An overwhelming whirlwind of existential themes, religious overtones and full-on-faucet action spectacle, Man of Steel exposes Superman’s greatest weakness: director Zack Snyder’s indulgence for excess.
There is a lot riding on Man of Steel. With Marvel Studios cornering the market on superhero movies (The Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man) the need for rival DC Entertainment to counter is vital, for while Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a success other tent pole pictures (Green Lantern, Superman Returns) failed to gain traction.
Once again it is up to Supes to save the day. With visually astute filmmaker Zack Snyder (300 and Watchmen) in the director chair and Batman Begins masterminds Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer handling story duties, expectations were up, up and away. It is only that much more disappointing that Man of Steel fails to get off the ground, with Snyder’s overblown display of style smothering the many interesting moments that delve in the man behind the red cape.
It’s story is as old as pop culture: young baby Jor-El is sent on a rocket ship ride from his dying planet of Krypton to Earth by his loving father Kal-El (Russell Crowe brining on the gravitas). On the blue planet he is adopted and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in emotionally rich performances) who teach him the morals of value of humankind, lessons that stay with young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as he grows into manhood and struggles to make peace with who he is and what he is meant to be.
As the new Superman / Clark Kent, British actor Henry Cavill brings a grounded quietness and physically intimidating presence, yet –much like Superman Returns star Brandon Routh before him – still cannot shake the shadow of the late, great Christopher Reeve whose iconic portrayal in Richard Donner’s ground breaking Superman is yet to be matched.
It is the moments of self-discovery where Man of Steel is strongest, with the inner struggle of this character deeply felt during an existential journey that while engrossing, never quite resolves itself as the need to hit the next plot point takes precedence over vital character development.
Of interest too are the religious overtones that pop up now and again, with Snyder and company drawing parallels between Superman, son of Krypton and Jesus Christ, son of God. Themes of faith and sacrifice for the eternal good are prominent, as is a healthy dose of Christian symbology. It is a long bow to be sure (with perhaps a better comparison to be made to Moses), yet that always bountiful Christian market have lapped it up and helped Man of Steel reach new heights in box office receipts.
Where Man of Steel losses its footing is when it switches from interesting origin story to indulgent, barely comprehensive action onslaught as super-villain and Krypton fugitive General Zod (Michael Shannon) invades Earth with evil intent.
While Shannon delivers a strong, intense filled performance as the bad guy driven by the “greater good”, Snyder’s handling of the supermano-a-supermano smack-downs (with small town and big city America feeling the brunt) exposes his biggest weakness: an over indulgence in visual exuberance.
Snyder has proven he indeed knows how to create a visually strong picture, yet his new-found embracement of multiple-cuts and close-ups during these fight sequences (coupled with Hans Zimmer’s overpowering score and the post conversion 3D) is an overload of style, a schizophrenic shift from its thoughtful beginnings that is jarring in tone and look.
In the end we are left with an unhinged superhero movie that sways from the pensive to the overblown faster than a speeding locomotive, a legion of styles as if Terrence Malick (Tree of Life), Michael Bay (Transformers) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) were all fighting over the controls of a vehicle that could have gone the distance, but instead flipped on its head in a state of chaotic decision making. In the end, it is Superman who needed saving from Zack Snyder.