Man Of Steel had so much potential. It looked to be a gritty new take on Superman in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy rewrote superhero rules for Batman. Nolan himself even worked on the film as an executive producer. But while the movie performed very well at the box office and already has a sequel in the works, it unfortunately doesn’t live up to the expectations raised by an excellent trailer.
The movie begins on Superman’s home planet Krypton, where his father tragically sacrifices himself in order to save his baby boy and send him hurtling to Earth. This opening Krypton sequence is action-packed and eye-popping, with the planet’s elaborate architecture majestically rendered in gorgeous CGI. It seems like we are in for another movie that fits perfectly in line with the rest of director Zack Snyder’s stylized, combat oriented work (300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch).
However, the best part of the film turns out to be it’s most grounded. When baby Superman comes down to Earth, so does the film, as Snyder departs from his normal action-centric fare and turns to the meat of the story: Clark Kent’s human upbringing and discovery of his powers. Snyder slows down the pace in order to develop Kent into a strong, compassionate character who develops a deep love and respect for the very people who shun him. Henry Cavill masterfully inhabits his role as Kent/Superman, imbuing him with a depth of feeling and emotion not normally seen in a Superman film. Cavill displays solid acting chops throughout, managing to bring Superman’s internal moral conflict to the forefront of a story otherwise defined by cacophony and commotion.
Snyder’s character study is by far the best part of the film: it humanizes the alien being and makes us care about something more than Superman’s superpowers. We may not know what it’s like to be Superman, but we can all identify with a lonely outsider. This loneliness is the emotional heart of the movie, and yet, as the film unfolds, Snyder loses sight of his own best impulses. Instead of making a compelling argument about the ways in which we treat others, the film simply devolves, like so many other superhero movies, into a lengthy slugfest.
The escalating fight scenes between Superman and the treacherous General Zod, played by a slimy Michael Shannon, leave little room for character development. While Shannon is the perfect actor for Zod, there are times when his performance feels over the top. Zod is a bit too evil to be believable (though he is hardly the first super-villain to come across as one-dimensional). The rest of the actors, though also stuck playing well-worn roles, give truly commendable performances, from a grizzled but sympathetic Russell Crowe as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the quintessential understanding Earth parents, to a fierce Amy Adams as the most honest and real Lois Lane we’ve seen yet.
With such an accomplished group of actors, you would think it would be difficult to mess things up. But in this case, even a phenomenally talented group of actors—almost every one an Oscar nominee—can’t save the film from a needlessly complex story structure (do we really need all those flashbacks?). Nor can they prevent the script from deteriorating into a conventional Superhero vs. Supervillain beat-em-up at the end. With the engaging and effective character study of Clark Kent no more than a distant memory, the final 20-30 minutes of Man of Steel amount to little more than an ordinary action flick.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good fight scene just as much as the next testosterone fueled 22-year-old male. But even for me, the fight between these two invincible aliens drags on for such a long time that one forgets why they are even fighting in the first place. Worse still, as Superman and Zod utterly destroy the city around them, killing untold thousands in the wake of their fight, neither the characters nor the film deign to acknowledge this massive loss of life. With one too-long fight, the honorable character that Snyder and Cavill spent so much energy creating loses all his credibility. So much for this new Superman’s vaunted moral compass. This massive moral inconsistency almost entirely contradicts the message given by the rest of the movie, and as it does so, strikes its own fatal blow.
The bottom line: if all you want to do is watch a well-executed superhero action movie, you’d be hard pressed to find a better Superman than this. Man of Steel has everything a good superhero movie should: big explosions, alien planets, compelling characters, beautiful people. But all of these components can’t save the movie from falling into the snare of convention. Snyder attempts (valiantly) to make a new kind of Superhero film, but if you go in expecting The Dark Knight of Superman movies, prepare to be underwhelmed. It’s not that Man of Steel is a terrible movie—it most certainly is not. It simply fails to rise above the conventions of the genre from which it tries so admirably to escape.
Zach Saldacher is a senior in the English Department.