Man of Steel (Review)

Contains spoilers.


The Superman franchise is one I’ve never previously had any interest in.  I’m not a great fan of the superhero genre as a rule – or at least, the generic Marvel/DC template which dominates the genre – but Superman always seemed exceptionally intolerable to me.  An unbeatable man who can do anything, only weakened by a metal which doesn’t even exist on Earth?  There’s really very little (interesting) that can be done with the concept.  But still, I thought, I’d better watch it for myself to truly judge the concept, so today I went to see Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.  …Oh boy, was I right.

I suppose I ought to start with the positives.  Most of the opening half hour or so was really enjoyable to watch.  The planet Krypton was revealed in a glory of computer-generated splendour and I actually felt invested in the characters, largely thanks to the great acting by Russell Crowe (aka the best singer of Lés Miserablesand Ayelet Zurer.  I was with the characters, desperate for their plan to send their baby Kal-El to a far-off world to save it from the planet’s destruction.  The moment the planet did explode was even rather moving.  This whole sequence was beautifully directed – along with most of the film – and gave me high hopes for the rest of the film.  If only it had stayed like this…

There were other aspects of the film I liked.  The acting all-round was pretty good: Henry Cavill is decent as Clark, the character’s failing not being a result of the acting, while Amy Adams played Lois Lane well (again more than can be said for the writing; she starts off a feminist because, you know, she continually mocks men through her first scene – but gradually her independence erodes and she relies more on Clark).  Clark’s adoptive parents were also well-acted, if generic, and Laurence Fishburne has improved since The Matrix now his character actually has a personality.  General Zod, unfortunately, is too great a mesh of testosterone and military stereotypes to be, uh… oh…

Yeah, positives didn’t go so well.  One of the most distracting elements of the film was its fragmented plotting.  After the glorious opening sequences we’re subjected to constant switching between Clark’s upbringing to random moments in his progression to becoming the Superman.  This would be fine if the scenes were made clear to be flashbacks, but they weren’t, which left me wondering where each scene fitted in to his life.  To be fair, most of these scenes judged individually were fairly good but they just didn’t slot well into the film as a whole – with the exception of his father’s death, which showed Clark to be a heartless monster for doing nothing and his father to be a saint – a superman himself, if you will.  This issue of structuring had a particular impact upon Clark and Lois’ ‘relationship’ – they’re barely acquaintances throughout the film but suddenly kiss at the end because… that’s what’s supposed to happen?  This happens a lot, actually – the script will demand something happens so the film can go through the superhero genre motions, but it often feels forced.  Then the whole thing really collapsed the moment he put on that ridiculous cape and begin to fly – the moment he became Superman, basically – and the film never recovered.

Quite simply, the concept of Superman doesn’t work for me.  His abilities are supposedly endless but the most significant ones are flight, super-strength, super-speed, super-thought – and laser eyes for good measure.  Ignoring the science (he can fly because gravity is stronger on Krypton?  That explanation is painful), from a literary sense this ruins the character because he is not someone who can be defeated.  He can barely even be challenged.  His one weakness is to be removed from Earthlike conditions which, since he’s invincible, is pretty hard to do.  It only happens in Man of Steel when Zod threatens to wipe out humanity.  He also supposedly becomes weaker when flying near the terraforming machine – despite the fact the film has already made clear terraforming doesn’t work like that!  It’s not a bubble expanding outwards, rather changing the conditions of the planet as a whole.  So really, he’s pretty undefeatable.  Now, this could have interesting connotations – the struggle of such powers, the morality of any individual becoming a God – but instead Clark is so perfect with his chivalry and American values that it’s just incredibly dull.  This also results in easy plot resolutions: did he really defeat the terraforming device by flying through it to make it explode?  My word, that’s lazy.

Like any blockbuster, the main focus of Man of Steel was the action scenes.  This is occasionally bearable if the action scenes are interesting, which was not the case here.  Most of the second half was comprised of endless shots of various characters flying about, punching one another, zipping through buildings and causing intense destruction.  It became repetitive after a minute, let alone 30.  Granted, still better than The Matrix (though it’s a tough one!).  You’d be better off going to see a wrestling match; as much is achieved in less time and the result no less pre-ordained.  I left the cinema wondering, quite simply, why had I wasted that last hour of my life to watch money be wasted on endless sequences of pointless violence?  It’s as if there was an ‘action scene quota’ – I’d finally breathed a sigh of relief when Clark destroyed Zod’s spaceship, only for Zod to have miraculously survived – uh, somehow – and another inspid fight ensued.  The climax where Clark was distraught over the possible death of a family by Zod’s laser vision felt utterly unconvincing considering how many innocents he’d allowed to die by fighting in an urban area, by bringing skyscrapers crashing down and debris falling everywhere, by flying through a petrol station and causing it to explode – oh, I forgot, in blockbuster land you can have limitless destruction without any such moral qualms.  How silly of me.

Man of Steel is a mind-numbingly poor film at times.  It’s so dull that I’ve even struggled to find interesting pictures for this review!  The first half is moderately decent and it is saved by skilled direction from time to time, but the endless violence and repetitive action completely destroys the film.  I’m getting so sick of blockbusters – I think I’ll do my utmost best to avoid any more this year.  And I still need to be convinced that there’s a superhero film worth watching.  The Watchmen – also by Snyder – looks interesting, at least, though not a candidate to solve my issue with gratuitous violence.

Final rating: 4/10