In capable hands, Superman represents the best of what humanity can be. He’s meant to be an example for us, someone to guide us and give us something to strive towards. Man of Steel makes this explicit more than once, and then proceeds to make this beacon, this shining messianic figure, spend all his time smashing things and hitting people. It’s a violent, destructive movie, told with a minimum of wit and fun. I know that a lot of people will love it. If this represents the Superman movie you really wanted, then bully for you. But I will do all I can to just steer people towards the first two Christopher Reeves Superman movies, since they still represent Superman’s best foray onto the big screen.
The worst part is that it looked like it was shaping into something special. For the first half of its running time, Man of Steel finds its emotional footing and foreshadows a powerful story of adolescence seeking purpose. I honestly believed that it was shaping up into a Superman movie for the new millenium, something that the drab 2006 Superman Returns never even tried to do. I found myself welling up when the infant was placed in the life vessel on a dying Krypton. The movie just begins to find a little poetry in the Kents, whose love for Clark works beautifully. That it’s somewhat humorless is unfortunate, but not everyone wants Supes that way. Henry Cavill cuts an impressive figure as Kal-El, and his joy when he takes his first flight mirrored some of the best that Superman is able to evoke within me. Batman is my favorite hero, but Superman taps into something so primal, a desire to break beyond the limits and frailty of humanity. For about an hour, Man of Steel looks assured, and I hoped that it would carry that foundation through the rest of the movie.
But when General Zod returns to meet Superman on earth, it becomes obvious that director Zach Snydor is only interested in the heart of his own movie as long as there aren’t fights to film. Well, “film” is a loose phrase. The entire back half of the movie feels like a neverending special effects sequence, one so incoherant and interminable that it whizzed away almost all of the goodwill I felt for the film up until that point. I am normally a defender of modern special effects, but these feel more like an assault. There is nothing special about them, no sense of artistry. It’s just stuff getting smashed for an hour and a half. Characters stop having dialog, and simply bark out interjections endlessly. Cavill himself stops having to act, and instead has to fly everywhere, usually to blow up something or punch Zod, always with a determined grimace on his face.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when Superman is forced to fight a Kryptonian, whether it’s Zod or someone else. These scenes are aggressively pointless, and they go on forever. Is there anything as tedious as watching two invincible people pummel each other for 25 minutes? Each blow lands and knocks the other character across the frame, where they leave an enormous crater in whatever building they hit. And then that character gets up and hits his or her opponent and the same thing happens. Bonus points if the army flies in jets to shoot ineffectual missiles. There is no problem in this movie that Superman cannot solve by hitting just a little harder, smashing just a little more.
Man of Steel also represents a logical extreme for destruction in a superhero movie. At the end of the movie Metropolis looks like a wasteland, not unlike the dream city at the end of Inception. The endless footage of skyscrapers collapsing, people trapped in wreckage, and dust clouds billowing down streets made me feel just a little queasy, reminding me just a little too much of 9/11. This makes the second movie I’ve seen this summer (after Star Trek: Into Darkness) that used imagery that reminded me of that horrible day. I didn’t mind it in Star Trek, since the villain was explicitly a terrorist and the destruction wasn’t filmed with nearly as much relish. Here is just felt tacky.
But I think I’m most disappointed in what the movie says about the Superman mythos. It’s so noisy, so relentless, that I find myself a little sickened by what it says about power and striving to be something better. It’s own themes are undermined over and over again. Superman uses his power to hit the hardest, not as something to point humanity to a better way. It removes everything that appeals to me so much about Superman, and replaces it with empty-headed thrills and violence. I’m especially bummed, because Superman represents something for kids to admire as well. My own son loves Superman, and has a shirt and cape of his own. But this isn’t any kind of Superman I want my own son emulating. He’s a special effect, a pronouncement that with great power comes a great right hook.