Despite its pedigree, Man of Steel has little in common with the Dark Knight movies. It’s really a Marvel movie wrapped in the pretentious seriousness of its Dark Knight cousin.
Man of Steel isn’t really Superman. The first hint of that comes from the title which carefully avoids the S Word. But it isn’t a Dark Knight realistic reworking either. Superman as we know him barely appears here. But in his place is a character who could just as easily be Marvel’s Superman. Swap out Superman for Thor and with a few minor modifications you could have exactly the same movie. And, Man of Steel even bears a suspicious resemblance to Marvel’s first Thor movie.
There’s hardly any Clark Kent here. Just the story of an itinerant superhero, a classier version of Will Smith’s Hancock, who occasionally saves people while fleeing his past and searching for his purpose. That’s a story alright. But it isn’t Superman.
And it’s barely a story.
Man of Steel avoids origin story drag by telling everything through a set of flashbacks. That only adds to the feeling that the entire movie is a set of montages. You could watch Man of Steel with the sound off and miss absolutely nothing because there is no plot development.
Clark Kent tours the world and punches aliens. Then he punches them some more. That’s the movie.
Man of Steel isn’t bad. It just lacks content. There’s nothing here you remember after walking out of the theater. And that makes it no different than most of the other 200 and 300 million dollar summer blockbusters. There are gorgeous scenes. Superman’s first flight is absolutely spectacular and the rendering of Krypton’s history in animated art deco chrome is amazingly beautiful and moving.
But that’s it.
From the first minutes of the extended opening sequence where Russell Crowe as Jor El does all the usual action hero stuff, somehow beating General Zod and his men in hand to hand combat despite being a scientist, you know exactly the kind of movie that Man of Steel will be. And it doesn’t disappoint by not disappointing.
Even the closest thing to a dramatic arc, Clark Kent learning to trust human beings, is barely there. His pivotal struggle consists of walking into a church and then answering his own question. Even Marvel movies have more plot content than that.
Zack Snyder can shoot beautiful scenes, but he has never learned to connect them into a movie. That worked in 300, but brought him down when he tried to tackle the complex interwoven narrative of Watchmen. And he doesn’t even try in Man of Steel. It’s Superman 300 without the Superman or the 300.
Henry Cavill makes a passable Superman because he doesn’t ever have to do anything except look determined. The movie brings in Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner to play Clark’s parents and both men turn in great performances. Meanwhile the pivotal role of General Zod is left to an actor with all the subtlety of a hammer.
If General Zod had been played by a better actor, Men of Steel might have been more watchable. Instead Michael Shannon’s Zod is demented, but lacks presence. He gets beaten up by Jor El in the beginning and then gets captured and he never seems like he has anything going for him except advanced technology.
The actual fights are the same generic things you see in every movie these days complete with useless military attacks and product placement brand names being smacked around. There are moments of potential, such as when Superman smashes into a fast food joint managed by a former classmate, but then it’s just as quickly brushed away reminding you that while Man of Steel may owe something to Superman II, it’s a much worse version of even that butchered movie.
Snyder and the Dark Knight gang try to inject gravitas into a video game movie. And all it does is make for some pretty and well acted cut scenes that amount to nothing. There is no conflict that matters. Pa Kent’s warnings are nothing but another flashback that is quickly disregarded. There is no evolution here, only forcible points in the script that follow a dramatic formula without ever caring about it.
Man of Steel might have been a great movie, but its only aspiration was to do a DC version of a Marvel action movie. And it barely succeeded at that.