Throughout the comic book superhero's 75- year history, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's Superman has been an inspirational figure. Whether punching out an abusive husband or arresting Joseph Stalin, the Kansas- raised strongman has used his considerable strength to fight oppression, rescue the downtrodden and inspire others with his example. That's why the corny refrain of "It's a bird, it's a plane" was used to herald the character's approach. Superman was such a fantastic force for good that the natural response to his appearance was to look up in hushed awe. In Zack Snyder's bold reimagining of the character, "Man of Steel," people only look up to see skyscrapers topple on them.
In their zeal to modernize Superman for a 21st century audience and replicate the record- shattering success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, Snyder and co-writer David S. Goyer have abandoned the character's core strengths. Taking up the cape in the era of military drones and government surveillance, Snyder's Superman (Henry Cavil) is racked by fear. He hides his fantastic abilities until coaxed into action by the apocalyptic threat of General Zod (Michael Shannon), and though he is presented as a positive figure out to saves lives, the amount of destruction that follows in his wake makes him an ominous figure. In Snyder's vision, the red S is always an omen of impending destruction.
This unintentional inversion is partially an outgrowth of Snyder's lack of restraint. His successes and failures share a speed-ramped, go for broke intensity that seems almost tailor-made for the subtly free blockbusters of the modern era, but his maximalist aesthetic is wholly unsuitable for a Superman movie. His epileptic editing and hunger for large-scale violence lends an air of brutality to what should be an uplifting story. The inevitable clashes between super humans, which are normally a selling point for films like these, are rendered grotesque and horrible through Snyder's lens. The collateral damage is front and center and the sheer scope of the carnage would almost seem to suggest Snyder is attempting to critique the modern fascination with apocalyptic disaster imagery, but there is no point being made or lesson being imparted. As with his thinking man's masturbation fantasy "Sucker Punch" all the blood and thunder is just pretty wrapping paper for an empty box.
That said the wrapping paper is pretty great. Perhaps because Nolan and Warner Bros. didn't like Snyder's color timed-within-an-inch-of-its-life palette, the film is surprisingly naturalistic looking. This works better in some areas than others, with the Kansas set material featuring the finest cinematography in a Snyder film and his Heavy Metal take on the planet Krypton ranking as the most interesting element of a superhero movie this season. It works less well in the poorly defined city of Metropolis, where much of the film's third act takes place. The city looks blandly anonymous until people start pushing over buildings and then it looks uncomfortably like New York City, so much so that it takes the audience completely out of the movie. The fights between Zod and Superman move so quickly and are framed so jaggedly that they resemble high-definition cut scenes. And because Snyder was so impressed with how he was able to render a super powered hand- to- hand combat, the audience is treated to seemingly endless sequences of the same, and slowly but surely the fantastic becomes numbing. It makes for a strange viewing experience, like going on a roller coaster and then attending a college lecture. And none of the film's actors provide a respite from the tonal shifts.
While Henry Cavil is good at posing dramatically, he doesn't have much in the way of acting chops. Since there is no bumbling Clark Kent for him to play, Cavil largely has to play confident Superman and upset Superman, a task to which he mostly acquits himself, though he never pulls off inspiring Superman. It's a bit unfair to pillory Cavil since Snyder films aren't really known for their nuanced performances and "Man of Steel" is no exception. Russell Crowe's Jor-El seems stiff and lifeless even before he's turned into a computer program and Amy Adams' Lois Lane has some bite and agency but still spends most of her screen time getting rescued by dudes. Most disappointing is Michael Shannon, a dynamite character actor who is called upon to either bellow threats or calmly reiterate his character motivation. For all of his considerable talent, Shannon can't make Zod anything other than a genocidal manic. Without a strong storyteller at the helm, "Man of Steel's" performers get lost in its CGI maelstrom.
Superman, even with his antiquated code and slightly goofy uniform, is a highly adaptable figure. He inspired in the middle of the Great Depression, delighted children at the dawn of the television age, and soared to new heights right before John Wayne Gacy was captured. Social mores change, illusions of innocence are shattered and darkness is ever-present, but the idea of a child-friendly figure of pure altruism is indelible. With the character's optimism and indefatigability replaced by fear and insecurity he's just a branding opportunity in a cape. And products, no matter how well made, aren't inspiring.