Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” is the “Superman” film for the miserable. Here is a movie so somber, so deadly serious, so thoroughly lacking any sense of fun or entertainment that audiences may want to put chains of kryptonite around their own necks when it’s over. Did anyone involved creatively somehow forget that the story has comic book origins? Under the influence of producer/story creator Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer, both of whom corrupted the Batman character for a needlessly melodramatic trilogy of films, any wonderfully old-fashioned notions of heroes, villains, romance, adventure, excitement, and humor have been thrown out the window, only to be replaced by a pseudo-existentialist character study and a soulless display of special effects, action sequences, and unimpressive 3D effects that fail to enhance the already drab images.
Although the basic premise is still there – a scientist on a doomed planet sends his newborn son to Earth, the son is raised by farmers in Kansas and grows up to become a superhero – it has been reinterpreted in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a real story is being told. Instead, it comes off as a cross between a pity party, an aimless disaster epic, and a particularly halfhearted attempt at a space opera. The latter is apparent during the opening scenes on the planet Krypton, which now looks like a George Lucas fantasy world; all distant shots reveal a landscape of craggy mountain peaks and lava flows, winged beasts fly through the air, as do oddly-shaped spacecrafts that do nothing but shoot lasers, and there’s an otherworldly tower where a council of elders sits stoically in a row of chairs. Every elder is dressed in a costume so distractingly gaudy, one wonders if they were transported from the world of “Flash Gordon.”
We learn that Krypton was but one of many terraformed by a race of colonial humanoids, that all previous attempts have failed, and that Krypton itself is about to fail because of a now unstable core. It’s also explained, albeit cryptically, that all babies on Krypton aren’t conceived so much as engineered, as they gestate in underwater sacs that grow on vines. Two people are at odds with each other over recent developments. One is General Zod (Michael Shannon), who believes that only genetically superior Kryptonians should be spared from their planet’s destruction and work towards colonizing another planet. The other is Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who doesn’t want one species’ survival to come at the expense of another’s annihilation. Here enters his son, Kal-El, the first naturally-born baby in a century; Jor-El launches him into space and sends him to Earth, with the hope that he will bridge the gap between humans and Kryptonians. General Zod and his cronies, meanwhile, are banished into the Phantom Zone, which is just another big spaceship.
Most audiences already know that Kal-El landed in Smallville, Kansas, was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (here played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and was renamed Clark. We see all this, but only as a series of flashback sequences. In these scenes, all the focus is on the bullying Clark had to endure as a boy, the subsequent angst of having to hide his superhuman capabilities from the world as a teenager, and the overwrought hardships of his identity crisis, which carry all the way through into his adult years. At that point, he’s played by Henry Cavill as a brooding, dour, lonesome drifter, taking odd jobs to work his way from place to place. When he’s a fisherman, we will see him intervene on behalf of workers trapped on a burning oil rig. The only adequate explanation for how he jumped off his boat fully clothed and ended up on the rig shirtless is that it provides audiences with proof that Cavill did indeed prepare for his role by going to the gym.
Clark doesn’t don his blue suit and red cape until he happens upon a Kryptonian scout ship that had been frozen in an arctic wasteland for thousands of years. It’s at this point that he finally meets his biological father – or, more accurately, his consciousness, which is somehow projected as an actual person and can inexplicably interact with people and make things happen. It’s also around this time that Lois Lane, the scoop-hungry reporter of Metropolis’ “Daily Planet” (Amy Adams) enters the picture. She’s not the plucky young woman we’ve come to know; she’s now a reckless woman pursued by the government for foolishly giving her story of Clark Kent and the alien ship to an internet conspiracy theorist, much to the chagrin of her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). In due time, Zod, who miraculously discovered Kal-El’s location and successfully recalibrated the Phantom Zone, has positioned two ships at polar opposite ends of the Earth and is threatening to terraform it into the new Krypton.
This, coupled with hand-to-hand combat sequences in both Smallville and Metropolis, lead to a final act that has some of the most gratuitous displays of destruction in any superhero film of recent memory. You’d swear Snyder was paying homage to Irwin Allen. This may adequately distract audiences from the fact that words we expect to hear, such as “Metropolis,” “Daily Planet,” and even the name “Superman,” aren’t used until the last quarter of the movie. “Kryptonite” isn’t used at all, and neither is the name “Jimmy Olsen.” It may also blind them to reality that the city of Metropolis, an integral part of the “Superman” mythos, is reduced to a vague urban landscape seen almost entirely through a window in Perry White’s office. What were the makers of “Man of Steel” thinking? This may someday be regarded as the worst “Superman” film ever made – and yes, I say this fully aware of the existence of 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.”