As Colin pointed out to me, Zack Snyder has a knack for making movies that trailer really well. In that regard, Man of Steel is his finest achievement, from a Malick-esque teaser to a beautiful, memorable preview, the work done to promote this film is incredible. And I began to hope. Snyder is a very stylish director, with David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan helping out, could this finally be the Superman movie I’ve always wanted? One that I could recommend without having to say “well, the ending’s really dumb” or “and then there’s this Superbaby thing, which… Just ignore that”? Or would The Iron Giant remain the best Superman movie ever made?
This is an origin story, so you probably already know most of the beats: Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last Hope, kindly couple. What’s different this time is that General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a coup on Krypton while Jor-El (Russel Crowe) is trying to convince the council that the planet is dying. This lets Man of Steel begin with action, as the world goes to war while Jor-El desperately tries to send his son to a chance at life. It also sets the tone for the rest of the movie, with lots of attention paid to the fighting and exploding, and the character beats run through very quickly.
I’ve heard Man of Steel used to be much longer, and I have to wonder if this movie was as contemplative and emotional as the teasers hinted at one point, and then the decision was made to pick up the pace. Because it definitely appears that story lost in favor of action here. For example, when Superman (Henry Cavill) finally has a chance to talk with Jor-El and learn about who he is and where he came from, it is presented like they had a five minute chat. A chat which not only changed Superman’s life, but taught him about the extent of his powers and convinced him to become a super hero, which goes directly against the teachings of Pa Kent (Kevin Costner). A life-changing event, one that should have been a huge scene in the movie, becomes an aside because there’s no action in it.
Anyway, right when Superman is about ready to go public, in part because of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Zod and his Kryptonian cronies show up on earth, threatening to turn the planet into a new Krypton. What follows is the ending from Transformers 3, although not done as well as when The Avengers did it. There sure is a lot of destruction though, like, man. A lot of people probably died. And there’s some other weird stuff going on, stuff I’m not quite sure I understood and would be too spoilery to discuss anyway. But, roughly, it’s Transformers 3.
Here’s the thing: you can’t make a Superman movie be about solving a problem. The biggest problem with the Superman character is that he is so powerful (and his powers are paradoxically limitless and boring by super hero standards) that watching him beat stuff up is a meaningless exercise. The stakes could not be lower when a movie comes down to Superman and someone else duking it out. Even in this movie, there are characters roughly as powerful as Superman, who even say things like “your concept of mercy is a weakness we don’t share” and “I am a trained warrior. Where did you train, a farm?” But, without further explanation, Superman ends up beating those people. He cannot lose.
So a great Superman story has to be about something else. It has to be about character. The great stories about Superman reinforce the idea that what makes him great is not his powers, it’s the love of his parents. It’s the love and respect he has for humanity. Superman is the embodiment of hope, his outer strength a mirror for the inner strength we all have. That great speech of Jor-El’s from All Star Superman, the one used in this movie, about joining Superman in the sun, gets to the core of Superman’s role as an inspiration. Man of Steel tries to tap into that, but it never succeeds.
Jor-El ends up being the best character in the movie. There’s not nearly enough Pa Kent, he comes off as singularly focused on keeping Superman’s powers secret. Zod, in an uncommonly bland performance by Shannon, ends up seeming like someone who is purely angry, without logic or motivation presented in anything resembling a sympathetic way. And Cavill, as Superman, is… Well, he’s very muscular. He seems nice, I guess. Doesn’t have that boyscout charm, but that doesn’t stop him and Lois from making out in a cringe-worthy scene late in the movie. But all that emotion I hoped the movie would have? It was just a tease.