Oh Superman, what did you do to deserve Zack Snyder?
When Snyder was handed “Man of Steel,” the latest attempt to launch Superman back into the blockbuster stratosphere, comic book fans feared the ADD-afflicted director of “300” and “Watchmen” was a bad match for the most stolid of superheroes. They were right.
Snyder creates a jittery Superman movie with harsh, grainy photography and eardrum-cracking sound effects. The movie starts and ends as a thunderous alien-invasion picture in the Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay vein. Superman is often dwarfed by special effects, a supporting player in his own movie.
The shame of it is that Henry Cavill, the latest actor to squeeze into the blue and red costume, is winningly disarming the few times he is allowed to behave like the Superman we all know.
Snyder and Warner Bros. can’t be blamed entirely for wanting to shake things up. The previous attempt to revive the character, 2006’s “Superman Returns” (with Brandon Routh wearing the cape) was doomed to blandness because director Bryan Singer envisioned it as a continuation of the Christopher Reeve era – 20 years after the fact.
“Man of Steel” instead follows the trendy reboot strategy, retelling the origin story from 1978’s “Superman” in a grittier fashion and also loosely remaking 1981’s “Superman II.” The chief villain here, as in that first sequel, is General Zod (Michael Shannon), the insurrectionist from Superman’s home planet of Krypton.
The early scenes of “Man of Steel” follow the early scenes of the 1978 movie in content. General Zod and his followers are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone for their crimes against Krypton. Meanwhile, Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is certain Krypton will soon explode and makes plans to rocket his only begotten son, Kal-El, to safety on the faraway planet Earth.
Jor-El selects Earth because atmospheric and solar differences will make Kal-El invulnerable and gifted with incredible strength and the ability to fly (or float or whatever, I’ve never been clear on that). “He’ll be a god to them!” Jor-El declares with chilling certainty.
Those standard elements of the Superman origin story are presented faithfully enough, but this version’s embellishments are bewildering. Apparently Snyder’s takeaway from the “Star Wars” prequels was that audiences can’t get enough of alien politics. Jor-El blames Krypton’s downfall on its policy of eugenics. No child has been born naturally for centuries, not until Jor-El and wife Lara (Eyelet Zurer) defied the government with baby Kal-El. If the other Kryptonians haven’t been procreating, they sure have been sublimating, because all their spaceships look like reproductive organs.
Just as baby Superman is about to crash land in Kansas, the story unexpectedly jumps ahead to reveal Cavill as a fully grown, heavily bearded Clark Kent on a spiritual walkabout, roaming the country and anonymously saving people. Flashbacks reveal his formative years in Smallville with adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
Meanwhile, feisty Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets wind of the mysterious wandering savior and digs into the story, altering the nature of the Lois Lane-Superman relationship before they even meet. This is probably the film’s greatest departure from the character’s legend, but I would argue it is a change for the better. Lois emerges as smarter, more independent.
Eventually Zod and his small army (not just the two co-conspirators from “Superman II”) arrive on Earth and threaten to wreak planetary havoc unless the son of Jor-El reveals himself. Even more debates about Kryptonian politics follow until Zod wreaks planetary havoc anyway, with boilerplate depictions of giant spaceships hovering over cities and causing skyscrapers to crumble. It’s been, what? almost a month since “Star Trek Into Darkness” wrought similar devastation.
Here Snyder betrays his deep misunderstanding about what distinguishes Superman from other superheroes and other big-budget summer extravaganzas. Superman movies shouldn’t be about mass destruction. They should be about a hero who prevents mass destruction.
Other attempts to toughen up Superman’s mythos are more perverse. A young Clark Kent is terrified when he hits puberty and suddenly is bombarded by sounds and can see his friends’ internal organs as Snyder channels Dario Argento to depict super hearing and X-ray vision. Later Superman uses his heat vision to cauterize Lois’ stomach wound in a pointless moment that looks disturbingly like sexual assault.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer (who worked on the story with Christopher Nolan, fellow architect of the “Dark Knight” trilogy) attempts to balance the darker side of the story by taking the usual symbolism of Superman as Christ figure and preaching it with the restraint of a 1980s televangelist. At least three times Superman holds his arms out in a crucifixion pose. He mentions he has been on Earth for 33 years. The kicker arrives when Clark visits a church to ponder whether he should sacrifice himself to save mankind while over his shoulder a stained-glass Jesus agonizes over the same question in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Goyer’s script comes across as a biblical text as well, filled with pompous declarations about the nature of Superman’s powers and his duty to lesser mortals. Characters don’t converse in “Man of Steel,” they state. The actors saddled with the most conspicuous speeches are Crowe, whose hologram continues to pop up like a genie, and Costner, who delivers about a dozen stiff lectures on morality. The 1978 movie sold the same message in one elegantly written scene where Glenn Ford tells young Clark he was put on Earth for a greater purpose than scoring touchdowns.
Finding the traditional bright colors of comic book movies gauche, Snyder and cinematographer Amir Mokri desaturate everything to an ugly miasma of browns and greys. Avoid seeing this in 3-D because Snyder uses a handheld camera throughout, apparently hoping to induce motion sickness.
Although nearly every production decision behind “Man of Steel” is too harsh, grim or heavy-handed for a hero as hopeful as Superman, the character himself survives untouched by his poisonous surroundings. With his square jaw and broad chest, Cavill projects the fundamental decency at the core of Superman without a trace of embarrassment.
Cavill is quietly heroic in a noisy monster of a movie. He deserves a chance to play Superman with a better script and another director. Sadly, Goyer and Snyder already are booked for the sequel. Lex Luthor must be running the studio.