Available this week on video, “Man of Steel” looks like a winner for most of its first half; after that, it calls to mind the 2012 Vikings, the initial promise turning to final disappointment. Director Zack Snyder comes at the familiar Superman story from a refreshingly different angle. His hero is moody, notable for his restraint in the face of a world that seems bent on reviling or attacking him. And if you don’t count an evil fellow Krypton native bent on world domination and human eradication, he doesn’t deal with any actual criminals.
The film does carry a strong anti-bullying theme, as much of the early going focuses on young Clark Kent resisting the urge to reveal his strength in the face of taunting. He and his Earthling parents (played realistically by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) try to hide Clark’s heroism, too, questioning whether eye witnesses to his saving a busload of his classmates are to be credited. As an elementary schooler, little Clark has to learn how to focus his x-ray vision and tune down his acute hearing, the world being too much with him.
Indeed, both his adopted father and his biological one, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), counsel the young lad about his difference from the humans around. He’s an alien who has to fight becoming alienated. In repeated scenes, we watch Clark (Henry Cavill) as a fisherman, a waiter, a farmer who stands apart from his fellows, Snyder’s camera isolating him even in crowded areas. Even during his first kiss with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the couple are distanced from a group on onlookers, embracing for a few seconds before he jets off again to confront evil.
His nemesis here and throughout the latter going is General Zod (Michael Shannon), Jor-El’s old sparring partner who has sought him out across space because he believes Clark has a codex that will somehow perpetuate the race of Kryptonites, mass produced in a “Genesis chamber.” (Think “Brave New World.”) If Clark represents freedom, Zod is authoritarianism. In best fascist tradition, he and his henchwoman (Antje Traue) believe having a moral sense is a weakness that dooms humanity in the course of evolution.
So when the inevitable Climactic Battle comes off, it’s overloaded with thematic baggage for what is still an action flick. It also knuckles under to the temptation to let computer generated imagery overwhelm whatever earlier subtleties the film contained and forecloses the possibility of humor. (Contrast “Iron Man III” to see how this can be accomplished.) Snyder wastes a big name cast, for the most part, electing to give more time to spectacle than character. This decision helped to draw the requisite ticket-buying masses into the 3-D screened venues, but it represents a failure of artistic nerve. (It also makes the movie about a half-hour too long, though that seems to be par for the course for Big Summer Movies now.)
Too bad, because he makes some nice shifts in the well-known storyline: for instance, Lois is in on the super power stuff almost from the moment she meets Clark, adding a bit of needed irony to the mix. And the repeated flashback technique provides the initial lead-up to Clark’s first headline grabbing act, piquing our interest and, later, showing what triggers Clark’s earlier memories, implying the psychological burdens he carries inside that handsome head and massive physique.
Rated “PG-13” mostly for sci-fi violence, “Man of Steel” adds to the long tradition of Superman tales, begun back in 1938 by DC Comics and continued on TV and film. Just as a wild guess, I’ll bet we haven’t seen the last of this elder statesman superhero. Maybe the next one will give us a bit less of the pyrotechnics — which, honestly, get boring — and delve more fully into this inherently engaging character.