The Empty Balcony: Man of Steel, or, Church

You can save her, Kal. You can save all of them.

So says the ghostly avatar of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in Team Nolan’s Man of Steel, right before the Man himself, Superman (Henry Cavill), falls backwards out of a spacecraft, arms spread wide, mimicking the posture of Christ on the cross.

Later, one of the evil General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) compatriots, Faora (Antje Traue) taunts Superman about his morality. Apparently, since he grew up on earth, he was taught morals, whereas she, a child of Krypton, was not, implying that earth, and the beliefs of its people, i.e., religion, are the sole source of morality. She wraps up her innuendo by screeching, “Evolution always wins.”

Wow. This movie is not into subtlety.

Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, Man of Steel is the latest gritty reboot of a superhero franchise; in this case, Superman. It has been a long time since Christopher Reeve donned the blue tights, and the last attempt to make a Superman flick, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, fell flat. But, with Christopher Nolan on board as a producer, having recently wrapped up his Batman trilogy, there is some real pedigree behind this flick. It’s too bad that sometimes the movie lays on the proselytizing a little thick. I don’t mind religious symbolism creeping into a movie all that much, as long as it is not all that much. I guess when a viewer is watching a story about a man with godlike powers who is destined to be the salvation of all mankind, religious comparisons are impossible NOT to find.

All that nonsense aside, there is a movie being shown at this service, and, like some of the more interesting parts of the bible, it’s frickin’ dark.

Man of Steel is a reboot, so at the start, there’s the obligatory retelling of Superman’s origins, with little flourishes that make that story unique. Most of us are familiar with the gist of the story, so there aren’t any surprises here. In fact, this section of the film is more useful in telling the origins of General Zod than it is Superman. Krypton, Smallville, troubled childhold...yadda yadda yadda. We know all that. It’s seeing how much of a right bastard General Zod is, and seeing how he vows to chase down the baby that becomes Superman, that makes the first act important.

Afterwards, the viewer is treated to the bizarre behavior of Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), who will allow just about any tragedy to occur to keep his adopted son’s super secret, to the detriment of his own life. The way this character behaves is bullshit. Total bullshit. In order to enjoy this film, it is necessary to forget that Jonathan Kent was in the film at all. He doesn’t drop little nuggets of wisdom like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, or the benevolent apparition of Jor-El. Rather, he’s a scared little man, unlike how the character is normally portrayed.

Later on in the film, Superman is in the process of becoming Superman when General Zod arrives on earth, and we find out that not only is he a sonofabitch, he also has a capacity for genocide that casts a very uncomfortable pall over the film.

Here we have one of the common themes in superhero films. The city, or the world, or the universe, has to be at stake, otherwise the plot won’t be big enough to keep the audience’s attention, supposedly. In this film, Zod has the power to terraform earth to make it more like Krypton, killing every person on the planet in the process. He doesn’t get that far, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to this movie, but he gets far enough to be very disturbing.

A big machine made out of overwrought CGI is plopped into the middle of Metropolis (making only a cameo in this film), and said machine begins to pound the city into dust, literally. Waves of pulsating energy spread the destruction out from the epicenter block by block, toppling buildings, crushing cars, and presumably killing boatloads of people. This scene extends long enough that I found myself wishing the filmmakers had not gone that far with the destruction. I understand it’s fiction, but I’m thankful that Metropolis is a fictional city, and I don’t have to see New York City take a beating on film yet again.

Also, I was left with the feeling that the material, the Superman mythos, doesn’t fit in with this type of story. The man is a cartoon. So is Batman, to be sure, but that character has always been associated with the night, and with death. Superman’s motto is Truth, Justice, and the American Way. All jingoism aside, I think Superman was the wrong venue in which to tell such a destructive story. The ‘S’ on his chest is a symbol of hope? Not if you are a character that happened to be in downtown Metropolis that day. Yikes.

Of course, all this calamity is the result of General Zod. Daily Exhaust Mike told me he wasn’t sold on Michael Shannon as the villain. I disagree. Shannon played Zod as fearsome and fanatical. He freely admits to the evil he commits, and does not shirk from it at all, because he believes it is necessary to achieve his goals. It doesn’t matter what those goals are. The fact that he believes his cause is righteous is enough to make Zod one scary motherfucker. Shannon ran circles around everyone else in the cast.

That’s a bit surprising, considering one of the co-stars in the film is Amy Adams. She can act. But Man of Steel continues a proud tradition in Superman films of miscasting the role of Lois Lane. I’m glad that the filmmakers chose someone intelligent and talented for the role. A face with long legs would have been uninspired and cheap, but I didn’t buy Adams as Lois Lane for a second. Maybe that’s not her fault. It doesn’t matter what Superman movie or comic it is, I have little use for Lois Lane. Adams probably would have had to turn in an Oscar-nominated performance for me to notice.

But the standout in futility was Mr. Cavill as Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent (is there any other superhero in the genre with three aliases?). Simply put, he just wasn’t all that good.

Worth mentioning finally is the CGI. It’s wildly inconsistent. At some points, it takes its cues from Lord of the Rings, with swooping, physically impossible camera movements, and at others, it clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the Star Trek reboot and Serenity, with quick zooms, shaky camera movements, and lens flare. I’d swear there were also moments when characters had some CGI pasted over their bodies to make for some more fluid movement in some scenes with exposition. It was a little much, kind of like everything else in this film.

Man of Steel is an interesting take on Superman. It just takes itself a little too seriously. In the next go around, a little sunshine, and a lot less death and destruction, are called for, even with Batman set to be lurking around in the film. There’s no shame in skipping this one, even if a viewer happens to be a Superman fan.