Superman turns 75 this year, and appears no worse for the wear in Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s serviceable, if somewhat dispassionate, reboot. Writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, who both penned recent Batman films, bring a similar dark, edgy, sensibility to the Kryptonian hero’s story, with mixed results.
The film’s opening scene is nearly a shot-by-shot remake of Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman, with beautiful Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) perfectly made up and coiffed as she gives birth to little Kal-El (AKA Superman/Clark Kent) on the doomed planet Krypton, as her stoic husband Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send him to earth to save him from Krypton’s imminent destruction. Goyer and Nolan appear to have cribbed scenery descriptions from Avatar and Clash of the Titans in their rendering of Krypton’s environs, and, perhaps because of Russell Crowe’s connections, Krypton’s inhabitants apparently got a deal from Gladiator’s wardrobe staff, as their attire seems lifted from that film.
Kal-El’s birth into this derivative world is notable, however, since his is Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries; the population has been artificially controlled so that each citizen is pre-determined to have a specific role and purpose in Kryptonian society. The “blueprints” for these beings are contained in something called the Codex, the whereabouts of which become important later in the film. The Codex is also of particular interest to General Zod (a menacing Michael Shannon, Hollywood’s reigning go-to guy for freaks, weirdoes, and villains), Krypton’s evil military leader, and Jor-El’s, and, later, Superman’s arch nemesis.
But the plot is really inconsequential; with the conflict established (doomed planet; few survivors — including one hero and lots of villains — fighting for the Codex and for the protection/destruction of humankind, respectively), we can move on to excuses for epic special effects, a bit of human interest, and long, long, long (did I mention long?), extended battle scenes. By the film’s end, Metropolis is in dire need of a good architect.
So let’s start with a look at the main casting choices. Russell Crowe seems to be vainly trying to channel Marlon Brando (Jor-El in Donner’s picture); Crowe’s earnest attempt to bring such gravitas to the role is reminiscent of his heavy-handed depiction of Inspector Javert in Les Miz. Fortunately for us, though, he never breaks into song here, although his performance certainly feels just as forced and self-consciously constructed.
Kevin Costner fares much better as Jonathan Kent, Superman’s adoptive father in Smallville, Kansas, where Kal-El’s craft happens to land. Jonathan’s love for his adoptive son is evident, and Costner brings naturalism and grace to a role that is both believable and endearing.
Diane Lane, too, is engaging and warm as Martha Kent; it is somehow fitting that tough-but-good-hearted Cherry Valance from The Outsiders grew up to be Superman’s mom. Indeed, Lane appears to be one of the few Hollywood actresses of a certain age not Botoxed to the hilt, and she is all the more lovely for it.
Finally, Henry Cavill (The Tudors) brings a bit more personality to Superman than did Brandon Routh in the most recent previous attempt, Superman Returns (Who? Does anyone even remember Routh, or that picture?). Cavill is the first British actor to play Superman, and although some of his English reserve comes through, he definitely has more charisma than the vacuous Routh, whose notable contribution to his film seemed to be his remarkable physical resemblance to 1978’s Superman, Christopher Reeve. Perhaps because of the Routh disaster, though, Nolan and Goyer don’t give Cavill much to work with; the rest of the cast seem to have the majority of the lines.
Child actor Dylan Sprayberry, on the other hand, who portrays Clark at age 13, gives a performance worth watching, despite being in just a handful of scenes. His middle-school struggles with his Kryptonian identity are more interesting than any of the man-on-man combat Cavill’s Superman faces as an adult.
At the Daily Planet, Metropolis’s equivalent of the New York Times, Amy Adams is particularly perky as reporter Lois Lane, smart and sassy, and almost as fearless as Superman himself. She and Cavill do have palpable chemistry, thankfully more reminiscent of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder than Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth. Laurence Fishburne as preternaturally exasperated editor Perry White hits the all the rights notes of gruffness, sincerity, and integrity. And, while we’re discussing minor characters, I particularly liked that the Air Force is ably commanded by the ever confident, kick-ass Detective Stabler (oh, I mean Christopher Meloni).
As for the screenplay itself, this new Superman story does have two unique aspects to it, differentiating it from previous versions. First, unlike in the Donner picture, here, everyone, most notably Lois Lane, knows right away that Clark Kent is Superman, thanks to some heroic feats on his part as a child and a young adult, which Lois quickly ferrets out through a series of interviews that actually start the picture.
Second, this version plays up the effect Superman’s Kryptonian nature – which gives him his super powers on earth – has on his attempts to assimilate with humans. In a contrast to previous incarnations, here little Clark Kent does not just “discover” his powers one day, but fights to control them from the time he is just a boy. In a series of effective flashbacks, we see small Clark overwhelmed by ticking clocks, which sound like thunder, and see him utterly dismayed when he looks at his teacher and sees not just her outward appearance, but her skeleton and beating heart; of course the kid is going to be freaked. How Clark learns to focus and calm these enhanced senses makes for a compelling narrative.
And in a nice nod to current events, Superman destroys a drone that has been spying on him, and Lois Lane sells her story about Clark Kent’s true identity – which Perry White refuses to print because of lack of verifiable sources – to a Julian Assange-type Internet blogger.
That said, the screenplay does suffer a bit from failing to adhere to a lesson taught in Creative Writing 101: that is, show, don’t tell. All the characters, particularly Jor-El and Jonathan and Martha Kent spend an inordinate amount of time telling Superman, and, by extension, us, that he is upright and moral – an ideal for humans to emulate. As presented by Cavill, though, Clark/Superman remains a bit flat. We perceive neither his nobility nor his devotion to humanity, even as he proclaims it to Zod, and even as he saves various humans; he seems to do so on autopilot, and we don’t get a true sense of his motivations. Everyone else just keeps telling us how great Superman is; even a young female solider says of Superman to her commander, “he’s hot,” as if we couldn’t tell.
The picture closes with some obvious loose ends, clearly setting up for a sequel (or two). Sharp viewers will notice a “LexCorp” marquee on a building in the background of one of the Metropolis scenes, no doubt foreshadowing Lex Luthor as the villain of the next picture. Nolan and Snyder here have made a respectable first draft; with the characters now established, perhaps they can bring more depth and vitality to the next installment.
Finally, the film could also benefit from a little more humor. The biggest laugh might be how easily Clark gets a job at the Daily Planet. Who knew daily papers were even hiring reporters these days, let alone those with no discernible college education or writing skills? Landing that job just may be the most Super thing Kal-El does in the entire picture.
Man of Steel opens in Bay Area theaters today.