There’s a moment during the third act of Marvel’s The Avengers where we see Hawkeye and Black Widow helping civilians out of a bus as invading aliens attack New York City. It’s a quick shot, but it did it’s purpose in showing us that even amongst all this chaos, their main mission was to save people. In a third act not worlds away from the one in Avengers, Superman does a whole lot of fighting, but not near enough saving -- unless your name is Lois Lane.
Director Zack Snyder no doubt salivated at the thought of bringing Superman to life on the big screen using all the neat tricks he learned making 300 and Watchmen, yet all that over-the-top action proves to be to the film’s detriment. Superman battles other Kryptonians in Dragon Ball Z fashion where every punch sends the opponent careening through cars, storefronts, and skyscrapers -- all of which do not appear to be fully vacated. It’s chilling to think that Superman’s body flattened a room full of people, yet he throws himself back into the fight without a thought of whose remains are on his boots.
But the movie is not all bad. There are some wonderful elements that come from Superman’s two dads, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El. They seem to talk in nothing but Life Lesson Speak, but it’s the eloquent kind that gives you feel-good goosebumps. You’d get why a guy who grew up hearing that kind of rhetoric all his life would turn out pretty super.
While Henry Cavill certainly looks the part with super pecs and super biceps -- and even at one point a super sexy beard -- he never wins the audience over with his personality. And seeing how his actions don’t prove to be entirely super when it comes to saving people, there’s not much to get behind. This Superman is touted to be an inspirational leader for the human race, yet he lacks the charm of one.
Michael Shannon proved he’s capable of turning in a Joker-level performance in Revolutionary Road, but he’s not given much to work with here as General Zod. He screams quite a bit and revels in making extreme decisions. We are told the reason for this is his genetic programming as a warrior protector, and by the end you’ll understand his motivation one-hundred percent. It’s just not the most compelling motivation, making him the greatest one-dimensional villain in superhero movie history.
His right-hand woman, Faora, steals the show from him with a few deliciously evil encounters, although, like her General, she doesn’t get much to say other than explaining why she’s superior to Superman as she beats the crap out of him. I would have liked to see her and Zod interact a bit more. A scene while they were at rest in between big action set pieces would have allowed them to talk freely and given us the opportunity to get under their skin. Still, moments where Faora lets loose with full super speed make for the film’s finest action scenes.
The visuals are generally top notch. Krypton is a beautiful alien world with weird creatures, making this more of a sci-fi epic than a superhero movie. The fights are cool to watch, although trimming each one’s length down by two-thirds would have gone a long way to keep them tight and special. When the battles go on too long, the characters start to look like slick, unfeeling cartoons. The strange liquid metal tentacle defenses of the World Engine were a nice sci-fi surprise, even if they seemed pointless by the end of that scuffle. This is a movie with a lot to see, even if it overindulges on a regular basis.
The score starts out as something truly inspiring, adding weight to the dialogue and setting the thoughtful tone of the flashback scenes, of which there are many -- and all are just about perfect. However, once the third act kicks in, the score competes with the many crashing/exploding sound effects, making for an experience so noisy and cluttered that the silence that comes with the resolution feels completely euphoric.
Super SPOILERS beyond this point!
The most heart-wrenching scene in the film was when Jonathan let himself be taken by the tornado to save Clark from revealing himself to the crowd. It showed that Jonathan trusted his adopted son to do what was right, but only when the world was ready. Now, contrast this to the end when Clark snaps Zod’s neck. The puzzle pieces just don’t seem to fit, which unravels all the hard work the filmmakers did to build up the character we know as Superman.
That Superman killed Zod is the absolute worst moment of the film. I say this not as a Superman fan or because I’m a slave to the comics or because I think I get the guy more than you. I am saying that, within the bounds of this movie, based on everything we’ve learned from his fathers about sacrifice and inspiration, he defied the very moral fiber of the character we saw being built for two and a half hours. I can point to several moments that would show why he would not kill Zod. I can find none to show why he’d take his life, even when faced with such a terrible decision. Is this the inspiration he was supposed to provide? When things get tough -- unbelievably tough -- just kill the bad guy? Yikes.
For as brooding as the Dark Knight Trilogy could be, it had several moments of genuine humor to balance it out. No such luck here. Secondary characters such as Perry White and the hyped-but-sidelined Jenny Olsen seemed the obvious choice to provide that reprieve, but their inclusion is so superfluous it’s a wonder they were included at all. Lois had some good investigative journalist moments, but Amy Adams never so much as remotely engages the audience with even an ounce of wit, snark, or charisma. Not to mention her chemistry with Cavill wasn’t strong enough to sell that big kiss at the end. For a movie about an alien trying to find his place among humans, it was lacking the warm heart and humor that makes humanity so special.
At the end of the day, Man of Steel was not as thrilling, inspiring, or fun as it most certainly should have been. There are several elements worth enjoying, but they are all ultimately ruined by the film’s disturbing ending. As a result, kids are now forced to look up to Superman the Killer. If Batman exists in this universe as the blink-and-you-missed-it Wayne Industries satellite would suggest, then he will surely be on Superman’s doorstep tomorrow, ready to teach him his one rule about being a hero.