Man of Steel is a basically fine movie, when the dust has all settled, but it's was supposed to more than that: a grand pop-opera that would revitalise the superhero genre with a sense of majesty and scope. Which is sort of vaguely does, though not terribly well. The good and grand things outnumber the bad, but the film works as hard as it can to keep that from being the case.
It was also supposed to be a movie that did well by Superman, which it most certainly does not, and that's ultimately the most upsetting part; upsetting enough that I am not at all sure whether to call this a bad movie that does an awful lot of good things, or a good movie that does an awful lot of bad things, and it's only by conceding that if it had any other title and was about any other super-powered alien, I'd feel at least marginally warmer towards it, particularly towards its final 30 minutes.
Still, you don't use the name and iconography of a genuine pop culture legend if you don't plan to engage with that legend's mythology in a respectful way. And while Snyder and Goyer (and Christopher Nolan, who produced and co-wrote the story) demonstrate some idea of what makes Superman Superman, particularly in the first half of their unreasonably long movie, the deeper it gets into the plot, the more that Man of Steel drifts into something generic and unworthy of its subject, until we finally end at a long, noisy, well-animated, but not terribly interesting city-destroying final setpiece that might as well be called The Avengers: Dark and Moody Edition. Screw the big climactic moment that has so many people chattering about whether or not it's in character (not really, but Henry Cavill is stupefyingly good, and he makes the scene play well); it's much worse that Superman should be the source of so much devastation to such a large city as happens so blithely, and while the final ten minutes might raise the question of whether or nor Snyder and Goyer actually understand the character, the half-hour preceding them answered that question already with a resounding, building-crumbling "No they fucking well don't".
But enough prattling about the ending, for it is after all such a short part of such a massive damn movie. Man of Steel is a super-modern take on the Superman origin story (how super-modern? The word "Superman" is only spoken twice, in one scene, with an ironic flair), which means that the action opens on the planet of Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is failing to convince the high council that their planet, abused for its resources, is about to collapse into rubble. One person who did listen was commander of the Krytptonian military, General Zod (Michael Shannon), who uses this imminent crisis as the excuse to launch a rebellion against the government. It doesn't go well, but Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) use to chaos to launch a small ship with their son Kal-El to the planet Earth, whose yellow sun and dense atmosphere will provide their boy with an environment in which his anatomy will leave him the next best thing to a god.
And so it goes: Kal-El lands on Earth, is adopted by the Smallville, Kansas couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and with this being a darker, grittier, more pointedly realistic take on the mythos, Clark Kent ends up being plagued with doubt and worry, and so he goes a-questing. Eventually, he ends up at an ancient Kryptonian vessel buried in the Arctic, and activating it acts like a beacon that brings Zod and his fellow Kryptonian exiles - the only other members of the race to survive the planet's destruction - straight to Earth, to recruit or kill the son of Jor-El.
For such a long movie (143 minutes, which is still less than Superman Returns), Man of Steel has very little actual plot: most of the first hour is strict character-building, in which Cavill's Clark Kent is pensive and full of self-awareness, and yet at the end of it all, it's hard to say with a straight face that much character has been built. Certainly, nobody besides Clark himself ends up emerging as a person: the perfectly-cast Amy Adams is totally wasted on a Lois Lane whose character is dismally familiar from every one of Christopher Nolan's own movies, where women are steely, determined, and very boring, Zod suffers from Shannon's intense but not particularly nuanced performance, and absolutely nobody else is around long enough to make an impression. As the two fathers of Superman, Crowe and Costner are easily best-in-show, but this is not a very people-driven movie, which makes it weird that so much of it moves with the stateliness and sobriety that indicates that it wants to be watched that way.
That being said, at the single task of portraying a deep, complex Superman who isn't just a gung-ho Boy Scout, Man of Steel at least has the sensitivity to make for a character who's going to be pretty great to watch in some other movie, as long as Cavill - whose shallow handsomeness and limited range are a great fit for this character - comes back, and Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan all don't. He is a genuinely introspective, thoughtful figure, wasted on a movie with such a rattletrap plot and lugubrious shift into a very long, very tedious series of battle scenes that resemble every other urban sci-fi action film to come out since Transformers.
Very little about the film is inspired in any way: it's Snyder applying his adoration of flashy violence to the po-faced aesthetic Nolan used in his Batman movies, and this is great insofar as it means that the director has to let up on his wretched slow-motion, but the whole thing feels like it was cranked out of a factory; it's as determinedly impersonal as any summer movie you could name, the result of a magpie copying his producer's style without understanding the reasoning beneath it. The only that keeps it from being entirely mirthless, save for a few very serious jokes, is Hans Zimmer's fantastic score, the best thing he's ever done for a big summer movie, with a plaintive "Young Clark" motif to give the film a stirring emotional backbone alongside his soaring, pummeling action cues that are frequently the only reason that scenes play as exciting rather than morose.
The one thing that absolutely, invariably works are the flashbacks to Clark's Kansas boyhood, roughly crammed into the narrative but always wonderful while they're there: Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry, who play the character at 9 and 13 years respectively, have tremendous chemistry with Costner and Lane, and the film's implication of how the plain middle Americans that raised Superman left him with a straightforward, noble soul works terrifically well, while also being great scenes in their own right. There's a muted sensitivity in the visuals that exists nowhere else in the movie (or in the director's entire career), and some moments are tender enough that, God help me, I got misty-eyed (especially the last flashback, with its casually iconic shots of a young superhero running around at sunset with a makeshift cape).
So what are we to do? Some parts of Man of Steel are absolutely great, a tiny number of things are actively irritating, much of it is totally bland and routine, just one more superhero movie that mostly acts like every other one. Hopefully it will follow the pattern of other superhero origin stories, and lead in to a sequel that can use this character to better benefit, with more excitement and more humanity, the two most important ingredients in any Superman story, and two things mostly missing from the great bulk of this movie. There is much to love about this iteration of the character; just not the movie in which he currently finds himself.
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