Does any movie really need a World Engine, a Phantom Drive and a Genesis Chamber?
All three play a part in Man of Steel, the latest big-screen version of the Superman saga. Given that each is a MacGuffin of some sort, you would think the movie could find a way to combine at least two of them and save all the mumbo jumbo. Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder, indulges in such arcane details. Like last year’s Prometheus, the picture spends so much time explaining its world – or, worse, the origins that led to its world – that it never becomes a compelling story of its own.
The movie opens on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, and in a sense it never leaves. Political intrigue, history lessons, demonstrations of Kryptonian technology – the only thing that kept me awake during this slog of a prologue was the sight of Russell Crowe (as Superman’s father Jor-El) riding a giant cicada. Although we eventually get to earth, the Kryptonian claptrap continues with the appearance of Zod (Michael Shannon), a disgraced general from that planet who is in pursuit of Superman. Zod likes to talk a lot about Krypton too; in what is probably the picture’s defining scene, he engages in a debate on the planet’s legacy with the ghost of Crowe’s Jor-El.
There may be something especially wearisome about this emphasis on lore because Superman is – let’s be honest – a fairly straightforward creation. Just look at his name. Sure, decades of comics have expanded the myth, but essentially this is a guy who can fly and lift heavy things. To burden any superhero with this much lore would be tiresome, but it’s especially so when the myth is being built upon such a slight foundation.
Not that a good Superman movie can’t be made. They managed it in 1978, with Superman, largely by having fun with the simplicity – dare I say hokiness – of the character. Man of Steel needn’t have taken that same approach (2006’s Superman Returns failed by copying its predecessor), yet what the filmmakers do offer here is a movie with no defining characteristic beyond its laborious myth-building. Man of Steel has no personality of its own.
The movie opens on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, and in a sense it never leaves.
Which brings us to Henry Cavill in the title role. As far as I know, he’d make a fine Superman. Unfortunately Man of Steel never gives him the chance. After we meet Superman as an infant on Krypton, we next see him for a brief time as an adult working on a commercial fishing boat. Next is a flashback to one of his first days in elementary school and then we’re back to his life as a fisherman. A flashback to middle school follows and then the narrative proper – such as it is – finally gets under way. The result is that the movie feels like a prequel, sequel and reboot all wrapped up in each other. Cavill should be the anchor, but this chopped-up story never allows him to make any sort of lasting impression.
Save for Kevin Costner – who has the movie’s best moments as Jonathan Kent, Superman’s adoptive dad – most of the cast is shortchanged in this way. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is an all-purpose plot device, called upon to be a sidekick, romantic interest and unlikely action heroine depending on the scene at hand. Shannon, meanwhile, makes the odd decision to underplay his villainous role, resulting in a dispiritingly unmemorable performance. I’d quicker kneel before Shannon’s freaked-out father in Take Shelter than Zod.
If Zod is less than a formidable villain, it’s partly because none of the action in Man of Steel carries much weight. Generating suspense around an indestructible hero has always been a problem for Superman stories, but it’s emphasized here by all the computer-enhanced pummeling that goes on. This isn’t Superman versus Zod, but two costumed clouds of pixels pounding away at each other, to no real consequence.
Eventually the movie tries to up the intensity by having Superman battle some sort of giant spacecraft with tentacles, but the CGI nonsense had become so thick at this point I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. I think he may have been battling the World Engine, but don’t hold me to that. I never take notes during Krypton history class.