It’s been a few weeks now since I saw Man of Steel and I’m still having a hard time dealing with how disappointed I am with it. The cast was amazing, with only Michael Shannon turning in a less than great performance. Henry Cavill does an amazing job in a role that, for all of its simplicity, seems almost unplayable by anyone other than Christopher Reeve. Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne excel, despite being hamstrung by underwritten roles. The money was there to give the filmmakers the ability to reimagine Superman without needed to worry about the dull stuff of making it all happen. Nolan and Snyder seemed intent on delivering an epic, cosmically minded popcorn film. And yet this movie, in the end, was a failure of epic proportions.
A lot of Superman fans are disappointed that Supes takes a life in this film and I have heard a number cries of the familiar “they RUINED Superman” charge. But Superman has killed a handful of times in the comics so even if that bit of murder was my problem, we’re on shaky canonical ground in saying that a bit of murder “ruins” Superman. It’s probably more accurate to say that Superman works best when he puts his mind and muscles to the task of saving lives without resorting to taking them. And, honestly, Man of Steel had already failed by the time the Superman kills Zod. So, in my estimation, that wasn’t the big problem.
I think the main problem with the film is that the script is a total non-starter. It seems to have no aspirations other than providing Zach Snyder with a canvas for his visuals. It was just an endless progression of repetitive, emotionally distant, logically incoherent, and ultimately boring scenes. That’s it. All of the grandeur that each scene strives for is lost in the need to cram more exposition, more CGI—just more stuff in general—in to every frame.
The overall effect of all of those scenes—held together only by money and that Hanz Zimmer’s deafening score—like that of the Ludovico Technique, was essentially deadening (speaking of the score, would it have killed Zimmer to have a leitmotif?). I simply never cared about what was happening. There is no sense of excitement, no sense of danger, no sense of joy, no awe, and, most importantly, no sense of humor.
Another problem was the lack of scale, both in terms of time and in terms of impact. In the Avengers, Joss and co. did an amazing job of having the fighting matter by showing its scale. Flying aliens mean people on the streets are in danger and need defending. Our over-stretched heroes were tasked with this unenviable task. Showing the scale of the threat creates drama. For Snyder, that kind of namby pamby stuff (which the rest of us call “story”) just wastes time that could be filled with pornographic shots of alien spaceships, CGI flying fisticuffs, and city-wide destruction. It is as if Snyder thinks that stories are supposed to be a vessel for special effects, rather than remembering that special effects exist solely to tell stories.
These effects, while solid, never produced anything interesting or exceptional, let alone impressive. I hate to again draw an obvious connection, but The Avengers wrung more emotion out of Captain America losing a bet to Nick Fury than Man of Steel got out of all of the excessive CGI wanking in Man of Steel.
I think the major flaw was that Snyder and his crew wanted to avoid anything resembling Donner’s 1978 Superman film. That was a mistake because Donner’s film it got so much right. When Donner began making Superman, he hadn’t yet figured out how to get Superman to even fly convincingly. But he had cast the film with great actors, lined up not one but two composers known for crafting memorable and evocative scores (John Williams came in after Jerry Goldsmith had to back out), and got Mario Effing Puzo to write a draft that worked the most important parts of Superman’s lore into the texture of real, American life. In the end, the flying thing was beside the point. What mattered was getting audiences to feel like they did when they first saw Superman.
Donner’s Superman was an event: a movie that brought people together to have fun, to cheer, to be happy, and to forget that they were in a recession, fighting an endless cold war, and living in a country still riven by racial oppression. Superman challenged the cultural zeitgeist, over-stuffed with Death Wish and Dirty Harry rip-offs, and made something as uplifting as Superman himself.
And that’s what Man of Steel fails to do. Where Donner made a cultural event, Snyder made a crass spectacle. Where Donner’s Superman was an inspiration, Snyder’s is just a flying brawler. Superman has always been a cipher for our dreams as immigrants, our hopes as people facing war and poverty and destruction. In every incarnation, Superman has been about inspiration. For all of the money and shiny special effects that went into Man of Steel, the heart and craft that made Donner’s film (and, of course, The Superman Animated Series) so remarkable seems to have been omitted. In its place is an inexplicably turgid, boring mess. A movie as dumb as it is loud, as cynical as it is overblown.