‘Man of Steel’ Soars Visually But Lacks Humanity

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Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – From the CGI-heavy attack on Krypton that opens Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” to its soaring finale, I had the same reaction -– where’s the “Man half? Snyder’s attempt to reboot the Superman legacy with the loving assistance of David Goyer and Christopher Nolan of “The Dark Knight” fame gets the superhero part but misses the humanity at the core of this legendary character. Other than in how Ma and Pa Kent are used thematically to emphasize Superman’s importance, we never get to know Clark Kent and Superman becomes about as human as the video game version of him in “Injustice.” It’s a technically impressive film with a lovely score from Hans Zimmer and some strong supporting performances, all sucked into the joyless machine of Goyer’s script and self-important direction of Mr. Snyder.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) must not only convince his governmental superiors on Krypton that their planet is collapsing but fend off a coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and protect his newborn son Kal-El, while also imprinting him with the codex that could keep his race alive on an “outpost,” another planet. From the very beginning of “Man of Steel,” Snyder and his team are showing off their technical prowess. Look at those nifty communication devices in which you can see people’s faces like those old pin impression toys! Look at that landscape! Look at those creatures! Look at those winged beasts! Wait, what’s happening? Eh, who cares? There’s a numbing effect to the overload of CGI right from the beginning of “Man of Steel” that only rarely lets up, certainly not so during the final hour and its emphasis on Crash! Boom! Pow!

Man of Steel
Man of Steel
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

From these opening scenes of CGI overload, the film should calm down and introduce us to Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner), while setting up Kal-El/Clark (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) as a normal boy with extraordinary powers. It would be nice to meet a few of the other people in Superman’s world as well, like the lovely Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and her fellow employees at the Daily Planet (including Laurence Fishburne). Nope. Snyder and Goyer follow the over-long prologue with another action scene in which an adult Clark, apparently on walkabout like Bruce Banner, is there at just the right time to save workers from a burning oil rig. That’s followed by a flashback of a younger Clark saving his fellow students (and getting chastised for doing so by Pa, who worries about his powers being revealed). The narrative structure infuriated me. It’s a “highlights” piece more than a film.

And it’s a feeling that doesn’t really go away completely although the film does settle down a bit with the introduction of Lois and the return of Zod. I won’t spoil how the latter happens but I will say that the former is another screenwriting misstep. There is zero attempt at building chemistry between Lois and Clark/Superman. She’s practically a co-superhero, knowing Superman’s importance right from the beginning and even encountering Jor-El in a way that had my eyes rolling. This is not “Lois the love interest” or “Lois the damsel-in-distress” or even “Lois the role model”. It’s “Lois the plot device” and it’s a testament to Adams’s likability that she does even this much with so little.

Man of Steel
Man of Steel
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In fact, the whole cast rises above the thin characterizations given to them by a screenwriter more concerned about crashing buildings than beating hearts. Shannon, Crowe, Costner, Lane – none of them are bad. And Cavill grounds the piece as well as he possibly can, finding a nice square-jawed approach that still lacks the humanity this piece is missing overall. At least he’s not quite as manic as everyone around him. I just wished someone would smile once or twice. Every line in “Man of Steel” is about what people need to or want to do and how important that action is going to be. Superman is going to save the world you’ll be reminded roughly a hundred times.

This is “The Dark Superman.” It is the reimagining of the legendary DC character as not a superhero but a CGI action star. And there’s a difference that I’m not sure Goyer considered. Superheroes are simply greater versions of the heroes we know from everyday life. We see the human flaws in characters like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and all of The X-Men. They need to be relatable to our real world as much as beyond our own capabilities or they become little more than cartoons. In comic book form, the best writers find a way to extend this world of unimaginable heroism into thematic arenas with which we relate.

“Man of Steel” takes us the other way: Sucking all the joy and relatability out of its story until all that’s left is a special effect. “CGI of Steel” isn’t what we needed to reboot Superman, even if the inevitable success of this film along with the sense that they have to find more humanity in the follow-up now that this bombastic origin story is out of the way makes the sequel a likely improvement.

“Man of Steel” stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, and Kevin Costner. It was written by David Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder. It opens on June 14, 2013.

Anonymous's picture

A Tip

No true fan watches Superman for the humanity. There are plenty of movies w/”humanity.” But I can’t deny the emphasis on action over emoting was no doubt calculated to draw in international box office. Big box = a sequel. MOS was a beginning, dark, or not. Clark having only just met Lois Lane, had other things on his mind than a candlelight dinner. Like those TV shows that toss in babies & cloying contrived relationship moments in the midst of murder & mayhem i.e. Sons of Anarchy, it’s only for the 3 or 4 extra women viewers who enjoy that goop. You want Soaperman? you can always watch Superman Returns. In your red underwear. . ..

Anonymous's picture

This is a real, 21st-Century Superman.

Don’t you get it? The problem isn’t with Superman. The problem is with humans! You need to give a Superman something to protect. You need to give him some decency, some nobility, some good worth protecting, worth watching over for. And this is whats real about this real-world Superman. He’s been bullied as a kid all this life. He’s bullied as an adult. He had to watch his own father DIE because his father was convinced the world wasn’t ready for him. This isn’t the 20th-Century rose-tinted Americana world where Superman is a slave to protect the American Dream, this is a 21st-Century where Superman is skeptical, is doubtful and is unsure of the humans.

Anonymous's picture

Super and Man comprise the Man of Steel

Superman was not designed by his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to be only a “super” being. He was raised on Earth by humans as a human because let’s face it, his human parents didn’t know how to raise him as a Kryptonian LOL. Your review was spot on. Superman, above all other superheroes, needs his humanity. He needs the “man” in Superman. In fact, Superman is much more defined by his human supporting cast than any other comic book hero.

Geeks will give you grief over a critical review of comic book heroes, but it’s unlikely Superman fans would really disagree with your assessment. I certainly won’t and I’m a lifelong Superman fan. You’re right about how the humanity, warmth and even a naivete has been wiped out of this cinematic version of the big Blue Boyscout. Snyder, et al, listened too closely to the online comic book cheer squad, but not the Superman fandom, and there’s a big difference.

Anonymous's picture

Spot on!

Indeed.

Mind you, this is the same online cheer squad that sent nasty e-mails to a few reviewers regarding their negative reviews for Dark Knight Rises the summer before.

Anonymous's picture

Critics

Some movie critics don’t seem to understand that the origin story doesn’t need humor to work. All the CGI and whatnot, made them blind to the relatively deep story (way deeper than all previous movies have shown for sure) behind it.

This is what you get when good writers (Nolan, Goyer) do the deep back story, fix all the problems from the previous movies or even comics, and then let one of the best action director direct, for the glorious action sequences. Some critics with old/slow minds couldn’t process the story when things happened on the screen fast, which resulted in a feeling that there wasn’t any story at all (or it was dull). Maybe they should review the movie after seeing it in slow motion?

MoS takes away all stupid things that made no sense in previous movies. Adds a proper depth to almost every aspect of story. Sure, there is a lot of action, but it’s a movie for the new generation/young people, which doesn’t make it a dull movie, it just means older viewers must watch it few times to see it from all the angles as it should be seen.

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