Blockbuster Diary, Part Eight: "Man of Steel"

Blockbuster Diary, Part Eight: "Man of Steel"
Henry Cavill (center) as Superman and Christopher Meloni (far right) as Colonel Nathan Hardy in "Man of Steel."
(Photo by Clay Enos/© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

“Man of Steel,” the latest attempt to bring Superman to the silver screen, destroyed the competition at the box office this past weekend. Zack Snyder’s take on the original superhero brought in $113.1 million, a figure that grows to $128.7 million when you include Thursday night screenings of the film, making for the biggest June opening of all time, and a clear sign that Warner Bros. has found a franchise to fill the void left by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The film, which Nolan produced and helped conceive, may match the financial might of those Batman films, but that’s where the similarities end. No matter how many sequels “Man of Steel” spawns, as long as Snyder’s in the director's chair, the franchise will never reach the heights of its Gotham City-based counterpart.

To be clear, “Man of Steel” is a better than average superhero film. Overall, the movie looks great; the icy aesthetic from Nolan’s Gotham translating very well to the great plains of Kansas and the exploding high rises of Metropolis. And while Henry Cavill may not have much to do as Kent/Superman, he certainly looks the part, as if he was ripped directly from the pages of a comic book. But what’s most impressive is the scale of the action. Superman is a celestial being and here he acts like one. He stops oil rigs from falling, rips open spaceships with his bare hands, and when he finally grapples with General Zod and his cronies, they punch, throw, and slam each other for miles, through whatever stands in their way — cornfields, train cars, massive skyscrapers. No other superhero film, not even “The Avengers” with its interstellar menace, felt as big as this.

 

But over the course of two and a half hours, I wanted more than cool looking explosions and fight scenes. From its aesthetic to its score to its overly earnest script, there’s a gravitas to “Man of Steel” that’s never delivered on. One explanation is the film’s near complete lack of character development. Despite having a very solid group of actors — Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as Zod, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, and Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Ma and Pa Kent — there’s nothing for them to work with, their actions serving no purpose but to move the story along. This is especially true of Adams and Shannon, who seem to float through the film. While Shannon was surely miscast as the film’s villain, Adams seems like an appropriate Lane, but here her talents are wasted. And if you were expecting an exploration of Superman as a character, prepare to look elsewhere. The biggest insight offered in the film: Superman does good because that’s the right thing to do. Great, but how about letting us know what brought him to that conclusion?

What’s really holding the film back is its director. Snyder has proven himself to be a talented stylist, but little more. His past two comic book-based films (“300” and “Watchmen”) were visually striking, but they lacked anything resembling depth. His adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s beloved “Watchmen,” in particular, captured the garish look of the graphic novel perfectly, but none of its complexity or nuance. Here Snyder gives us a great looking Superman film, but that’s all. And that, you could argue, is something he just borrowed from Nolan anyway.

What made Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy so affecting wasn’t how it looked, but how it deconstructed the character and the idea of the superhero. The closest you get to that here is the idea of Superman as a Christ-like figure, which we’ve seen before — and in “Man of Steel,” it feels incredibly heavy handed. Maybe Snyder played this up because of Warner Bros.’ decision to push the film on Christian audiences. Maybe it was a small act of subversion on Snyder’s part, but I doubt that. More likely, this just seemed like the cool thing to do, whether or not it made sense for the character. That appears to be what guided the rest of the decision making that went into the film.

“Man of Steel”

Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: David S. Goyer

Starring: Hanry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe

Opening Gross: $113.1 million