June 12 2013 04:18 PM

Superman reboot is thin on character, heavy on destruction

Lackluster-man Henry Cavill
Courtesy of Nokia

First impressions are everything. This is especially true when you're the new guy at a well-respected paper like CityBeat. I'm keenly aware of the long line of great local film critics who've come before me. No pressure, right? So, let me first express how humbled I am to be gracing these pages and thank you for reading.

I view film criticism in a slightly different way than most. My words won't represent some kind of omniscient final judgment, but hopefully a starting point for the film being discussed. My goal is to pique your interest, examining films thoughtfully to better understand why they work (or don't). Great film writing should never be one-sided. That said, it's a privilege to be here, and I'm excited to get started.

Zach Snyder's never been a contemplative director. His films, beginning with the kinetic Dawn of the Dead remake and continuing with 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, are visceral experiences where agile bodies and glistening imagery overwhelm ideas. It seems like a logical progression, then, that Snyder's rebooted the Superman franchise with Man of Steel. The sight of a muscular creature wearing blue-and-red tights flying through the air is nothing if not bluntly picturesque.

Man of Steel begins with the first natural birth on the crumbling planet of Krypton after centuries of rigorous population control through artificial harvesting. Parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Faora- El (Antje Traue) conceived the child as an act of defiance against an unthinking government, which has damaged the planet's core, and the military general Zod (Michael Shannon), who's waging a violent coup d'état. As Krypton goes down in flames, Jor-El propels his only son into the heavens to ensure the future of his race on a distant planet named Earth.

Some of these early sequences are stunning, like when Snyder slows the action down to view Krypton in mass chaos from Jor-El's point of view. Aerial laser fights and primitive beasts swooping through the sky frame a massive landscape reaching its destructive event horizon. But Snyder's visual restraint doesn't last long. As the plot shifts to Earth, Man of Steel clumsily attempts to re-mold the Superman origin story entirely through flashback. Driven to find out more about his super-family tree, a now-grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) drifts from one odd job to the next in search of clues, his outsider status solidified whenever forced to use his powers.

Past memories invade Clark's subconscious, filling in the gaps about his conflicted rural upbringing and adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). It almost seems like Snyder sought to develop Clark's character in reverse.

But by jumping between two narratives with little context for either, Snyder bungles the momentum of the opening prologue and turns his lead character into a hollow cipher. Cavill's lifeless performance only cements Clark / Superman as a visual object more than a three-dimensional hero, something that's amplified when love interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) appears seemingly out of sheer convenience.

Man of Steel only becomes more inane as it progresses, ditching coherence completely in favor of a second-hour onslaught of violence and crushing special effects. The reemergence of Zod—and Shannon's grousing presence—gives the film a shred of maniacal earnestness even as it spirals out of control. Hoping to outdo last year's The Avengers, Snyder treats the city of Metropolis as a breakable Lego set without any hint of recognizing the thousands of human casualties caught in the middle.

Even worse, Snyder's sense of morality has never been this trite. Take Clark's ongoing conflicts with identity and faith, struggles that are supposed to be the film's thematic core. Often, such emotions are verbalized in purely melodramatic terms without hinting at the deep-seeded trauma underneath. Here, Man of Steel proves just how little vested interest it has in the tangible spirit of humanity, for any feelings of substance born here on Earth or in the stars above. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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