If Superman’s outfit were not originally a bright blue and red, in Zack Snyder’s world it would be gray. It would be dampened and washed of color along with the sky palace vistas on the planet Krypton, the vast Kansas prairies and even Amy Adams’s hair.
Red and blue do not represent the doom and gloom Snyder is trying to convey in “Man of Steel.” And although the “S” on Superman’s chest is actually a symbol for hope, “Man of Steel” is more content to bludgeon us with tragedy and CGI devastation to the point that it neglects a compelling origin story, a sense of wonder or even the idea of heroism.
Superman’s origin story is inherently richer and darker than that of say, Spiderman, and producer Christopher Nolan has imbued in it the same grim overtones that he did in his Batman trilogy. Rather than childhood bullying and crushes on redheads that live next door, Superman’s origin begins with the destruction of his home planet, the tearful abandonment from his parents as he is jettisoned to Earth and the military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) that leads to the death of his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe).
And yet after Krypton implodes in spectacular display and engulfs his mother in horrifically apocalyptic images, the movie does not dial back to a time when Clark Kent, now of Kansas, is at peace. Rather, Snyder’s idea of melodrama is cataclysm, with a pre-teen Clark being forced to rescue his classmates from drowning in a crashed bus, followed by a teenage Clark watching his father (Kevin Costner) die in a tornado and finally an adult Clark with a healthy beard (Henry Cavill) rescuing workers from an exploding oil tanker.
At no point do Snyder or screenwriter David S. Goyer provide us the luxury of seeing Clark in a state of something other than tragedy or plot exposition. He eventually arrives in the Arctic Circle and encounters reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in his Fortress of Solitude, and a hologram of his father recounts to him his entire backstory in a brief montage. Shortly after, he’s clean-shaven and bounding over mountains, arriving home just in time for the coming of Zod to destroy Earth and build a new Krypton.
There is something peculiar that happens as Clark first learns to fly: he cracks a smile and laughs. It’s one of Superman’s few moments of actual personality in the film, a moment of levity in a film too wrapped up in global destruction and peril to give us something more cathartic and less depressing.
That’s not to say that “Man of Steel” should just be empty popcorn fun, but in an attempt to be nothing but epic, Snyder and Goyer barely scratch the surface of the origin’s nuance, be it the question as to whether we are alone in the universe, the tendency of man to fear what is different or the love story between Lois and Clark. These themes are present, but they’re blind to politics or real world ideas to the point that it irresponsibly depicts 9/11 like destruction. Ash clouds billow upon fleeing citizens in a city much like New York. A woman is trapped amongst what looks like Ground Zero rubble. Skyscrapers collapse in untold amounts of destruction.
Yet if we were to grade “Man of Steel” as just an action movie without other preconceived notions, it still falls short. Snyder loves his lens flares and empty wide shots, but would be damned to give us a coherent medium shot during a fight scene. He lacks the clarity or even the slow motion firm hand that he delivered in “300,” and now has endless battles that consist of bodies careening into buildings at hyper speed.
Michael Shannon is perhaps the film’s only saving grace, as he’s perfect casting for any insane super villain. But the Kryptonian dialogue is so stuffy and Victorian that it stifles even Shannon’s ability to go completely bat shit crazy with the role.
“Man of Steel” is by far the most titanic film in a summer full of CGI driven monstrosities. Yet if these blockbusters remain so gigantic yet feel so empty, I wonder what hope there is for this genre and heroes like Superman.