This film is bad, prodigiously bad, superbad, in fact! Man of Steel is a confounding mess, an epic treatise in how not to make films. But what’s going on? With its Terrence Malick-esque shots of nature, billowing sheets and gritty landscapes all complemented by a haunting tenor choir, the first Man of Steel trailer looked epic, yet grounded and full of humanity; hell it still does, even having seen the film. So hats off to the trailer-smiths, but what went so catastrophically wrong with the film? Frankly, the only honest answer I can give is everything.
First and foremost, Man of Steel is a stylistic mess. In a wholly unnecessary prologue which should have been a few short minutes of flashback, the first half an hour of the film takes place on Krypton, an enormous alien world supposedly intended to give the story a convincing, living backdrop. What results is a fantastical, very ‘sci-fi’ experience which feels like a mix of new Star Wars and Avatar mythology, and is equally as uninteresting. After far too long we find ourselves on good ol’ planet Earth. Here, the aforementioned rustic, airy cinematography is applied in full force, creating a sense of realism and home; a positive vision of humanity in stark contrast to the sprawling, corrupted and inhospitable world of Krypton. This earthy style, complete with an excess of lens flare, is engaging, if a little Instagrammy: almost every scene featuring Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) plays out like a glossy fashion shoot, substituting dialogue for sombre sun gazing, pensive jaw clenching and solemn eyebrow-furrowing.
Any screen presence you might expect from a visually Superman-esque chap like Cavill goes out the window the moment the posing ends and he actually starts acting; for a super-powered alien from Krypton he is pretty damn boring. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is just as bad, if not worse: she is consistently unconvincing as an edgy Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and spends most of the time looking like someone who got lost on the way to a crap romantic comedy. If you ever wondered what people mean by ‘great chemistry’, Clark and Lois’ relationship will help clarify things for you, simply by their abundant lack of it. Their onscreen ‘relationship’ seems based on nothing, coming from nowhere, like two mismatched strangers thrown onstage to play Romeo and Juliet. To be fair on both actors, the lack of any kind of script or coherent story and generally terrible direction is likely to be most at fault here.
Kevin Costner does a commendable job as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s foster father who must help him come to terms with his role in the world. (Mild spoiler) this is, however, cut short by a fundamentally baffling plot development: to make an immediately redundant point about Clark understanding that he cannot save everyone, Jonathan intentionally makes his wife and son watch him die in a wholly unnecessary attempt to save a f**king dog from a rogue tornado. Seriously. All of Man of Steel’s faults are magnified by the very apparent lack of humour: there’s nothing wrong with a film taking itself seriously, but some tongue-in-cheek jokes would have helped to alleviate its excessively portentous mood and distracted from its multitude of flaws.
Despite all this, Man of Steel would have been an interesting failure were it not for the final, eye-meltingly, brain-fudgingly uninteresting act, in which everything is turned up to 11 million (in other words, CGI Button: on) for about 45 hellishly dull minutes. The purpose of computer-generated effects should be to enhance the drama of a film; in Man of Steel they utterly replace it. Consequently, this portion of the film – seemingly infatuated with the idea of super-humans smashing each other through buildings and said buildings collapsing – feels like those long battle scenes in the Transformers series in which the viewer is left completely emotionally detached from the visual cacophony and general sounds of things smashing. To make matters worse, half of the dénouement consists of one basically invincible man exchanging blows with another equally invincible man, and of course, these are both CGI characters (God forbid we see an actual human actor). The whole experience is oddly like watching a videogame (and not unlike Neo’s interminable fight against Agent Smith at the end of Matrix Revolutions). When finally one character defeats the other (duh!), the method is so arbitrary, so witless and meaningless that you’re left thinking he could have done that at any point in this goddamn film!
The general incoherence of Man of Steel is perhaps the result of an odd collaboration between director Zack Snyder (champion of CGI over substance) and producer Christopher Nolan (progressive, subtle CGI-er). Whatever went wrong, I implore you to avoid this mess: if you want a good serious superhero film, re-watch Nolan’s Batman trilogy; if you want to witness the proper way to make a really bad superhero film, see Batman and Robin instead. You won’t regret it.