As a character, and as stories, Superman has long been bright, optimistic, and wholesome, firmly in the category of mom, apple pie, truth, justice, and the American way. Superman’s unfailing, idealistic, compassionate heroism has never existed in the real world, which is one of the most important reasons that he has been so attractive and so popular for so long. But in Zack Snyder’s massively hyped reboot of the storied franchise – which is written by David Goyer and produced by Christopher Nolan who together created the recent nihilistic and cynical Batman trilogy – Superman is darkened enormously, not just with chiaroscuro lighting but also, and more importantly, in its apocalyptic plot and tone.
This darkness makes sense for this cultural and historical moment, both in the trends in the depictions of super-heroism in comic books and on screen as well as in the ways that our world has become so politically, economically, and environmentally unstable. However, this vision of Superman is perhaps too far into the darkness for me, and in cloaking the story in black draping, Snyder fails to achieve the emotional resonance and profound hope that Superman has provided in the past. Synder, as an expert at depicting violence and death in Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, has turned Superman into something I don’t recognize and don’t really enjoy.
In this version, Goyer has combined the stories of first two Christopher Reeve films, Superman and Superman II, which I consider two of the greatest superhero movies ever made. This overstuffs the plot, but Goyer’s script does manages to tie themes and plot lines more coherently and powerfully than those three-decade-old films. The film opens with a long prologue depicting the flaming end of the planet Krypton. Shortly before the planet implodes, Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), while battling the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon), sends his infant son Kal-El in a spaceship to Earth. Kal is found and adopted by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) who name him Clark, protect him, and urge him to hide the extraordinary powers that living under a yellow son give him. As he slowly decides to use these powers to help people, piquing the interest of star reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Zod comes to Earth in search of Kal and the secrets Jor-El hid with him. Superman ends up making his grand entrance when he must stop Zod from destroying Earth, which (spoiler!) of course Superman does, but not before hundreds of thousands of people are slaughtered in an avalanche of CGI brutality.
Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal-El are played by the Henry Cavill, who is probably best known for playing Charles Brandon on Showtime’s The Tudors, and he’s a very good actor, incredibly handsome, and built like a Greek God. It was probably good casting, but as directed by Snyder, it’s hard to tell, since he’s dwarfed by the director’s tidal wave of over-stylized, quick edits, off-kilter camera angles, and heavy, almost leaden symbolism. I was very excited to see another movie about the greatest superhero ever created, but Man of Steel is ultimately not about Superman; it’s about Zack Snyder. And I realized, while sitting in the theater, that despite his copious talents, I don’t like Zack Snyder nearly as much as I like Superman.
Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Goyer
Starring Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, and Amy Adams
Opens June 14 at your local multiplex