What went wrong with Man of Steel? The early teasers promised Terrence Malick. The finished film is more Michael Bay. Henry Cavill as Kal-El, a fugitive from a dead planet who gets god-like powers from our sun, is easily the best actor to ever play the role, pensive and thoughtful in spots, furious and heroic in others. There’s a lot going on behind his eyes. In smaller roles, Russell Crowe fares better than Marlon Brando did as Jor-El, who can communicate with his son from beyond the grave, and Michael Shannon seems like the perfect maniac to play General Zod, a power-mad despot who shares Kal-El’s powers.
They bring some much needed humanity to this cold machine of a movie that constantly tries to wow you, perhaps a little too strenuously. Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300), probably mindful of the criticisms that greeted 2006’s Superman Returns for its lack of action, gives you one enormous scene after another (among the best: the rescue of the workers on a burning oil rig). Snyder also brings neat touches no filmmaker had ever thought of, such as showing us points of view of Kal-El’s X-ray vision (he can’t ever turn it off) and reminding us of some ingenious uses for the laser beams he can shoot from his eyes. His flight-training lessons are amusing, and Snyder doesn’t even rely on that old standby, Kryptonite, the only substance that can harm our hero. Barely anyone in the movie even calls him Superman.
But there’s a major problem Man of Steel cannot leap over in a single bound, or even three: David S. Goyer’s script, which he wrote with input from producer Christopher Nolan and decided to alternate between the past (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane raising their adopted son in picturesque Smallville) and Zod’s increasingly complicated (and not exactly logical) plan to wreak havoc on mankind.
The back and forth kills the momentum of the movie: You get giant special-effects sequences every 20 minutes, and astounding as they are, they become routine. The movie doesn’t build: It feels stitched together by patches of uninteresting dialogue. Amy Adams does her best as Lois Lane, the tenacious reporter who never stops digging for a story, but she neither looks the part nor does more than spout exposition (Adams is also a redhead, and Lane has always been a brunette; the change is akin to making Superman blond).
For all the multitude of swirling plotlines, Man of Steel starts feeling like just another generic superhero movie — the exact opposite of the radical and unique stamp Nolan placed on the Dark Knight trilogy. By the time of the big showdown, a 30-minute sequence in which Superman and Zod topple buildings in Metropolis and presumably kill thousands of people (albeit accidentally), all you can notice is how all the supporting characters (including Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Meloni) have been reduced to cutaway shots of people cowering in fear. At least The Avengers gave you plenty of characters: Man of Steel is an awfully lonely movie.
For all the criticism Bryan Singer received for Superman Returns — and the movie did suffer from the lack of a good villain — that film was heartfelt and thoughtful and got inside the mind of a character cursed to forever be a stranger in a strange land. You felt his melancholy. In Man of Steel, all you feel are your seats rumbling from the Dolby Digital sound and a vague bit of nausea (the movie is in 3D) thanks to that zooming, swooping camera. Snyder is a great visualist, but he doesn’t know how to make a story flow: The movie feels like you’re turning pages in a book - a three-year-old’s picture book. Man of Steel looks sensational and will no doubt pack theaters, but movies this big and ambitious should leave you with something more substantial than “That was cool.” Here is a high-flying hero with feet of clay.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni.
Director: Zack Snyder.
Screenwriter: David S. Goyer.
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 143 minutes. Comic-book violence. Playing at area theaters.