It’s an interesting time for superheroes. We’re bang-slam in the middle of a weighty revisionist period that has churned interesting and mixed results. On the one hand, we’ve been given Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dark Knight trilogy, which did the impossible and made Batman believable. Then on the other, we’ve had the Avengers, a film I didn’t enjoy very much that was indistinguishable from Transformers in its woeful third act, and crucially offered no emotional hook other than ‘you’ve seen these people in films before’.
And here comes Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and co-written and produced by Nolan himself, this is very clearly made in the same vein as his saga, with its dark and serious tone, and occasional potshots at profundity.
It is a lesser film than any segment of that trilogy. It’s also only a notch above the Avengers, and is overall a disappointing exercise in style, bogged down with a wonky structure and an unfair abuse of lens flare.
It also, depressingly, had not just a destructive third act but a second act as well -the action begins early in this film, and when it starts it doesn’t stop. There is, however, a limit to the amount of indestructible-men-hitting-each-other a person can take, and by the end of this film I (and my eyes) just felt a little bit tired.
I didn’t see this in 3D, and I’m glad for that, because I can only imagine the dividing effect the technique has would have only worsened the technical shortcomings -that over-abundance of silly action, aforementioned excessive lens flare, and some obvious use of green-screen.
But my main problems do not just lie with the technical aspects. It has a $200+ million budget, a staggeringly good cast, a script co-written by the elder statesman of this new superhero movement, a long running time, and yet at no point in this film did I see anything resembling an actual person.
I had hopes for this film, because much like Bruce Wayne I was looking forward to getting to know Clark Kent. While Henry Cavill’s performance can by no means be called poor, it is merely weak and lacklustre, not leaving a stamp on the role that would have made this film exemplary. The motivations and arc of the Man of Steel (‘Superman’ is a ridiculous name now consigned to inverted commas) leave him looking like an insipid wimp. More than once I found myself slightly incredulous, wanting to tell him ‘look, you’re Superman’; he certainly didn’t act like it. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a scene involving a tornado that was clearly fulfilling some sort of pathos, but ended up making him look distinctly un-heroic.
The rest of the cast does sincere but largely redundant stuff, with Amy Adams and Russell Crowe being the highlights. Her Lois Lane is underwritten, the relationship between her and Cavill lacking the two or three scenes where the relationship is actually defined. And his Jor-El is one of those roles where a serious actor is made to spout jargon and rubbish, but the film greatly benefits from his presence. Michael Shannon is disappointing as chief villain General Zod, once again lacking any scene/s where he really lays out what he wants to do, why, and how, leaving him just a relatively poor villain.
Most of all, the film just feels confused. It’s clear that the film-makers have tried something special, to draw a line between a silly, action-packed romp of a superhero movie (like Hellboy, a film I admire), and this new, revisionist superhero movie (like the Dark Knight trilogy). The end result is a film that ultimately tears itself in two -there is no attachment to any of the characters, the action feels protracted and out of place, and crucially nothing feels at stake. In trying to take a step forward, it takes several back, the results being surprisingly crude and rudimentary. Not a lot has actually changed.
My brother, age 6, said something very telling to me after I came home and saw this film.
‘So what happened? Actually, I know what happened. Superman won. Superman always wins. Why can’t they make it where a baddy kills Superman, or beats him up?’
I could not word that better myself.