Man of Steel

man-of-steel-box-office-02If we’re keeping track, the real meat of Man of Steel comes about an hour and a half into it — the public and massively destructive face-off between Kal-El, or Superman (Henry Cavill), and some evil emissaries from his dead home planet Krypton. The brawlers all have superpowers in our Earth atmosphere, and they pummel each other, at full concussive speed, into buildings, fuel tanks, water towers, and many other things destined to be written off by the insurance companies covering Metropolis and Smallville. The effects employed to achieve the devastating collateral damage are, for the most part, unimpeachable; gazing at the wreckage of downtown Metropolis, we’re looking at the equivalent of about 50 9/11s. And that’s before Superman even throws down with the evilest of evil Kryptonians, General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Before all the carnage, Man of Steel goes by in an indistinct blur. It’s not that it’s simply fast-paced; this is something else. It’s paced as if what we’re watching were an afterthought — as if it didn’t matter, as if it were just lip service to get us to the destruct-a-thon. The movie flips half-heartedly through the key narrative beats: the death of Krypton, preceded by Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) packing him off in a spaceship; Superman’s childhood in Kansas, where he’s adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and named Clark; the introduction of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who, in this telling, seems to know Superman’s identity before he fully does. All the pieces are there, but they’re put into place in a rushed and offhand way that denies anything any weight or emphasis.

This has not previously been a problem with director Zack Snyder, whose geek sensibilities and visual fetishism (he adapted the graphic novels 300 and Watchmen) have made him a whipping boy among fanboys and critics alike. At his best, when he’s allowed to ease up and slow down a bit, Snyder can create sequences with mood, heft, visual flair. But in Man of Steel he’s barreling through script pages — maybe keeping the movie down to a reasonable length was an issue, though it still clocks in at two hours and twenty-three minutes — and he never establishes a tone. Superman’s flashbacks to his boyhood in Kansas are distributed piecemeal throughout the film, so that an idyllic vision of a way of life that nourished the young Kal-El, a world whose best values he can plausibly vow to protect against his own species, never takes hold.

This sort of machine is inhospitable to actors. Henry Cavill, a face unfamiliar to most American moviegoers, is amiable enough but isn’t allowed to show the wit or the sincerity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Casting up-and-coming cult-actor favorite Michael Shannon as Zod seemed at first glance like a fine idea, but Shannon has too much of an earthbound urban cadence, and I detected some distaste on his part when he had to deliver lines like “Deploy the World Engine,” or whatever the hell Zod says to do with the World Engine. The World Engine is meant to turn Earth into a planet friendlier to Kryptonians, which apparently means messing with gravity to lift hundreds of cars off of a busy city street and then slam them down again, like the wrath of a spoiled kid tired of his toys.

In movies, if you can do anything, it’s harder to make it mean anything. I can watch Zod hurl Superman into one, two, three skyscrapers with one mighty throw, but for all the thudding apocalypse of the sound, the mayhem doesn’t suggest any true mass, momentum, inertia — the basic physics that ground action in the world we know and make it interesting. The trailers for Man of Steel promised something almost mystical — they stole their tone from Terrence Malick, of all filmmakers. Not that I was expecting the movie to be anything like Malick, but it might’ve been something intriguing to shoot for; Christopher Nolan, after all, patterned his Batman movies on Kubrick and Michael Mann. A movie about the clash of gods should feel more epic, more awestruck, less in a hurry to get to the next uninspired plot point. This might’ve been Time-Warner’s chance to make the riskiest blockbuster ever attempted, a pure-cinema experimental film — a two-and-a-half-hour fight scene. Maybe Snyder was right; maybe nothing else mattered for that first ninety minutes, or matters in the new cinematic paradigm.

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