Though the “S” on his hero’s chest is Kryptonian for “hope,” the only thing Zack Snyder believes in is destruction. In Man of Steel, the director has more money and a larger army of special effects artists at his disposal, and he uses both expertly in his most pyrotechnic sermon on annihilation to date. In casting the last son of a dying planet as a messianic instrument of war against the whiles of godlike invaders of that same planet, Snyder has managed to rip the heart from his savior, twisting a symbol of truth and justice into a sign of the apocalypse.
Superman—not a name uttered often, or without blushing, during Man of Steel’s overstuffed run-time—has been the ubiquitous superhero in American popular culture for 75 years, but it’s worth pointing out those 75 years have, through artistic highs and lows, been stewarded by corporate interest. So too has Superman’s mantle, that he is the self-appointed guardian of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The American way, given several summers of reductive, gritty tent pole films where outsiders execute bloodless 9/11 scenarios on our cold, largely vacant metropolises, is fear, which often enters Man of Steel’s narrative under the guise of “hope” (that big “S” Clark Kent eventually wears), or, even more stealthily, choice. It’s hard not to blame Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer for dragging their cosmic, primary color wearing hero Earthbound—darkness is a proven winner in superhero films, as Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan proved with their recently concluded Batman trilogy.
And there is no end to darkness in Superman’s story. His life begins just as all other life on his home planet of Krypton is destroyed. The first natural birth in several centuries, Kal-El, the future Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), is placed on a rocket by his father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Ayelet Zurer) and sent out to a new world, where he can carry on his people’s legacy among the humans of Earth. His rocketship lands in a Kansas cornfield, where it is discovered by the Kents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane). Among other things, Man of Steel is preoccupied with the relationship a son fosters with his father, and poor Clark has two, neither of which can understand his plight. Jor-El, of course, is dead. Pa Kent, on the other hand, is a human being, and they don’t exactly give human beings instruction manuals on how to raise children who fell out of the sky.
As an origin story, Man of Steel’s primary objective (and, really, the albatross around its neck) is to serve as an introduction to Clark Kent’s story. While there are brief flashes of the franchise yet-to-come—the Daily Planet and its editors (among them Laurence Fishburne as a marginalized Perry White) appear mostly in the climactic sequence that destroys much of Metropolis, lending their human features to Snyder’s point-and-click urban obliteration—the Superman of Goyer’s imagination cherry-picks from other successful franchises before finding himself locked in mortal combat with General Zod (Michael Shannon). After watching his adoptive father die, Clark Kent leaves Kansas to find himself. He drifts from job to job, one small outpost to the next, living at the fringes of humanity until a job he’s on leads to the discovery of a Kryptonian spacecraft. Also on this arctic expedition is Lois Lane (Amy Adams), putting her journalistic reputation on the line when she writes not only of the unidentified flying object, but the strange, wandering worker whose DNA activated its onboard computer and defenses. The activation of that ship is something of a beacon for the universe’s last remaining portion of Kryptonians, General Zod and his followers, who were banished to the ominous Phantom Zone for trying to overthrow the Kryptonian government some 33-years prior to the main action of this film. Zod arrives on Earth, heralded by a video message for humanity that suggests he spent several years adrift in space earning a film degree, demanding the Kryptonian be handed over, lest the planet perish.
All of this is paint-by-numbers for summer superhero timewasters—indeed, General Zod and Iron Man 3’s Mandarin may have taken the same filmmaking course—but Man of Steel has a higher calling, using the promise of wanton destruction as a stealth lecture on the life of Jesus Christ, a role Superman is dreadfully miscast in. Snyder is at his best, however, while setting this story up. His Krypton is a prog-rock hellscape populated by the denizens of a science-fiction Rome, and, free from the limitations of physical space or human emotion, he crafts his most visibly striking sequences since 300. They are so abstract, in fact, that it’s easy to miss the specifics of Russell Crowe’s exposition; how his son, a miracle birth, will grow up among humankind and eventually save them, as a god would. This sequence is densely packed with dragons, laser cannons, and spaceships that double as fertility totems—blink and you’ll miss the MacGuffin—but Snyder returns to beat this pulpit several times over. Witness Clark Kent performing miracles in his youth. Note how old he is when revealed to the world as something greater than human. See how he gives himself over to General Zod—who looks rather strikingly like a Hollywood Julius Caesar—so that man can be saved. The metaphor’s a real groan—the best representations of Superman in popular culture are those that are more human than divine—painfully accentuated by a scene where a doubting Clark Kent visits a priest to suss the whole thing out, a stained glass Jesus looking down above his shoulder.
Snyder’s Superman is particularly unfit for the burden of cinematic messiah because, well, it’d hardly be a Zack Snyder film if self-sacrifice meant giving oneself up without bloodshed. Man of Steel’s climactic brawls are overblown and orchestrated to the same degree as the centerpieces of the Matrix sequels, and while it’s hard not to be impressed with the monstrous task undertaken by Snyder’s effects team—not only are two cities effectively leveled, but in flight and in fight, the world Superman occupies looks and feels hypothetically as it would to somebody of his abilities; impressive, but easily destroyed—the problem with these scenes, beyond the generally tiresome 9/11 imagery, is that they have no life to them. The staff of the Daily Planet run from falling buildings, but there are zero stakes to their plight. In a PG-13 movie arguably more interested in being a Trojan horse for the International House of Pancakes than the consequence of space aliens pulverizing a major American city, Ragnarok was bound to be bloodless, but for it to be without heft? Superman has reversed the Earth’s rotation for less. Here, Lois Lane falls into his arms and gives him a hero’s kiss; the world, as absurd and dangerous as it’s presented to be, returns to normal. It may not have been convincing, but at least Tony Stark had to deal with seeing an alien armada at the far edge of the universe. The destruction here may be more realistic an illusion than in any superhero film short of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it’s no trick to destroy a lot of buildings, if all you want to do is destroy a lot of buildings.
Man of Steel. With Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), and Russell Crowe (Jor-El). Directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, and Deborah Snyder. Screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.