If it seems a little too easy to get lost in the Sturm-und-Drang of the Krypton set prologue to Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” it’s because he is lost too. Sure, there is a lot going on onscreen–we are talking about a man whose propensity for self-indulgence is almost godlike– but the film plays like a director looking for his sea legs (fear not, Snyder gets there). As the director of both “Sucker Punch” and “Watchmen,” Snyder has plenty to atone for, so naturally he takes on a next task that is Herculean in its efforts.
Rebooting Superman is such a daunting feat, it seems that Snyder couldn’t not daunt it all the more. Then Kevin Costner showed up and something magical happened, everything the movie could be and should be emerges in a crystalline sequence. Costner’s Jonathan Kent has a heart-to-heart with his son Clark, about when the right time to reveal his super-powered self will be, if there ever can be a right moment. And he tells Clark that he is the answer to the question that will change everything: are we alone in the world? Then Jonathan starts divulging answers about who Clark is and reminds him that he is the son of two fathers: the one who helped to build his character and the one whose absence will inform how quickly that character can coalesce into something more. This duality, I think, is what Snyder responds to: at this moment he is caught between being the bastard, visionary stepchild of trash cinema and the man who has been entrusted with the future of DC’s cinematic kingdom. What Snyder needed as a filmmaker he gets from Costner in this moment: sincere, earnest perspective about beasts of burden. The lesson takes incredibly well even if the application isn’t always successful.
In the film’s earthbound action sequences, Snyder has a firmer grasp of the camera. In the Krypton sequences he was playing strictly to the Christopher Nolan, shoot-from-the-middle-up school of fight choreography, but in Kansas as Superman faces Zod (Michael Shannon) and company for the first time, the spaces are wide open and the action is both slightly frenetic and incredibly coherent. This is part of the learning curve, if “Man of Steel” demonstrates the one bad way that it can feel like a Nolan picture then obviously Snyder was gifted with a moment when someone said stop trying to be Nolan and just be good. And he does. Between the influences of both Nolan and Costner, “Man of Steel” is shaping up to be the most eerily, accidental autobiographical film of the year. There’s just too much going on here for a misunderstood, maligned filmmaker not to respond to.
Inevitably, for all the good the film does, there are certain things it simply does not get right. A final showdown with the United States military and Zod’s henchwoman, Faora-Ul, is hampered by a lackluster line delivery that robs the moment of any sort of punch that it should have had. In fact, a lack of engagement is a surprising problem for a couple of the film’s key performances. Laurence Fishburne is cast as Perry White for absolutely no good reason; perennial Snyder fave Michael Kelly is also wasted. However, the biggest offenders are Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Shannon as Zod. In the case of Adams, it feels strange not to have one sliver of a feeling for Lois Lane, who has always managed to have something appealing in every incarnation. Here Lois is simply played by a talented and gorgeous actress who seems icy and removed no matter what the script calls for. Zod is a crazy megalomaniac hellbent on resurrecting Krypton on earth via terra-forming (and DNA extraction of the Kryptonian template from the body of one Clark Kent). In other words, Zod is absolutely in Shannon’s wheelhouse of crazy, but with Zod being an ostensible god there is no reason to imbue him with the characteristic that makes most Shannon performances so great—a genuine God-fearingness—and without it Shannon never finds the center of his character.
Luckily, the Kents are all played to perfection. Costner gives the film its heart; Henry Cavill conveys just the right balance of warmth, brooding, and sincerity that makes both Clark and Superman appealing; and Diane Lane provides enough maternal warmth to make a far less substantial role not feel so thankless. Other smaller roles are well played by Harry Lennix, Harris Yulin, and Christopher Meloni.
The positives of “Man of Steel” ultimately counter the negatives, but I can see how not giving in to the portrayals of Zod and Lois feel like they should be bigger negatives than they are, but I lead off with that only to say this: for whatever the film does wrong, it absolutely nails the things that it gets right and I’ll take that. I don’t want the perfect and impervious Man of Steel, I’ll take the one with its heart on its sleeve any day of the week.