The aesthetic naturalism of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is an obvious homage to Christopher Nolan’s Bat trilogy, clearly opting for grimness over playfulness. The sense of undiluted reality given to scenes depicting Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) hitchhiking across America, taking a host of odd jobs along the way, is meant to add a sense of grounding to the wildly imaginative universe of Jerry Siegel and Josh Shuster’s comic-book hero. It’s an incredibly dull tactic that relies on constant exposition to needlessly explain the story’s fantastical trajectory and excuse the film’s limited visual detail, and though it’s certainly not the worst thing about Man of Steel, it nevertheless starts this frustrating reboot off on the wrong foot.
Sent by his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), from Krypton to Earth after their home planet is destroyed in the wake of a failed coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon), Kal-El is adopted as Clark Kent by Martha and Jonathan Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) after his pod crash-lands in their backyard and only learns of the heft of his extraterrestrial heritage upon reaching post-adolescence. In a twist on the ruling mythology of Superman, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is almost immediately in full knowledge of Clark’s alien identity, his laser eyes cauterizing a wound that she sustains at the site of a military operation she’s investigating and where he works in anonymity. The Superman of Man of Steel isn’t really called out until Zod visits Earth, looking to destroy and repurpose the planet as a new Krypton, the process of which allows screenwriter David S. Goyer, who developed the story with Nolan, to unleash an explanatory overload that details mechanisms and maneuvers and luxuriates in backstory, and yet gives little sense of its main character’s state of mind and existence in the now.
Man of Steel is of the Michael Bay school of filmmaking, marked by wanton destruction and clattering sound design, and it may prove to be Snyder’s Pearl Harbor. The film replaces the blood-splattered machismo that ruled Watchmen and 300 with a risibly overt sense of nationalism and pro-military sentiment, and Snyder heedlessly manipulates audiences with visions of innocent children, families, and even pets in grave peril. The filmmakers make the hero’s struggle less about his inner identity as both an alien and a human and more about identifying as an American or bust. The faux-patriotism isn’t played for satire, but instead utilized to align the film with an idyllic, unquestioned vision of goodness. Indeed, Man of Steel is star-spangled to death.
Not surprisingly, the scenes involving Superman and Zod’s minions are the most assured and thrilling, speaking to Snyder’s modest abilities as an architect of active chaos. A walloping fight in downtown Smallville and the climactic tussle between Zod and our caped crusader are engaging and exciting, if also a bit dizzying in their shaky handicam aesthetic. The film’s design is far more interesting than its overall look, presented as a wonky, occasionally dazzling hash of creature and production designs from numerous popular science-fiction films. The Matrix trilogy can be seen in the Krypton birthing pods and the tentacles of Zod’s planet-harvesting World Engine; the interiors of Zod’s ship are vaguely Xenomorphic; and those artfully sudden zooms into developing action that J.J. Abrams is so fond of are a near constant. Jor-El’s early escape on the back of a flying beast as it maneuvers through Krypton’s destruction is also plainly lifted from Avatar.
Snyder overemphasizes the direness of the narrative, especially its conflicts, the result of which is that Man of Steel feels both naïve and portentous. The filmmakers don’t honor the sense of duty, moral or otherwise, of the brave soldiers and citizens portrayed here as much as they underline the importance of sacrifice through suffering and death, which echoes the film’s unsettling sense of martyrdom as inherently masculine. The major male characters all die, or openly accept death, out of sacrifice either to Superman or their fellow man. Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is a useless figure until he nearly dies while attempting to pull a co-worker from the rubble of a totaled Metropolis, a sequence that coldly recalls 9/11 with ash perpetually falling like snow. The archaic, manipulative rhetoric never stalls the kinetic pace, but there’s little sense of what drew the excellent cast to this fiasco. The seemingly fresh, largely humorless austerity of this new Superman masquerades a return to the character’s roots in propaganda rather than inventiveness, which was embodied in Bryan Singer’s triumphantly imperfect Superman Returns. Stiffly upper-lipped rather than tongue-in-cheek, Man of Steel is meant to condescendingly flatter Snyder and Goyer’s imagined audience in suggesting that we have plenty of heroes as it is, and that the son of Jor-El is just another member of Team America.