To be the smartest man in the room. It’s a nice place to be. Christopher Nolan has reached a point in his career where he is the smartest man in the room. Warner Brothers begged him to reboot the Superman film mythos, but Nolan wisely decreed that he was the last person who should do that. He knew after his successful reboot of Batman that lightening doesn’t strike twice. Yet Hollywood lives off the delusion that lightning can strike twice. So, Nolan, not wanting to bite the hand that fed him, agreed to produce and bring along many of his cohorts (notably screenwriter David S. Goyer and epic score maestro Hans Zimmer) to help breathe life into a stale franchise. He gets paid no matter what, and if this things bombs, hey, he wasn’t the director (meanwhile he’s busy crafting his own original film, Interstellar). In comes Zack Snyder, a keen visual stylist who too often succumbs to his own fetishes involving shaky camera-work and overblown non-sensical FX spun into a blender, to direct. The result is the overstuffed but weirdly entertaining Man of Steel – which brings great comfort to the writer in me, for it’s Goyer’s script (thoughtful, though full of holes and far from perfect) that rises above Snyder’s bombastic attempt to derail the film at every turn.
Man of Steel’s greatest assets (apart from Zimmer’s score) are the cast members. The filmmakers wisely brought on two of this generation’s greatest character actors to take on key roles: Michael Shannon, enraged and menacing as General Zod and quadruple Oscar nominee Amy Adams as a feisty and smarter than usual Lois Lane. It’s a real treat to watch Shannon not so much chew scenery as he does annihilate it (literally, his super-alien romper-room shenanigans with our title character bring down buildings) and it’s refreshing to see Adams’ Lois get in on the action and discover Clark Kent’s true identity from the start. She coos and pants in his arms when he rescues her, but she’s no fool and unlocks the key to bringing down Zod. Meanwhile, enjoyable cameos abound with Russell Crowe overacting as Jor-El; Kevin Costner under-acting as the senior Kent; Diane Lane pretty, naturally aged and forlorn as Ma Kent; Laurence Fishburne sadly wasted as Lois’ boss; and Christopher Meloni as a noble military man.
The film opens with an over-long prologue on a hilariously designed planet Krypton built of phalluses and vulvas and ruled by a governmental elite crippled by politics and incapable of stopping the planet’s destruction. Snyder goes whole-hog in these sometimes painful to watch opening moments, littering the screen with wall-to-wall effects and incomprehensible action that harkens back to his worst work on Sucker Punch.
The film overcomes this mess with a ping-pong, montage-style narrative that jumps back and forth between Clark Kent’s coming-out as an adult and his tortured though picturesque childhood in the sun-splashed melancholy cornfields of Kansas – full of messianic fetishism, religious motifs, and Malick-by-way-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch-commercials cinematorgaphy. Though Snyder does his best to derail things with bombast with every scene switch, Goyer’s somewhat hokey but well-meaning screenplay adds some weight in the flashbacks even when the overall film drags a bit. Young Clark/Kal-El is played with relatable angst by two child actors straight out of central casting (two kids – I kid you not – named Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry) while the adult Clark/Kal-El is played effectively by Henry Cavill. The combo of a Goyer script (with its surface level psychological underpinnings) and a Snyder aesthetic (eternal fan of the dramatic action slo-mo) results in some overly emo sequences of Clark crying or screaming (oh, how can he possibly save all these people?), but credit must be given as against the backdrop of an amazingly evocative and heroic Zimmer score, you can’t help but feel something even if it is fabricated from the thinnest of emotional threads.
It would be easy to dismiss Man of Steel as a mess, as an overly high-minded yet ironically run-of-the-mill FX-laden comic book fan-boy extravaganza. Yet if you go in with lowered expectations (expect to leave with a headache and don’t expect this to be anything nearly as good as Nolan’s Batman films) you’ll find yourself entertained, and you’ll find something beneath the surface. Take for instance, the quasi-Nazi/quasi-art-deco Kryptonian history lesson Kal-El gets from Jor-El’s digital ghost (don’t ask) in the abandoned Alaskan outpost/fortress of solitude. Or how about that little in-joke where Pa Kent’s grave is etched with a date of death in 1997 – wasn’t that the same year Costner’s career died? Then there are the wacked out visuals on Krypton and the prescient product placement in Smallville. Your eyes can’t help but notice the Sears and IHOP signs as Smallville gets trashed by Zod and his gang – and then notice the parallel destruction of Metropolis where Lexcorp signs (a fake corporation hinting at a very mad Lex Luther behind the scenes who will not doubt be mad in the sequel over all this property destruction) are all over the city.
And with the smartest man in the room in the background or behind the proverbial golden curtain (be it Lex Luther NOT in the film or Nolan behind the film), you can’t help but probe for deeper meaning whether it’s there or not.
Let’s just say that Nolan’s Batman trilogy painted a picture of liberal elitism marrying corporate fascism. The villains were terrorists, and as they held the big city hostage, a liberal celebrity playboy who also just happened to be a corporate big wig had to push the boundaries of the law (remember all that cell-phone monitoring in The Dark Knight?) to save the day and restore order.
Say then what does Snyder’s Man of Steel represent? Here we essentially have a god-like superhero rising from the American heartland and completely destroying a big city (full of all those smug elitists and run by corporations) in an all-out one-on-one battle between good and evil (Kal-El and Zod). At one point, Superman tells a suspicious general that he should trust him because, “I’m from Kansas. I’m as American as it gets.” What is this if not grand-scale Tea Party wish-fulfillment?
If, as I’ve been saying for years, Christopher Nolan is this generation’s Fritz Lang…then that makes Zack Snyder this generation’s…dun dun dun…Leni Riefenstahl. Yes, that’s giving Snyder way too much credit, but what is he here but a visual propagandist?
And that makes the inevitable Übermensch franchise something worth watching.
Or maybe it’s just a run of the mill rock-em-sock-em comic book movie with some hokey attempts at depth and a better than average cast that should please most summertime audience members.
After all, in its simplest terms, the Superman mythos taps into man’s innate desire to want to fly.
Why then did I feel like Snyder captured more a sense of a civilization crashing and burning?
WOWIE-ZOWIE look at the building fall down! And that other building fall down!
Nom-nom-nom pass the popcorn.
Written by David H. Schleicher