Man of Steel (B-)
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner
Story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
There are a lot of different movies fighting for prominence in the latest attempt to bring Superman to the big screen. Does it want to be a plaintive meditation on loneliness and isolation, an allegory for Jesus, a shameless tearjerker about fathers and sons? Or does it want to compact all those together so they lose much of their meaning so we can get to some more fight scenes?
The latter wins out most of the time, to our detriment. And that’s probably the biggest difference between Christopher Nolan as screenwriter and Christopher Nolan as story writer. Whatever darkness and complexity he brought to The Dark Knight franchise—revolutionizing the comic book movie in the process—is mostly absent in this Superman reboot. Much like its protagonist, Man of Steel struggles to find an identity.
An origin story through and through, it spends far too much time in the Kryptonian prologue, which makes the first hour or so after that feel like one big montage. By the time we get to the big climax, it’s more exciting, but no character has really earned the enthusiasm the film wants from us.
Individual scenes sometimes brush with greatness, particularly any time Kevin Costner is onscreen. But the film has so much story to rush into two-and-a-half hours that those individual scenes add up to less and less. At the same time, the breadth (not the depth) of the story shortchanges character development, particularly Lois Lane and the de facto villain Zod. Both Amy Adams and Michael Shannon, respectively, give it their all, but they’re constantly underserved in a script that reduces them to utility pieces.
By making Zod just another cog in the machine, Shannon can’t make him as memorable as he should be. He doesn’t have the playful menace of Loki from The Avengers or the twisted philosophy of The Joker from The Dark Knight. Shannon can only make up for so much and the script doesn’t really give him a direction to go in, so all he can do is chew up the scenery.
There’s nothing particularly egregious in Man of Steel. It’s not a failure on the level of Green Lantern, and is probably a few steps better than Bryan Singer’s too-reverent Superman Returns. Yet it fails to make much of an impression, which an iconic superhero should do. Granted, I’ve never felt as deep a connection to Superman as I did to Batman or the X-Men. But the movie settles for mere liftoff when it should be soaring.