Dour, Lifeless "Man Of Steel" Fails Source Material, Fans

My hopes were up for “Man Of Steel.” It seemed as though the stars had aligned – director Zack Snyder (“300” and “Watchmen”) was finally getting to play to his strengths as a visual storyteller and oft-maligned screenwriter David Goyer was receiving substantial guidance from the beloved Christopher Nolan. The film’s trailers impressed, promising the definitive cinematic take on Superman, and early buzz was mostly positive. All the signposts of success were in place. After years of excitement – on my part and millions of others – the film is finally here, our excitement rewarded with… a thundering dud that embodies everything wrong with modern day superhero yarns.

David Goyer’s work on the “Dark Knight” trilogy was always in concert with Jonathan Nolan, and it’s more apparent than ever that the former had nothing to do with that series’ creative successes. Goyer’s work here is so uninspired, so hackneyed, that it’s a wonder anyone even considered handing him the keys to such a celebrated franchise. That Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures actually did it boggles the mind. It takes a special kind of writer to turn Michael Shannon (General Zod) into just another character actor, but the innately talented Shannon gets nothing to work with here and essentially fumbles around whenever he’s on screen.

We begin on a deteriorating Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), have just given birth to a baby boy, Kal-El – the planet’s first natural birth in centuries. This material seems ripe for an expository montage, but it becomes an extended setpiece, lasting nearly 30 minutes and offering little more than sketchy CGI and banal dialogue. Jor-El decides to send his newborn son to Earth and Zod gets really, really mad at him. That’s nearly a fifth of the film summarized in less than twenty words.

Things should get better with the arrival of Henry Cavill as Clark Kent, but the hour that follows is a fatal mix of awkward editing and a void of narrative momentum. Snyder cuts back and forth between different portions of Clark’s life, as if manically turning the key on an obviously dead engine. First Clark’s a lonely fisherman, then he’s a kid rescuing some schoolmates, then we’re back in the present day as he discovers his true identity, and then we retreat to days gone by in Kansas with Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner). This is stock superhero origin fluff, tropes that we’ve been subjected to ad nauseam, and the fact that it’s Superman instead of some second-tier nobody doesn’t alleviate the boredom.

Cavill makes an alarmingly undersized impression in the title role, but Goyer’s adaptation of the character is so lackluster that it would be wrong to judge Cavill’s ability to carry a film on this performance alone. Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff get thankless supporting roles, while Laurence Fishburne competently plays Daily Planet Editor-In-Chief. It’s too bad that the screenplay requires so little of him. But Amy Adams, as Lois Lane, gets the shortest shrift, aimlessly following Clark around for no apparent reason and not getting any juicy dialogue to work with – although, no one does. Worse yet, even in Clark’s embrace, she seems galaxies away. The dearth of chemistry between the two is hard to watch.

And just as the fate of the film hangs on Zack Snyder’s ability to deliver some late game action thrills, he doesn’t. Visually, this is his most pedestrian outing to date, and little of the esoteric theatricality he brought to “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch” is present here. The film’s only visceral excitement comes in the form of Superman pummeling his enemies through buildings, or saving the occasional falling person. And if “Man Of Steel” is good for anything, it’s counting on Superman to save falling people. Again. And again. The only thing more predictable than the action beats is the mountain of platitudes from the lips of the cast. Oh, look – Superman just saved another falling person!

The ineptitude of “Man Of Steel” makes Warner Bros.’ decision to abandon Bryan Singer’s warmly received “Superman Returns” even more frustrating. Some complained that it lacked action, but it did what every good Superman film has to do – it humanized Clark Kent. In “Man Of Steel,” Clark’s not even a reporter yet. He’s just some self-serious humanoid walking the Earth, talking about assimilating into human kind without making any attempt to do it. Brandon Routh’s take on the character was soft-spoken, genuine, and inimitably caring. It forced us to empathize with him. Cavill is mostly expressionless, as if afraid to interpret the character in his own way. His only apparent superpower is boring the audience.

I haven’t even mentioned Donner’s 1978 film or its sequels, but it’s probably for the best. “Superman Returns” – in all its throwback, John Williams-scored glory – is a much more apt point of comparison, and it runs circles around “Man Of Steel.” It might be too pensive, it might take too many liberties with the character, but I’ll take “too much” over the “too little” of Snyder’s film any day. It falls short in every possible way, failing a talented cast, an enormous budget, and one of the greatest superheroes to ever grace our popular culture. Shame on me for getting my hopes up, but shame on Goyer, Snyder, and company for doing so little with so much. Supes deserves much, much better.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: June 14, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe, Michael Kelly, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language)