‘Man of Steel’ review: A hopeful beginning

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‘Man of Steel’ a land of grandeur, if not details

There’s something intrinsically hopeful about Superman. Maybe it’s the All-American, Kansas-farm-boy demeanor. (He’s no Dark Knight, that’s for sure.) Maybe it’s the sloganeering: “Truth, justice and the American way.” Maybe it’s that he strikes a chord with a nation of immigrants, reminding us very few of us were here to begin with. Maybe it’s just knowing no matter the odds, no matter the evil, Superman — the epitome of goodness and what we as humans strive to achieve — will always prevail because Superman “is as strong as he needs to be.”

So maybe that’s why we’re so hopeful for a 21st-century Superman movie that reminds just how great our hero can be. And maybe that’s why we’re always a bit disappointed with what we’ve gotten so far.

In 2006, we got the flop that was “Superman Returns.” This time around, “Man of Steel” — directed by Zack Synder of “300” fame, written by collaborators David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan of “The Dark Knight,” along with being produced by Nolan — was our summer foray into the realm of the last son of Krypton. And while we got a gorgeous background, a powerhouse cast and a bevy of explosions and supersonic fistfights, we didn’t get what matters most when it comes to Superman: the details. It matters little how powerful Superman is if we don’t connect with him. And other than the Man of Steel’s fist colliding with everything in sight, there’s little connecting going on here.

“Man of Steel” tells a stripped-down, straightforward story of Clark Kent (known as Kal-El on his homeworld) from his harrowing birth to his spectacular revealing to humanity as an alien. Henry Cavill, known for his role on “The Tudors” and starring in “Immortals,” dons the iconic red and blue as Kent/Kal-El/Superman. A bit of an enigma, Cavill possesses a striking look and air of other-worldliness to him that fits the role. The character’s flaws, some of which are jarring, have little to do with Cavill. Instead, a confusing back story and mixed messages about morality and justice fog the higher road that Superman is famous for taking.

“Man of Steel” starts with a special-effects-heavy bang — well, whatever sound a space gun makes. It opens with an attempted coup against a near-calcified council on a collapsing planet; one side isn’t agile enough to save the planet, while the other is too short-sighted to do anything useful. And in the middle stands Jor-El (Russell Crowe), father to Kal-El and one of Krypton’s brightest scientists.

Aware of his home’s imminent destruction, he and his wife, Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), decide to vest their hopes and dreams with their newly born son. They send him toward a solar system with a young, yellow sun and a blue planet with “a seemingly intelligent population” with a distinct distrust of anything alien.

On Earth, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane portray Jonathan and Martha Kent, Clark’s human parents and moral beacons. The story takes a jumping sort of narrative, transitioning between Clark’s youth as an awkward and confused child and present-day shenanigans. Other human compatriots partaking in Superman’s story include the ever-savvy reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Air Force Col. Nathan Hardy (Chris Meloni) and Daily Planet newspaper editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). Lois, known for her tenacity and doggedness, is seeking answers about the discovery of what may be an alien craft in Arctic, and she spars with both the colonel and her editor every step of the way. “Aliens?” they ask skeptically. Can you blame them? Well, as it would happen…

And as one thing leads to another, we’re introduced to memories of Krypton’s past, as General Zod (a chilling Michael Shannon) locates Kal-El and seeks to relieve him of his humanity. The action comes nearly nonstop after this. And that’s not a good thing.

The issue here lies at the merging between haphazard direction, over-the-top allegories and chaotic destruction. Part of the draw of Superman and his Clark Kent persona comes from his near-naivety, his belief in the simplest of truths: that humans are, at their core, a species capable of great things.

But in a world surrounded by superbeings absorbing their terrifying power from our very sun, it’s hard to not feel as though humans have a small role in this story. We’re restrained, a sentiment Superman knows well. After all, it’s hard to maintain some mode of secrecy and normalcy if you go all meta-human on anyone who gets in your face. But you know who doesn’t show restraint? Director Snyder. Instead of character development or solid plot structure, we get obscene destruction ranging from natural disasters to alien gravity weapons.

It’s all too much, and yet too little. The things that matter were overshadowed by the summer-blockbuster-required effects we could have done without. It’s all prologue for what’s apparently supposed to be a franchise, but it doesn’t tell us enough. Still, it’s better than its 2006 predecessor, and maybe a sequel will build upon the foundation “Man of Steel” has laid.

Here’s to hoping.

Two less-than-super stars out of five.

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