Superman is more than entertainment. In telling his story, you are tapping into the pre-conscious conception by millions—possibly billions—of people about what responsibility, wisdom and integrity really mean.
Hence the challenge in making a movie about him. Most attempts have failed. But, the successes—Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980)—as well as Christopher Reeve’s turn in the title role—have become as iconic as their source material.
Therein lies the problem for Man of Steel.
These days, when even the Green Lantern gets a special effects bonanza, it is hard to remember just how singular these original films were. Superman: The Movie came out one year after Star Wars and was a new type of movie providing a new type of thrills. No movie can ever substitute how first viewing it felt.
It also remains the shining example of what a superhero film can and should be. Not until Batman in 1989 did anything even come close and the superhero craze didn’t really start until Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
And now Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have dared take this legend into their grubby little hands.
Man of Steel is not perfect.
Zack Snyder falls into many of the same traps as Michael Bay (who is to hacks what Superman is to superheroes). Like Bay, Snyder is seemingly incapable of understanding how much more powerful one steady shot can be than relentless shaky-cam histrionics. In an action sequence, one, two, or three things to look at is enough if the scene is imbued with enough depth. The combination of the aforementioned restless camera plus too many moving parts is often a unique form of dull.
Nevertheless, reviews of Man of Steel often remark that there is little “wit and humor” in this film, and that there is too little “character development.” The original two films—which are silly popcorn movies to the core—are referred to as if they are masterpieces of 70s cinema alongside The Godfather and Taxi Driver.
Man of Steel is having the same formative experience as its protagonist.
Henry Cavill makes a fine, conflicted, sensitive Superman, but he is not bright-eyed, perfect Christopher Reeve; his Clark Kent is not a delightfully bumbling doofus. That is unforgivable.
This film takes Superman to a darker, more complicated, and richer place thematically. This Superman is not a tautology, good simply because he is good. Wonder comes out of hardship, out of the hero learning to channel his anger and frustration positively. And that is not okay. Even suggesting Superman would struggle with such feelings is heresy.
Simply put, like young Clark Kent, this film’s sin is being different.
As to character development: the supporting characters, including Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El, and Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, are given a lot more development than is usual for a film like this. Exactly where the character development is lacking is hard to understand. Indeed, one of the problems with the film is that it spends too much time on these characters.
Nevertheless, Amy Adams is badly miscast as Lois Lane. Her lack of chemistry with Cavill is a glaring weakness. A reasonable explanation for the complaints of little character development is how their scenes together fall embarrassingly flat.
And some scenes are just sloppily written, with horrendous, clunky lines like “He saved us.” The film is around a half hour too long, a problem that could have been fixed by removing unnecessary scenes and going with just one and not three climaxes.
This speaks to the film’s true issue—that it tries to do a lot, possibly too much. It wants to give us Superman’s origin plus his past coming back to haunt him, all in one film. The makers of Superman: The Movie were wise to split their version of the General Zod story in two. But this film’s Zod, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon, is far more interesting than Terrence Stamp’s one-note power-monger. The critics speaking of the lack of character development in this film need to go watch Superman II again and explain the great Shakespearean depth of lines like “Kneel before Zod” before they criticize Man of Steel for being shallow.
In general, too many critiques of this film are focused on how it feels; that is, not as bright, brassy, and shining as that original John Williams theme, but noisy, chaotic, and messy. Sometimes, these criticisms are justified. But in its acceptance of chaos as a fact of reality, Man of Steel deserves far more credit than it’s getting.