Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and vicious, unrelenting violence and destruction
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.14.13
Grim, humorless and unpleasantly brutal.
Not to mention boring and redundant, particularly during the interminable, body-slamming final act.
No fun at all.
Director Zack Snyder has delivered a Superman film with the nasty, cataclysmic tone he employed so well — and much more appropriately — in 300 and Watchman: a dark, dour mood that also suited Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but is wholly out of place here. No surprise: Nolan shares story credit here with David S. Goyer, with whom he co-wrote those Batman epics. All things considered, then, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer have concocted precisely the sort of Superman we should have expected from them.
I do not approve.
All concerned desperately need to take lessons from Joss Whedon, when it comes to choreographing the real estate-leveling carnage of a melee between super-powered beings. As Whedon proved with The Avengers, he understands the importance of the occasional wink and nod, not to mention his recognition of the fine emotional line between necessary collateral damage and a callous disregard for brutalized civilian bystanders.
Snyder obviously relished the opportunity to envision what it really might be like for a being such as Superman to be tossed through half a mile’s worth of office buildings; the director and his special-effects wizards certainly beat such scenes to death. But, speaking of death, it’s impossible to overlook the hundreds (thousands?) of fragile humans who’d be maimed and killed along the way, as a result of each super-powered punch ... which turns Superman’s “code against killing” into something of a joke.
Hell, he must kill scores of people every time he slams his evil, super-powered adversaries through said buildings. Ironic, then, that his code eventually becomes an important — if ill-defined — plot point.
On top of which, the various Metropolis-shattering skirmishes go on for so long, and thus to such diminishing returns, that they become no more meaningful than watching Godzilla stomp and flatten a miniature cardboard Tokyo in all those 1950s and ’60s Japanese monster flicks.
Then, too, the notion that our poor planet would survive the terraforming consequences of the third act’s big, bad whatzis machine, is just too laughable for words. No residual earthquakes? No disrupted weather patterns? Seriously? Somehow, everything gets put right again, entire cities apparently resurrected in mere weeks, if not days, just in time for an epilogue that delivers the single solitary line — “I think he’s kinda hot” — that draws the only mild chuckle granted during the entire film.
No, no, no.
Such an overwrought, overblown mess.
Thank God for Amy Adams’ turn as Lois Lane. She, at least, injects some sparkle and spunk into these proceedings. Everybody else — and I’m including Henry Cavill’s dreary Superman — seems to be competing in a scowling contest.
I’ve already missed Christopher Reeve for all sorts of reasons, but never more so than during last week’s preview screening of Man of Steel.
The comparison is both apt and ironic, not only because Reeve granted the character all the warmth, compassion and expressive depth that Cavill’s blank-faced Superman lacks, but also because Goyer and Nolan borrow heavily from the template of that 1978 film’s first act.
Goodness, Russell Crowe’s dour, tight-lipped Jor-El practically channels Marlon Brando’s performance in the same role, all those years ago. Except that Crowe apparently feels that Jor-El should be equally adept as both scientist and warrior. (This is what happens when an ego-laden star re-shapes a character to suit his own image.)
Familiarity aside, the lengthy Krypton prologue remains a good place to begin a film tasked with re-booting Superman’s origin. Jor-El and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), have defied Krypton’s genetic laws by having a baby the old-fashioned way; additionally, the Kryptonian Council of Elders continues to ignore Jor-El’s warnings that their planet is becoming increasingly unstable.
In a nice nod to contemporary real-world events, Jor-El blames this pending catastrophe on the depletion of natural resources, and an ill-advised, longstanding program of extracting materials from deep within the planet’s crust. A lesson to be learned, for those paying attention.
The debate is forestalled by the militaristic Zod (Michael Shannon, at his foaming, mad-dog best) and his elite warriors, intent on staging a coup d'état. The uprising fails, but not before panicking Jor-El and Lara into blasting their infant son, Kal-El, into space for safety: destination, Earth. Zod and his minions are banished to lengthy prison terms in the “phantom zone,” and — shortly thereafter — Jor-El’s prophecy comes true, as Krypton’s core erupts.
In one of their few genuinely clever touches, Goyer and Nolan introduce the now-grown Clark Kent (also Cavill) as a wary, wandering loner who clandestinely helps people here and there. Key moments of his childhood and recent back-story emerge through occasional flashbacks that show how Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both quite moving, if inherently sad) helped their adopted son learn to control abilities that flourished in our own, superior planetary environment.
The ongoing moral dilemma comes from Jonathan, who rightly worries that — because people fear what they do not understand — the world likely wouldn’t welcome an extraterrestrial being with Clark’s powers ... which expand and improve, year by year. It’s an intriguing notion, and one that deserves to fuel water-cooler debates.
But Lois Lane, ace reporter with Metropolis’ Daily Planet, has become intrigued by a pattern of “guardian angel incidents” that stretch all the way back to small-town Smallville. She similarly signs on when U.S. Gen. Swanwick (Harry Lennix), Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni) and their research team discover an ancient something-or-other buried beneath the ice in an outlying region of Canada.
In Lois’ mind, everything points to a long-concealed visitor from another world, a theory she soon proves. But any further discussions about whether Superman should “come out” are rendered moot with the arrival of Zod and his forces, conveniently freed by Krypton’s destruction, who’ve tracked Kal-El while collecting all sorts of weapons long abandoned on other planets by failed Kryptonian settlements. (One can’t help wondering why they all failed. At best, this is a sloppy plot point.)
Zod isn’t a happy guy, and he’s perfectly willing to wreak havoc on Earth, in order to obtain Kal-El. Actually, Zod also has other plans, which suit his equally savage followers just fine. The nastiest of these is Faora-Ul, a warrior bad girl played with malevolent intensity by Antje Traue. And, sadly, these baddies benefit from the same Earthian atmosphere and sun that granted Kal-El his powers.
Cue the first of many landscape-leveling sequences that’d be more at home in an average issue of Marvel Comics’ Hulk.
In another mildly clever touch, both sides are granted vulnerabilities. Kal-El loses his powers when exposed to any aspect of the Kryptonian atmosphere that fills Zod’s warship (nope, no sign of radioactive green Kryptonite); Zod and his minions, in turn, can be overwhelmed by the sensory overload of Earth-granted powers that Kal-El has mastered for two decades.
But this doesn’t slow the fight scenes a jot.
In between the various clashes, Laurence Fishburne gives a solid performance as Lois’ boss, Perry White; I liked the brief editor/reporter squabbles between these two. I also enjoyed all the quieter moments involving Costner and Lane, and getting to see both of them throughout the film — thanks to the aforementioned use of flashbacks — nicely anchors the story each time, at least briefly, as things spin out of control.
Lennix and Meloni make solid military types, and Richard Schiff is memorable as a scientist who plays a key role in the third act.
Other key players in the long-established Superman mythos get little more than name-checked, though, such as Lana Lang (Jadin Gould) and Pete Ross (Jack Foley as a boy, Joseph Cranford as an adult). They’re present solely to elicit smiles from über-fans who’ll also appreciate touches such as a tanker truck bearing a logo for LexCorp.
Production designer Alex McDowell clearly had a lot of fun, and the film’s many examples of Kryptonian technology range from intriguing to way-cool. Cinematographer Amir Mokri lends a refreshingly gentle tone to the various Kansas sequences in Smallville, but gets no chance for artistry once things get chaotic. And the 3-D effects, added after the fact, are pointless; don’t waste your money.
Hans Zimmer’s noisy, monotonous score too frequently pounds us into submission, much like Snyder’s approach to the lengthy third act.
Actually, the whole film is self-indulgently excessive, and in no way justifies its 143-minute length. (Once again, Whedon’s The Avengers, coming in at precisely the same running time, had no trouble holding our attention.)
I hate to think that Snyder, Goyer and Nolan might return for another round, should this film prove financially successful; I’m not even that wild about seeing Cavill again. I fully intend to renew my acquaintance with Reeve’s 1978 film, just to remove the taste of this maladroit, misanthropic mess.