Believe me, I am as surprised as anyone that I didn’t hate Man of Steel. I have never found the character of Superman interesting. The last Zack Snyder movie I actually liked was his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. And as much as I could do without anymore comic book movies in general, I am particularly over the Christopher Nolanized brand of heavy-handed phony seriousness. Man of Steel contains all these things in one mind-numbingly long package, but for the first 90 minutes I found much to admire. For that matter, there are good things to be found in the nonstop, soul-killing action orgy of the climactic 45 minutes, but you have to dig for them. In fact, I’m convinced there’s probably a pretty darn good 105-minute movie wrapped inside this unwieldy 143-minute one — not that we’ll ever see it.
As expected, Snyder seems to be somewhat reined in on this film. The box office disaster Sucker Punch (2011) guaranteed that, but it’s still surprising how much of Snyder’s pop-culture sensibility has remained intact. More surprising: this makes up much of what is best about Man of Steel. The scenes on Krypton are remarkable in that so much of the look seems to be drawn from 1930s sci-fi pulp magazine covers. That may not be original, but it gives the film a distinctive look that is not without appeal. All right, so Snyder overplays some of it, and I freely admit to bursting out laughing at Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) death scene — that straight, stiff fall to the ground is priceless. I do not suspect that was the intent. But all in all, the opening beats the pants off the one in 1978’s Superman. (It has become unfashionable to speak ill of that version, but at the time of its release, I recall one wag of a critic saying that the destruction of Krypton looked like a windstorm in a Styrofoam cup factory.)
Overall, the whole first part of the film works. I like the flashback structure, which keeps things moving while delivering the requisite background as to how Superman (only refered to as such late in the film) became Superman. Oh, yes, I had issues with Snyder channeling his inner-Terrence Malick for the Kansas scenes. (And why would a pre-Superman Clark don a towel for a cape while playing, not to mention why that would seem to trouble Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent? Maybe he thought it was a sissy affectation.) The less said about the film’s overemphatic Christ imagery the better, though I got a good chuckle over our hero having his big moment of doubt in front of a stained glass window depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Again, I suspect amusement was not the intent.) I am even willing to overlook the unfortunate choice of calling the film’s MacGuffin “the codex” — when spoken it sometimes sounds like General Zod (Michael Shannon) is in search of a sanitary napkin.
Then there’s that last 45 minutes. Once Superman and Zod have their Thor-like showdown in Smallville, the movie goes into full Michael Bay mode. It’s not just that 45 minutes of non-stop action is overkill—not to mention boring—it’s that this 45 minutes of action is largely just the same action over and over and over. There’s no building excitement. It’s all on one massive level that doesn’t build to some incredible climax. It just goes on and on and then stops when it’s worn itself and the audience out. And then everybody’s happy — despite what must amount to thousands of deaths and billions in property damage. It never occurs to anyone that none of this would have happened if Superman hadn’t been here. Maybe the sequel will deal with the realization that Superman is on par with Carl Denham bringing King Kong to town.
The bottom line is that Man of Steel is a partly good and partly dumb, personality-free, property-damage blockbuster. Henry Cavill makes as good a Superman as the film gives him the chance to be. And I really liked Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. In fact, the cast was fine overall — and considering some of the unwieldy tosh they had to say, that’s remarkable. Your enjoyment may well depend on how attached you are to the Christopher Reeve pictures. Nearly all of the negative reviews the film has garnered are from reviewers who are cheesed that this isn’t the campy fun of those movies. That I found them altogether too campy to be much fun may be why this one doesn’t bother me. In any case, I sort of liked it. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher