I feel like I owe Christopher Nolan an apology. While the movie-going world jumped all over his nuts about The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, I merely assumed he was an above average filmmaker who had been lucky enough to surround himself with some top notch talent. Man of Steel proves that assumption wrong. Here’s a movie that boasts essentially the same creative team that has driven all of Nolan’s movies—the only exception is that Nolan neither wrote nor directed this one. And boy, does it show.
There’s no kind way to put it, so I’m just going to say it: The pacing for this movie is fucked. Absolutely fucked. Man of Steel opens with the megalomaniacal General Zod (the always fantastic Michael Shannon) attempting to stage a military coup on the dying planet of Krypton. He’s thwarted, in part, by the efforts of the scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Knowing that Krypton is doomed, Jor-El sends his only begotten son off to planet Earth with the futuristic equivalent of a flashdrive containing the entirety of Krypton’s history and knowledge. This back story is provided in the midst of continuous, incoherent action sequence that completely undermines the emotional elements of Superman’s origin.
Following the film’s opening mayhem, we’re introduced to a bearded Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), who is serving on a crabbing vessel. Before he even has an opportunity to open his mouth, a conveniently placed oil rig explodes, and Clark is leaping off the rescue endangered workers. Then there’s a series of forced, disjointed flashbacks showing the development of Clark’s powers. Mind you, I said the development of his powers, not his character.
This Clark Kent is just an absolute enigma, devoid of personality. And it isn’t Henry Cavill’s fault, either. As Superman, Cavill is damn near perfect; he’s confident, charismatic, and handsome. He looks and acts like a superhero. However, we never really get to see this Superman interact with this world. We never get to see him exhibit any personality. In David Goyer’s script, he just sort of exists. And that goes for all of the characters in this movie. They don’t exist to do anything other fight, run, or spout exposition. There’s no human drama to latch onto here.
That makes the first hour of Man of Steel—essentially a sloppy rehash of the first act of Batman Begins—nearly unbearable. Things become even more baffling as Clark Kent and investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) find themselves on parallel journeys to the location of a buried Kryptonian spaceship in the Antarctic. How does anyone know it’s there? How does this damn thing fit into the movie? Hell if I know, because General Zod immediately shows up in a spaceship on his own and threatens to annihilate the world if Krypton’s last son doesn’t turn himself in.
Nothing in this movie flows or fits together very well. There are some decent ideas driving the Man of Steel, but the execution is atrocious. It’s clear that Christopher Nolan had very little to do with this project. Say what you will about the man as a director, but as a screenwriter, he understands what makes a scene hang together and he understands how to properly utilize the three act structure that’s so necessary to make traditional blockbuster movies work.
Movie scenes, like living organisms, need room to breathe. However, between Goyer’s choppily written screenplay and Snyder’s manic approach to filmmaking, Man of Steel is never allowed to develop any emotional weight. It’s cotton candy filmmaking: pretty to look at but devoid of any substance. Everything here is disorganized and told at a breakneck pace. It’s like looking at the world through the eyes of someone with hyper attention deficit disorder.
But I suppose few people go to superhero movies these days to see a compelling story. They go to see spectacle, and on that front, Snyder delivers. I’ve spent my entire life waiting for a live-action Superman movie wherein the big blue Boy Scout would finally get to epically throw down against an equal adversary. Yes, there was Superman II, but the technology then wasn’t ready for the likes of characters like General Zod.
Here, the action is seamless and brilliant. It looked like the panels of the Superman comic books come to life. Easily the best part of Man of Steel is the final forty five minutes wherein the story goes on autopilot and the action takes over. Superman finds himself going to toe to toe with a pack of Kryptonian war criminals, all super-powered, and it’s amazing. Superman and Zod fling each other into skyscrapers, cook each other with heat vision, drop kick each other into exploding factories, and beat the ever loving piss out of each other above the skyline of Metropolis. It’s kinetic, exciting, and gorgeous to look at. Snyder, for all of his faults as a storyteller, delivers a series of terrific action sequences.
It’s just a shame that a surer hand wasn’t present to guide Man of Steel. The casting and production values are top notch. Snyder proves his worth yet again as a director of action. And yet there’s just that god awful screenplay from David Goyer that undermines the efforts of everyone involved. Still, the DNA for an absolutely fantastic Superman franchise is here. I think the promise of Man of Steel can be fully realized in a sequel. However, to do that, the reigns of this franchise need to be handed over to a more competent storyteller.