‘Man of Steel’ offers a fascinating but rather grim take on DC Comics’ flagship superhero

July 3, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 3, 2013

There’s only one big problem with Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s new reboot of the Superman franchise: It’s just not very fun.

While this isn’t exactly a fatal flaw, it is a serious misstep. Yes, the film features many expected components of a comic book movie. The hero in the requisite form-fitting outfit flies and fights villains and ultimately prevails. But while the exercise is visually impressive, there simply aren’t many smiles to be had. This movie, which cries out for light touches, is dark and brooding and intense.

Snyder, who helmed and/or wrote 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, conspires with cinematographer Amir Mokri to drain most of the primary colors from the visual palette. Superman’s formerly bright-blue costume has been dulled to a steely hue; its bright-red highlights have darkened to crimson and been exiled to the hero’s cape.

Man of Steel was written by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, the director-writer behind the most recent Batman movie trilogy and Inception. The trappings they layer on DC Comics’ Superman franchise are just as off-kilter as the tone they take. An extended opening sequence on the doomed planet Krypton and the multiple spaceships shooting around Earth in the film’s middle and late portions lend Man of Steel a bafflingly heavy concealing layer of science fiction that nearly masks the franchise’s comic book origins.

The movie’s plotline is fairly interesting, if a bit — wait for it — dark. Superman’s father sends his newborn infant son to Earth. There, he’s adopted by a Kansas couple, the Kents, who try to develop the youngster’s moral fiber while discouraging him from showing any signs of his astounding strength and endurance.

Clark Kent,  Kal-El, is a 33-year-old drifter when he discovers an ancient Kryptonian scout ship that projects a computer recreation of his father that has evidently been lying dormant in an alien thumb drive that accompanied the infant on his flight from Krypton. (Fortunately, this gadget is compatible with the 18,000-year-old starship, and Superman is able to find the right slot in which to put it.) Jor-El explains Kal-El’s heritage and leads him to a closet containing a not-quite-iconic standard-issue Kryptonian exploration suit.

Coincidentally, mere screen minutes after these revelations, a Kryptonian starship arrives and broadcasts a message saying that its crew seeks Kal-El. Aboard is General Zod, who survived his world’s destruction thanks to having been banished to a cosmic prison for having staged a violent coup. He wants Superman to surrender a genetic “codex” stolen by Jor-El; he also wants to transform Earth into a facsimile of Krypton, which would have fatal effects for native Terrans. Naturally, Ground Zero for Zod’s plan is downtown Metropolis, which takes a beating in the climactic battles.

We’re so used to seeing Superman depicted as a saint in satin tights that it’s fascinating to see Nolan, Snyder and Goyer develop a child of two worlds who does not fully belong to either one. By the end of Man of Steel, Kal-El has moved closer to being, but has not yet entirely become, the iconic beacon of morality familiar from Superman’s earlier incarnations.

It should be fascinating to see what direction the creative team takes its not entirely saintly Superman in the inevitable sequel. But sadly, this approach does not really pay off in this film. One issue is that this may simply turn out to be the wrong tack for the franchise. Another problem is that the movie only bothers to develop characters for the protagonist and antagonist; everyone else is cardboard thin.

And even the superhero and Lois Lane can barely muster a few scraps of snappy banter. The dialogue between Superman and Zod is mainly forgettable. One of the film’s signature lines, “A good death is its own reward,” is exchanged between two minor characters: an American colonel and Zod’s deputy, a female warrior called Faora-Ul.

Henry Cavill projects the right combination of strength, vulnerability and puzzlement as the eponymous character, while Amy Adams is adequate as Lois Lane, a character who comes off as surprisingly passive. Michael Shannon is menacing as Zod, and Russell Crowe also puts in a nice turn as Jor-El.

It would be wrong to say that Man of Steel has feet of clay, but it wouldn’t be right to say that this reboot soars. The best way to describe the film is this: It lays an interesting foundation for the franchise.

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