The Man of Steel needs to lighten up

by Amar Patel in

Faster than a speeding bullet to the brain… Zack Snyder's bloated reboot is a confused and charmless affair

This is hard work: Superman (Henry Cavill) knows how we feel

This is hard work: Superman (Henry Cavill) knows how we feel

Friday night is the prime opportunity to take a break from our ourselves. To let our fantasies run wild, as the child within comes out to play, if only for one night. The perfect time to watch a superhero film, you might think. Man of Steel, Watchmen  director Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, in partnership with executive director Christopher Nolan, is one of the most eagerly anticipated blockbusters of the past few years, due in no small part to a series of dramatic yet lofty trailers. Nolan of course is the big-screen auteur who breathed new life into the Batman franchise by using extended narrative and intrigue to probe the soul of the caped crusader. 

For Nolan it is about more than good vs evil, or staging an epic action sequence. And like him, Snyder is using a superhero to ask big questions about the people he serves; and daring to use a big studio picture to meditate on challenging themes like humanity, identity and morality. This is an admirable approach to filmmaking that can resonate with a broad audience, but only if depth comes before complexity and entertainment trumps introspection. As with the first part of Nolan's trilogy, Man of Steel is an origin story that attempts to establish the hero as an outsider struggling to fit in; the "alien" trying find his place in this world. So far, so good.

Film editors have become so skilled at pushing our buttons over one or two minutes of a trailer, it's almost given that a film like this will attract a broad audience. But would the feature-length presentation hold our attention? On paper, things did look promising: you have the distinguished cast (Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Amy Adams and Diane Lane among others), chiseled Brit Henry Cavill, a rising star looking every inch the all-American hero, whether it's hoodie up, shirt off or cape on (he roars like a man too); a loathsome villain played by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, The Runaways, The Iceman, Take Shelter), a man capable of complex and edgy performances of real menace; a director with enough clout and tact to handle the pressure that comes with tackling a pop culture icon; and a producer who knows a thing or two about comic book adaptations. How could it go wrong? 

Well it did. Superman's outfit isn't the only thing that is darker this time round. What transpired over those two and a half hours was a sombre and angst-riddled drudge through the mythology of the "S", pumped up with some of the worst excesses of modern day Hollywood: the 3D gimmickry (a distraction and nothing more); a glut of CGI you can't believe; hyperactive camerawork (the fight scenes were a blur); hollow cameos from capable actors such as Laurence Fishbourne (as Perry White) that barely registered; absurd imagery (who could forget Cavill suspended in the sea beside a whale after saving the riggers); odd depictions of reality (remote tribespeople tuning into General Zod's threatening broadcast on a flatscreen TV in their hut); and the ridiculous script (the premise of a planet-saving collision between two phantom cores stills puzzles).

No one should expect wit and wisdom in a superhero film. Quite the opposite actually: snappy dialogue people can relate to. This was sadly lacking. All that nonsense about the codex stolen from Krypton that Jor-El places in the baby capsule… Honestly, who cares? Then there's that truly cringeworthy exchange between Diane Lane and a young Clark after he struggles to come to terms with his new powers and subsequently flips out at school, locking himself in a store cupboard. "The world's too big, mom," he cries. "Then make it smaller," she whispers. Predictably, more schmaltz follows. The script also overplays the importance of the fact that Superman has two fathers. Of course he feels torn between two worlds; his ancestry and his upbringing. Both ultimately make him the man he is and yet we have to endure countless minutes of exposition on what is a pretty obvious dilemma. 

Russell Crowe's Jor-El holds court in the tedious prologue on Krypton and we are treated to musings like this on man's destiny and the importance of sacrifice: "What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?" Act one and the movie is already becoming far too ponderous as viewer begins to feel burdened by the weight of the world. Meanwhile Kevin Costner is on familiar ground playing the earnest and dutiful father figure Jonathan Kent, who tries to shield his son from the sense of fear and alienation that threaten to consume him. Lines like this thicken the air: "You just have to decide what type of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world." Effectively a variation on Uncle Ben's "With great power…" speech from the Spiderman story. I am all for a little gravitas when we are talking about the fate of the world and how that rests in the hands of a boy that would be "god", but on the back of Russell Crowe's monologues it is just too much.

So where does like leave us? Barely entertained, that's for sure. If this film is about hope, sadly I lost mine well before the second act. I was so excited about seeing an old friend in new clothes and came to the cinema wanting to believe. Instead, I quickly found myself longing for the heart and humour of the Christopher Reeve era (episodes one to three anyway). No, this is not moist-eyed nostalgia. Charm matters in action cinema and superhero franchises such as Iron Man and X-Men prove that you can entertain an audience while still having darker, more inquisitive passages. Man of Steel takes itself far too seriously so it's desperately hard to feel the thrill of superhuman ability because we are too busy worrying about the burden of it all. And when we are given a moment of levity, it's a lame gag in the final few minutes. Army officer to her colonel as Superman flies off: "I just think he's kinda hot." 

In one of several interviews to promote the film, veteran Fishbourne was asked why Superman is still relevant and he replied: "I think he's just as important as any other superhero in our culture. We need someone to believe in. He gives us a way of expressing a need to do more: to protect, and defend, to excel and inspire." Actions usually speak louder than words so why not concentrate on telling a good story and leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals. Let's hope that in the next installment the script writers adopt a lighter touch and celebrate the gifts instead of dredging the conflict within.


Amar Patel