to making the council agree by enslaving everyone and killing people who don’t agree. He hopes to make a better Krypton elsewhere. But before the planet is destroyed, he is imprisoned, along with his followers, and sent to the “Phantom Zone.” Jor-El sends his only son, Kal-El, to Earth. Zod swears he will find the Kryptonian whenever he figures out how to get out of the Phantom Zone. How dare that kid be free from his clutches, anyway?
This Clark Kent (here played by Henry Cavill as an adult) is different from other Clarks of the past. We don’t see the Kents (played very well by Kevin Costner and always-hot Diane Lane) find Clark. In his childhood, Clark is constantly trying to figure out why he’s so different, and he uses his powers to save people even though his surrogate dad has told him he needs to watch that shit because the world “isn’t ready” for the news that there’s someone like him on the Earth. By the way, this philosophy leads to a couple of weird scenes in the movie where this philosophy is taken to a bizarre level where it’s hard to know exactly what to feel about them.
Obviously, Clark learns what his powers are…but he’s not quite Superman yet. He’s done some Supermanny things but he’s not the media sensation of the past Superman films. Classic Superman love interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) stumbles on his story when she gets a military lead on an alien vessel encased in ice (which substitutes for a sort of Fortress of Solitude), and Clark just happens to be visiting it for the first time. Her findings are denied by the military and so she’s forced to put the kibosh on a hot story until Zod shows up to Earth demanding that the guy with the powers be handed over to him.
It’s at this point the movie gets terribly ridiculous. The effects of Earth on Kryptonians is what turns them into unbeatable badasses, so it’s Superman fighting Zod and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) in what amounts to lots and lots of throwing each other into lots of gigantic, immovable things. The damage they inflict on cities is tantamount to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone made fun of in Team America. The action here is completely pointless because you know no one has the upper hand (this is sort of the issue I had with the climax of Iron Man). There’s no way for anyone to win. How this movie decides the fight is completely anticlimactic. To be fair, there really wasn’t much choice.
I feel like Costner, Lane, Shannon, and Crowe do well in this movie, and I’m not sure what to make of Cavill because unfortunately, Superman is always too good, with no flaws, and he comes off way too boring at times (and he’s never the nerdy Clark that always provides character in the other movies). He’s a handsome devil, that’s for sure. But the problem of the Superman character, the back-and-forth of the flashback, flash-forward narrative, the brain-dead action, this movie didn’t have a chance to be any good, really.
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