When “Man of Steel” was first unveiled, it was a film of stark dichotomy for me. While there was hardly a name on board that I was not in agreement with (Zack Snyder is a bit of a one trick horse, but that is not a trick that I am opposed to and his willingness to play with that one trick make him respectable; David S. Goyer is a man whose parchment I will gladly drool over; even just passingly mentioning that Christopher Nolan was involved in the story jumps me to at least half-mast; and Michael Shannon’s beady eyed, low browed crazy face is always a treat), the mere fact that this was a Superman film was enough to drop my interest almost entirely.
The fact of the matter is that the true detriment to the state of Superman as a Superman is his lack of relatability. He is a remnant of a time when propaganda was paid for in pennies, and little attempt to break free from or even tamper with the morality of the universe has been made in his films. This is something that “Man of Steel” seems readily aware of, and attempts, for better or worse, to remedy that.
The film opens with a simply stunning scenario set on Krypton in its last few days before the consequent cataclysmic collapse. Propelled by Russel Crowe’s brooding beard and Michael Shannon’s screaming, the well-rendered set-up is a welcome introduction to the culture and interactions of Kal-El’s people. Superman is no longer a stand alone entity from a world of superhuman humans utterly devoid of context.
From there, act I is a spattering of Kevin Costner fueled flashbacks, Clark Kent traveling the world and discovering that his very presence necessitates the result of an outrageously traumatic event occurring (as though all the worst accidents only happen close enough for him to see it first hand) and entirely unnecassary shots of wild animals doing wild animal things.
Nearly all the heavy-hitters story wise are an enjoyable spectacle (even a few supporting characters are given a little treatment of their own). While it is unlucky that two science fiction films both involving a primary antagonist who is a military mastermind and sole purpose is to protect the genetic legacy of what he deems to be superior and are frozen throughout time before reviving to exact revenge (Khan and Zod), the minor details of storytelling manage to separate them enough as to keep (some) level of independence.
While unintentionally melodramatic at moments, “Man of Steel” manages to succeed, for the most part, in what it tried hardest to do – making Superman human. His black-and-white boy-scout morals are not so staunch here, and the film manages to take a few moments to play with the moral implications of being such a righteous do-gooder. What hinders this most is the films sporadic pacing, jumping quickly through the origin story to get as quickly to the action as possible, then dragging out the conflicts with as much fluff as they can toss in. One truly impressively fight sequence is all this film really needed (and they have it, as Kal dukes it out with two of Zod’s henchmen with a group of American Commandos who have no idea what the fuck is going on so just shoot everything instead). Every thing else feels more or less forced, strained, or ill-equipped. “Humor” is often tossed in without context or relevance, making the otherwise solid script a jumble of poor dialogue.
Unfortunately, everything with Louis Lane could have and should have been eliminated entirely. Her presence, at best, did nothing to add to any scene in which she was present or, at worst, hindered the dramatic value of the majority of the film. The few moments when she assisted Superman in any fashion were exclusively when he was utterly incapacitated, and the moment that he was ship shape again she was tossed out an airlock for him to rescue her yet again. She has not evolved from the damsel in distress in any way – even “Superman Returns” managed to make her a stronger, more self reliant female protagonist than any action taken by the “Man of Steel” version.
Though quite possibly the greatest anchor weighing down “Man of Steel” is it dedication to being a Superman film – all of the lowest lows are a direct result of being outright afraid to make this hero too different from the man-in-the-underwear we all know and don’t really care all that much about. The few moments that are not liberated from the Form we all have in our mind are little more than cheap representations – the true shine is that most of the film embraces a new telling of a classic character (a character much maligned in recent years, as expectations for superheroes are amongst their highest and most pop cultural).
“Man of Steel” is far, far from a perfect Superman film, but it a tremendous step in the right direction. It boldly turns it back and walks away from the slew of atrocious predecessors and attempts to stake a claim for itself in new territory, only to find that its unwelcomed history manages to lock a shackle before it can truly escape.