(NEW YORK) -- It’s called Man of Steel, but it really should be called “Man of Exposition.”
Man of Steel is unlike any Superman story we’ve seen before. While science fiction has always informed Superman, this is the first Superman movie that actually feels more like a sci-fi action flick and less like a movie based on a comic book super hero. The gritty, unwashed, realistic Christopher Nolan-David S. Goyer Dark Knight oeuvre also has never before informed a Superman movie, as it does here (Nolan executive-produced Man of Steel and Goyer co-wrote it with him). That aesthetic also was much more effective when applied to Batman Begins than Man of Steel.
We begin on Krypton, where scientist Jor-El and wife Lara Lor-Van are having the first natural birth the planet has seen in generations -- a son they name Kal-El (Ricki Lake will be happy to hear it’s a home birth) -- knowing full well that the planet is about to blow up. In the meantime, General Zod, played by one of the best actors on this planet, Michael Shannon, is furious with the elders of Krypton for making decisions that, he believes, have destroyed the planet. He commits high treason by killing one of them and attempting a coup.
Zod is born to lead, literally -- essentially genetically programmed to ensure the survival of his people. Jor-El also wants to ensure the survival of his people but the two have very different philosophies about how that should happen. Jor-El is going to blast his son into space and send him to a distant planet, where Kal-El will be “a god” to the planet's inhabitants. That's us.
If you’re familiar with Superman’s mythology, you know what happens to Krypton but I’m going to leave out the how and why. But if you've seen the trailers, you know Zod survives and ultimately follows Kal-El to Earth, where he demands we earthlings hand him over -- or else.
When we first meet Kal-El, he’s a man, seemingly in his 20s, working on a fishing boat, trying to figure out how to fit in. Henry Cavill’s understanding of this character is palpable. This guy is the real deal. However, the idea itself is an unbalanced and ill-conceived effort to humanize this son of Krypton. At first, showing him struggle to repress what he’s capable of, works. Eventually, however, that inner battle becomes a vortex that sucks some of the life out of this movie.
We're also treated to flashbacks of Kal-El's childhood in Kansas, when he first discovers his super-human powers and has no idea how to handle them. It's one of the movie's strongest scenes and adds something to the Superman canon I don't recall seeing before. Like the adult Kal-El's struggle to find himself, at first the flashbacks are welcome but they ultimately feel manipulative instead of organic and become a device that detracts from what, conceptually, is a fantastic story. Going non-linear with the narrative is a mistake.
Man of Steel is a perfectly cast film with an Oscar-worthy score by Hans Zimmer, but it lacks the balance and emotional heart needed to elicit enough empathy to make an audience truly care. The action sequences are stunning, clearly director Zack Snyder’s strength, but they're also excessive to the point where they lose their impact. Snyder (300, Watchmen) has yet to learn that less is often more. When he does master that lesson, he could very well become one of our best directors.
Bottom line: Man of Steel isn't a bad movie or an awful way to start a franchise, but it’s not exactly “super.”
Three out of five stars.
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