I’ll come out and say it: I love superhero movies. That being said, I went into this film with mixed feelings. I’m a big fan of producer Christopher Nolan’s work, but am no fan of director Zack Snyder (300 just wasn’t appealing to me on any level, and the ugliness and rampant misogyny of his supposed opus Suckerpunch made me actively loathe his work).
Luckily, Man of Steel manages to avoid the Snyderian elements that I find unbearable (grimy, washed-out color palettes and obnoxiously gratuitous slow-motion). However, it falls short of achieving the complex, contemplative quality of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It eschews the worst of Snyder, but it fails to recreate the best of Nolan.
Because Man of Steel has notable merits as well as flaws, I thought it best to break up this review into Good, Bad, and Wtf (for the moments that left me scratching my head).
Let’s get one thing straight. Man of Steel is a good-lookin’ movie. And I’m not talking about the action sequences (because those, while captivating at first, lose their appeal after dragging on and on). I’m talking about gorgeous footage of sunlit fields and sweeping ocean waves– all those dramatic shots and breath-taking angles. The cinematography of this film is nothing short of beautiful– that is, when it’s not preoccupied with showcasing destruction (First Krypton, then Metropolis. It gets old.).
The film also sports stand-out performances. Henry Cavill makes a good Supes, honest and wholesome, and Amy Adams captures Lois Lane’s no-nonsense snarkiness well. However, the best performances were those of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent. They so perfectly epitomize the spirit of good-hearted blue collar Americana; you couldn’t imagine a better family for an impressionable alien to crash-land into. And maybe more remarkably, the Kents come across as regular folk just trying to do good by their son. We see them as real people, not actors playing a role.
Unfortunately, it seemed that for every good element, there was a not-so-good element to temper it.
Here’s one: Man of Steel has a ton of religious symbolism that, rather than generate thought-provoking questions about humanity, comes across as heavy-handed and pretentious. One scene that had me rolling my eyes (minor spoilers?) had our hero in a church, standing in front of a stained glass window depicting Christ, while Supes talks about sacrificing himself to save humanity. We’re not even gonna try to be subtle, are we? (Clark also mentions that he’s 33, the age at which Jesus was crucified, but I don’t know whether that was an intentional allusion or coincidence).
Speaking of heavy-handed, how ‘bout those references to today’s societal woes? Global warming? Cue up footage of a polar bear hopping from glacier to wizened glacier. Energy crisis? Cue Russell Crowe scolding his fellow Kryptonians for depleting the planet’s core and dooming them all. Federal infringements on privacy? Cue Superman swatting down a government spy drone.
Something else that really bothered me was the treatment of Superman’s character, particularly in the moments when he battles enemy Kryptonians. An excellent AV Club article points out that these show-downs occur in Metropolis so that we can see cars fly and buildings crumble. However, I don’t think the need to cater to a destruction fetish justifies these battle locations. All I could think of as Supes and Zod blasted through building after building was “How many civilians are being killed as a result of this fight?” You’d think that if Kal-El really cared about the people of Earth, he’d take his battles to a more remote location (I would suggest space, but this movie shows that Clark can’t avoid property damage even outside of Earth’s atmosphere).
Now for the strange stuff that I just don’t know what to make head or tails of.
Something I found odd was that Snyder seems to have taken a page out of H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon when it comes to set design. The Kryptonian ships and technology had the dark overtones and sexual imagery that we’ve come to associate with films like Alien. This was not necessarily a bad stylistic choice, but a rather odd one that seemed out of place with what we usually associate with the man in blue.
Another thing that weirded me out was the product placement that pervaded the film, particularly the promotion of a familiar pancake joint. That’s right, IHOP gets a moment in the Hollywood spotlight. Granted, I understand that one can hardly expect films to forgo the chance to slip in a brand name product here and there, but this one was so bizarrely persistent and out of place that it begs addressing. Why, I ask, was it necessary to mention IHOP by name not twice, but three times? It’s distracting, unnecessary, and, worst of all, laughable.
I could go on about the film’s merits and shortcomings, but I’ve already rambled enough as it is. All in all, Man of Steel is a good summer blockbuster, and among the best of the Superman franchise. It just doesn’t begin to reach the depth and nuance that other films in the superhero genre have managed to reach.