Seven years ago, director Bryan Singer tried to relaunch Superman by casting a Christopher Reeve clone (Brandon Routh) and a long-dead Marlon Brando, and retaining that majestic John Williams score. I liked Superman Returns but, while it was no bomb, it performed beneath expectations and producers put Supes on ice.
With Man of Steel, Warner Bros. tries anew by giving the son of Jor-El the Christopher Nolan treatment. Nolan doesn't direct, but he does produce, and David S. Goyer, who co-wrote Nolan's Batmans, has penned the script. The result gives us a dull Superman who whines about his parents a lot.
Man of Steel has some impressive fireworks but it severely lacks soul. It's a Superman Transformers movie.
I'll say this upfront: Henry Cavill is easily the best-looking Superman by far. I mean, this guy is GORGEOUS. Man of Steel will probably do good box office simply because people will want to spend many summer hours gazing at this positively dreamy guy.
Problem is, he's duller than an ax after 10,000 rounds with a really big, hard boulder.
I suppose much of the blame for Cavill's flat effort can go to director Zack Snyder. Snyder's films aren't noted for their emotional realism. His thirst for style usually outweighs the need for his performers to deliver anything of depth, unless you count Gerard Butler screaming "This is Sparta!" in 300.
While I liked the way Snyder delivered his comic adaptation of Watchmen, I started to fret about him helming a Superman movie after the dreadful Sucker Punch. I worried that Superman would get lost in a sea of washed out visuals, extreme speeds both slow and fast and stripper/hookers. Thankfully, he left out the strippers/hookers, but all of his other directorial trademarks made the cut.
For instance, whenever Superman flies, he flies like a supersonic jet. The camera is often very far away, and he's just a little speck zipping around. When we see him up close, he's bouncing around so much we can't really enjoy the visual of a man flying. It's like watching a really bad Top Gun movie.
This is another origin story, and with Nolan in the mix it's an often somber one. The thing with Superman is that he's supposed to be selfless. His primary concern is saving people's clumsy asses, not who his parents really are. Sure, he cares to a certain extent, but not to the extent that it derails his primary mission of protecting humanity. That's my take on the character.
Snyder's film gives us an origin story that starts on Krypton, where Jor-El, Superman's philosopher dad (played well by Russell Crowe) is witnessing the destruction of his planet. Before things go kaboom, he has a final confrontation with the deranged General Zod (Michael Shannon ... easily the best thing in the movie) and launches a ship containing his infant son.
Fans of Superman know that he winds up on a farm with earthly caretakers (played winningly by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Without giving too much away, I will tell you that the film takes a different direction with the Clark Kent alter ego, and I wasn't crazy about that direction.
The supporting cast is much stronger than Cavill, with Crowe and Costner giving their best work in years. Shannon, in a fierce and frightening performance, almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.
While Man of Steel isn't a great, or even good, movie, it does have a highly memorable villain in Zod, the Krypton general determined to see his people live on. In fact, the film suffers whenever Zod isn't on screen. Shannon manages to pierce the stylistic, dulling veil that is Snyder's directing.
As Lois Lane, Amy Adams doesn't really factor. The script calls for her to be rather humorless and dull in her own right (It's no wonder she and Superman fall for each other). As her boss, editor Perry White, Laurence Fishburne proves to be a terrible choice. He's in full, droning Morpheus mode in the role.
The special effects visuals seemed alternately cramped and spastic, with much of the CGI having that dreaded, cartoonish look. Granted, this could be the product of the screen I saw it on (it was rather small) so I will be watching it a second time on a much larger screen to see if the experience improves.
I must also call out the filmmakers for their musical choices. I understand the impulse to separate from the original Superman franchise, but John Williams wrote a great score for those movies and it deserves to be heard whenever an actor puts on the blue tights (Let it be noted that these blue tights don't have the red underwear on the outside ... SACRILEGE!). The score by Hans Zimmer is far from memorable.
Clearly, what we are getting here is an attempt by Warner Brothers to have a superhero beyond Batman to compete with all of Marvel's Avengers. I say Marvel truly has the upper hand in the superhero battle, because most of its films of late contain charm, humor and worthy drama to go with their whiz-bang.
Man of Steel just has a guy who looks really good in tights, and a villain who far outmatches him in acting prowess. The result is a movie that falls miserably flat. This, paired with the failure of last year's The Hobbit, suddenly positions Warner Bros. as the purveyor of geek nightmares.
There's a moment at the end of Man of Steel that left me curious for the future. Perhaps Cavill will come out of his shell in later installments and actually make an impression other than physical in the sequels.
As for those sequels, I'd like to see one without Snyder at the helm. He has clearly lost his touch.