We all know what the new Superman movie has going for it, and it isn’t the legacy of ‘Superman Returns’. Warner Bros. wanted something more like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and ‘Man of Steel’ is the result. Was it worth the effort?
Opinions on a movie like ‘Man of Steel’ will inevitably involve two very important factors: the viewer’s attachment to the Superman character, and the viewer’s feelings about Zack Snyder as a director. For me, both are pretty good but not great. As a hero, Superman is regularly befuddled by things such as magic and the machinations of Lex Luthor, yet he’s nevertheless an icon with the array of superpowers. Snyder’s movies, meanwhile, have a visual aesthetic that’s stunning almost to a fault, but plot details and character dialogue seem more obtrusive, like he treats them as necessary evils.
The first trailers for ‘Man of Steel’ told the story of Superman with a few episodes from his youth. The full film adds to those, but arrives at the same place. A 33-year-old Kal-El tries to come terms with his origins, and in that process comes face to face with General Zod and his cronies. Unfortunately, the movie begins not with Superman but with Krypton.
Some might quibble about that point, as the movie opens with the birth of
James T. KirkKal-El, but it’s mostly the world of Krypton on display. The planet is a complicated place, and unfortunately its contradictions muddle much of the film. Several alien things look fascinating, but the rapid set-up of Jor-El, the council, Zod and Krytpon’s impending doom all happen in mere moments. The screen time on Krypton, which sees Jor-El set in motion a mysterious plan whose solution Superman, Zod and (presumably) viewers will spend the rest of the film unraveling, could have been more wisely spent.
Several quick snippets of action and dialogue relate some important details. Kryptonians fundamentally don’t believe in harming other Kryptonians, but the General (the designated warrior and protector of the race) leads a violent and callous revolution. The advanced society preaches a peaceful existence in one scene, but later on seems to have a lack of morality that makes killing A-OK. Likewise, Kryptonians either have a mastery of space travel or are stuck on their planet. Much is made of a recent lack of natural resources, but it feels more like Krytonians other than Jor-El and Zod just don’t have much initiative. Krytpon’s harsh environment is key for the film as it relates Superman’s powers and weaknesses to the audience, but the other Kryptonians’ abilities follow slightly different rules. They have power armor and guns, but the nuances were mostly lost on me. In comparison, the sometimes perplexing decisions made by the Kents and other humans are delivered in a much smoother manner consistent with just about any of the better comic book-based movies.
The tendency of the Kryptonian characters to babble plot points makes for an odd contrast with the rest of the film’s sparse use of dialogue. If you took Snyder’s ‘Sucker Punch’ and completely turned down the dialogue, would the movie lose any of its visual punch? Much of ‘Man of Steel’ feels the same way. The few frames of Krytpon’s destruction seen in the trailer do more than what Russell Crowe is able to accomplish in the beginning fifteen minutes.
Setting those issues aside, the slow-building and visually lush nature of the film is very enjoyable, especially when compared to the dull ‘Superman Returns’. With that in mind, if I had to choose between letting Zack Snyder create a Director’s Cut that makes the film more consistently good overall, or going ahead with a sequel, that would be a tough choice.