Silver Screen: Man of Steel *
One person should definitely like Zack Snyder’s grim Superman reboot, Man of Steel. That man is Bryan Singer.
Singer, the director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies, was widely derided for his own riff on America’s most iconic superhero. Superman Returns was knocked for being slow, light on action, and occasionally too silly for its own good. Kate Bosworth’s dippy Lois Lane, coupled with the presence of what turned out to be Superman’s super-powered young son, helped fuel a fan backlash that prevented a sequel in an era where just about any and every comic-book movie gets a second chance.
Compared to Snyder’s Man of Steel, Singer’s Superman Returns is Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Caddyshack, and Die Hard all rolled together into one spectacular film. Singer’s version may have had its shortcomings, but at least it was bright and shiny and fundamentally competent, whereas Snyder’s is relentlessly nonsensical.
Snyder directed Man of Steel, but the movie is produced by Christopher Nolan, who cowrote the story with his Dark Knight screenwriter David S. Goyer, and the template feels familiar to the new Batman films-- in almost all the wrong ways. Like Batman Begins, it’s a tricked-out origin story in which the familiar tale is embellished with a lot of unnecessary detail. The opening sequence, which plays like James Cameron Avatar-izing a script based on Led Zeppelin lyrics, features Superman’s pop Jor-El (Russell Crowe) riding a four-winged pterodactyl around a disintegrating Krypton. In one of the movie’s many heavy-handed political references, the planet is facing imminent doom thanks to a depleted energy supply. Jor-El agrees with General Zod (Michael Shannon) that the council of elders is at fault, but he disagrees with Zod’s military coup and instead puts all his hope in his newborn son Kal-El, who he launches into space in hopes the boy might find a new home among the stars.
Three decades later, after the destruction of Krypton has inexplicably released him and his cronies from their space prison, Zod locates Kal-El (Henry Cavill) living on Earth. He comes to the planet demanding the still-only rumored Superman to reveal himself, hoping that Kal will join him in his plan to remake Earth as New Krypton. When our hero declines, Zod prepares to destroy all of humanity to make way for the new race.
It’s a pretty straightforward plot wildly complicated with a lot of silly sci-fi jargon. There’s a strange and needless aside about Kal being the last naturally born son of Krypton, whereas all the other babies were genetically engineered in some kind of underwater eugenics experiment. The inexplicable MacGuffin that drives the plot forward, the “genetic Codex,” is somewhere secret in Superman’s possession, while Zod has commandeered a “World Engine” to terraform the planet unless Kal can use a Kryptonian jump drive his Dad gave to him and reverse the energy flow to create a black hole that will somehow blast Zod’s forces back to the Phantom Zone. None of it makes a damn bit of sense, but it’s played straight-faced and somber, which makes the particularly bizarre fits of comic-book logic all the more intolerable.
The best parts of Man of Steel are flashback sequences to Kal’s childhood, where he is raised in a tiny Kansas town by Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner). The father-son stuff between Pa and his adopted son Clark is genuinely touching, and the script’s most interesting notion is the responsibility of the Kents to raise their godlike son in such a way that he truly appreciates the scope of his powers and can use them for good. There are a lot of unsubtle Jesus references to be had-- Clark is thirty-three when he dons the cape and becomes willing to sacrifice himself for humanity-- but the parallels between Jesus and Superman being burdened by massive responsibility and their own otherness actually gives the character a lot of humanity.
Snyder, however, takes it too far, making being Superman seem like a terrible kind of sentence. At its core, this is power fantasy and wish fulfillment -- it’s no fun to wallow in what a downer it is to be Superman. There’s no levity, no sense of exuberance about having superpowers. The movie not only invites audiences to take it seriously, it insists on it, yet the script is riddled with logical inconsistencies. One of perhaps one-hundred examples: Superman is given his suit by his Kryptonian father and doesn’t find it until he’s thirty. Yet in one flashback we see Clark, a red towel stuffed into the back of his T-shirt, running around playing superhero. If Superman doesn’t exist yet, exactly who is Clark pretending to be, and is it just a coincidence then that the suit secretly made for him also sports a red cape?
Perhaps the movie’s most implausible suggestion is that a major daily newspaper is still thriving and sends reporters out on international assignments. Yet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) are still at work. They’re mostly extraneous to a story that, like Batman Begins, wants to be a superhero movie that doesn’t acknowledge the familiar trappings of superheroes. Only once throughout the movie, in fact, does anyone utter the word “Superman,” as though that’s the verisimilitude the movie has been lacking.
Cavill, Adams, Shannon, and the rest of the performers do fine work, but their efforts are for nil. The script is as poorly structured as any piece of Hollywood writing in recent memory. The constant intercutting between the borderline-incomprehensible plot and flashbacks to young Clark’s life, coupled with scenes that lack any transition or context, never lets the story settle into a rhythm. The result looks like someone who doesn’t speak English stole all the footage from a Superman movie and chopped all of his or her favorite scenes together on a MacBook. It’s a long, leaden, self-serious disaster of a movie that never manages to be any fun for more than a few seconds at a time.
Superman Returns isn’t looking so terrible anymore, is it?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.