Alert: This review contains spoilers.
After wrapping up the enormously successful Batman franchise last summer, DC Comics (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) is in desperate need of a hit. Green Lantern was such a box office bomb that any chance of a sequel is out of the question. Unfortunately for DC, other superheroes in its war chest like Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman seem unfit for the modern cinema. Meanwhile, rival Marvel Comics is churning out a blockbuster every few months. Out of options and out of time, DC Comics turns to its most dependable man in tights: Superman. Never mind that the studio already attempted to reboot the series in 2006 and failed. Superman Returns, starring the uncharismatic ex-model Brandon Routh, was panned by both critics and fans. Even Warner Brothers executives admitted that Routh failed to “position the character the way he needed to be positioned” and aborted a 2009 sequel.
That brings us to Man of Steel. The conspicuous absence of the word “Superman” in the movie title – it was only uttered twice in the entire 143-minute film – suggests the studio’s intention to disassociate the “re-reboot” from Superman Returns and to approach the franchise very differently. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is at the helm under the watchful eye of co-producer and co-writer Christopher Nolan (the Batman trilogy, Inception). Replacing Brandon Routh is the gruffer and buffer Henry Cavill. It is a break-out role for the British actor, who was passed over for being too young to play James Bond and too old to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga.
With Nolan on the set and a weightier leading man, what can possibly go wrong? Man of Steel is the most anticipated action movie this summer and is already a box office bonanza for Warner Brothers. The movie grossed US$416 million worldwide within the first two weeks of its release, which has more than paid for the quarter-billion investment. Despite its financial success, the movie is a disappointment to Superman devotees. There are several reasons why.
Let’s start with the story. Like the original Superman film in 1978, Man of Steel begins with the birth of Kal-El. Baby Superman is sent to Earth because his planet Krypton is about to explode. The opening sequence is a drawn-out action set piece that takes place on the alien planet, which looks like a mix between Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and Pandora in Avatar. Unless it is a Star Wars movie, fantasy worlds are better left to the audience’s imagination. The underwhelming opening then gives way to the haunted present of an adult Kent Clark (Kal-El’s earth name) who, like Wolverine, takes up odd jobs while searching for the answer to who he really is. Next thing we know, gung-ho reporter Lois Lane discovers Clark’s alien identity while she was snooping around in an abandoned Kryptonian spaceship lodged in an Arctic iceberg. That means less than 20 minutes into the film, Clark's secret is already out. Boo-hoo. But as soon as the jig is up, super villain General Zod – who was also featured in the 1980 sequel Superman II – shows up with an alien army and declares war on earth. So before there is time for Clark’s identity crisis to play out or any of the characters to properly develop, the stakes have become irreversibly high. Mind-numbing action sequences follow. Entire city blocks are shattered the way there were in The Avengers and the earth’s core is being drilled just like in Star Trek. Concepts like the Codex, the Genesis Chamber and the World Engine are explained in a couple of hasty lines and never get fleshed out.
Another problem with the movie is that it takes itself far too seriously. Let’s face it, Superman is a beefcake flying around in blue tights, a red cape and matching rubber boots. Even without the yellow belt and the red underwear worn outside, his Spandex suit still gets a snigger from today’s audience. The story is also plagued by obvious but unaddressed questions like why Kryptonians speak English and why they are anatomically identical to us. That’s why Christopher Reeve’s bumbling rendition works, but a tortured and unsmiling Henry Cavill doesn’t. But anxious to replicate the winning formula from Batman, DC Comics turns Superman into a Dark Knight who struggles with the same moral dilemma of having to save a people that neither trusts him nor can be trusted. The “Nolan-ification” of Superman drains the franchise of the humour it needs to avoid slipping into silliness.
The casting also leaves much to be desired. Amy Adams who plays Lois Lane is too petite and not photogenic enough. She seems more interested in using Superman to advance her journalism career than getting to know the man who is frankly too busy saving the world to start a new relationship. As such, there is zero chemistry between the glass ceiling breaker and the alien Saviour. Michael Shannon should have dialed back General Zod’s diabolical desire for world destruction and played up his forgivable one to preserving his own species. Throughout the film, Shannon looks and sounds more like an over-acting Macbeth than the calculating rebel leader of a superior race.
The last and fatal flaw is that the Snyder/Nolan dream team has gotten the mythology all wrong. Unlike a Spartan soldier in 300, Superman is supposed to kick ass without throwing a punch or rolling in the mud. In Man of Steel, however, the caped hero is constantly locked in hand-to-hand combat with his fellow Kryptonians. Street fights simply cheapen him. What’s more, the Superman we know is compassionate. He will save every last human no matter what the personal price is - even if he has to turn back time and interfere with human history. But in Man of Steel, buildings fall over each other with thousands still trapped inside. Fighter planes get shot down killing both pilots and passengers. Just the same, Superman charges on unmoved. He appears perfectly at ease with fighting his epic battles in the middle of a financial district, not to mention personally contributing to the human death toll as he is tossed around by his alien enemies.
The only bright spots in Man of Steel are the many flashbacks to Kent Clark’s childhood in the American prairies. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Clark’s earth parents and supply the emotional pull that the movie so badly needs. The audience wishes that there were more human touches like that and fewer CG set pieces that go on and on. The audience also walks out of the theater feeling nostalgic for the 70s and thinking - Superman Returns wasn’t so bad after all