There are good Superman movies and bad Superman movies, but Man of Steel is more than a bad Superman movie. It’s an epically bad film, among the worst big-budget Hollywood productions I’ve ever seen. More’s the pity because a promising start hints at a thoughtful re-imagining of the Superman myth.
A childbirth scene expands via whizbang sci-fi effects into a backstory of the politics and destruction of the planet Krypton, culminating in the dramatic rocketing of baby Kal-El towards Earth as his home world explodes. We jump ahead a couple of decades to find a young bearded loner at work on an oil rig supply ship – a young man with stupendous strength who saves lives amid disaster. A variety of flashbacks introduce us to the only character who evokes even a whit of audience sympathy: little Clark Kent, a young Kansas farm boy discovering, and suffering from, his evolving powers. The psychological insight isn’t deep here, but it’s briefly compelling.
Then grown-up Clark (Henry Cavill), devoid of personality except for a hard-won ability to repress urges to go all Superman on bullies, finds his way (I wasn’t sure how) to the site of a mysterious craft buried in ancient Arctic ice. Intrepid reporter Lois Lane – played by Amy Adams, who is unable to bring anything but perkiness to her major but underwritten role – is there too, covering the story and fatefully sneaking after Clark as he investigates his heritage.
Left unexplored, alas, are various scraps of the classic Superman story scattered through the film. And after the prologue sections described above, all bets are off as Man of Steel turns into a different movie entirely: an hour and a half or so of epileptic pacing, difficult-to-follow handheld-camera action footage, and an excruciating cacophony of sound effects accompanying explosions and crashes, crumbling office towers (even 12 years after 9-11, such scenes can really take you out of the movie), and combat that grows pointless unto absurdity.
Along with Adams, the star-studded cast includes Laurence Fishburne as Perry White; Diane Lane as Clark’s oh-so-heartland-sweet Kansas mother; and Kevin Costner as his dusty, melodramatic dad. Michael Shannon glowers with all his might as the evil General Zod, but can’t conjure an interesting villain out of a robotic script.
For no apparent reason, Zod demands that Lois accompany Kal-El on board his ship in return for not destroying Earth immediately (the film’s “Surrender Dorothy” moment); later, a military pilot played by Christopher Meloni even more inexplicably takes Lois along on a climactic bombing mission to foil Zod’s plan to terraform Earth into a new Krypton. (It’s no spoiler in a Superman movie to reveal that the good guys win; I only wish the movie had revealed just how they did it.) And Russell Crowe is Kal-El’s farseeing father Jor-El, the super-scientist who keeps popping up in ethereal form, Obi-Wan Kenobi-like, to rail against Zod’s mission, dispense advice, and, for some inadequately explained reason, to complete the Lois-on-a-mission trifecta by sending her screaming to Earth in a pod, I wasn’t sure why.
The plot is full of spoiled soft spots like on a bruised fruit, and the characters hold no human interest. The story does give our hero a fresh secret, and Zod a new, more complex reason for pursuing him. But that plot, thin as it is, gets lost in a nonsensical storm of pounding action sequences and technically impressive but comically over-the-top special effects, all adding up to something that director Zack Snyder and the writers, who include Christopher Nolan, venture to present to us as a Superman movie.
I don’t demand depth and sensitivity from movies about comic book characters, but I deserve an entertaining two hours with a story I can follow (and sound effects I don’t have to cover my ears against). Maybe next time.