You’ll believe a man can sigh.
That’s what the godlike alien in Man Of Steel frequently does as he looks around, before he glowers and scowls and, perhaps most importantly, poses. There is very little of the winning, geeky smile we associate with Clark Kent — indeed, the eager yet shy journalist we know and love appears for one scene in the new film — and for a character named Superman who’s just turned 75, this feller doesn’t even have the spit-curl. Nope, this is the story of The Fresh Prince Of Krypton.
Zack Snyder, a man the early trailers for his own film dubbed a ‘visionary,’ starts things off on a Krypton that looks like David Lynch’s Dune and features some Giger gadgets leftover from Ridley Scott’s Alien movies. His vision might just lie in jewellery design: the headgear worn by creepy Kryptonian councilmen is most ornate, just like the exquisitely carved trinkets we’d seen adorning almost-slaughtered heads in his 300.
His approach to the Superman origin story is hamhanded and operatic, aided well by strong actors all around. Russell Crowe, mercifully not warbling his lines this time, makes for a particularly formidable presence as the Dad Of Steel, and his committed performance makes Snyder’s unsubtle theatricality appear compelling if never evocative: bland Guignol must do when the Grand isn’t at hand.
A young boy tossed Moses-like across the galaxy in a spaceship basket, Kal-El lands in Kansas, but we never see that. Instead we see him fully grown and alarmingly muscular, a gentle hulk going around helping folks and smashing the occasional truck. His earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and both are excellent in the way they guide him toward the truth of his origins, and to focussing his power. “Imagine my voice as an island,” Lane says, in one of the film’s most beautiful moments.
And this is where it must be stressed that Man Of Steel does have beautiful moments. Some are, as mentioned, conjured up by very fine actors, while others are visually pretty — even if somewhat Terrence Malick inspired. And, in terms of storytelling, while a lot of it might not truly make sense at all, it all happens commendably fast: the movie dishes out huge narrative chunks as if in a rush, hurtling past the Superman timeline in order to get to an endlessly long and considerably boring 45-minute fight — but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Well before all the climactic cacophony we meet Lois Lane, self-praising Pulitzer-winner and one of comicdom’s most fearless women. Amy Adams is enjoyably credible as the pesky, relentless journalist, but after a bit of fun, the film — bereft of all the Lois/Clark romance — asks only that she look at Superman dreamily, and this she does. (The other big ask from her is a full-throated Wilhelm Scream, which too she delivers magnificently.) The musclebound wetsuit-wearing object of her affections, Henry Cavill, is but a dimple under a baseball cap — he has the look right and is adequately earnest, but the film affords him not the luxury to charm us. Instead, he gets to throw a million punches.
When Krypton was destroyed, prisoners exiled to a phantom zone escaped destruction along with young Kal-El. These disgruntled folk are led by Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who overacts rather delightfully. His fury is most entertaining, his eyes like apoplectic ping-pong balls, but purists will be heartbroken at the realisation that he never asks the hero to kneel before him. He reaches the Earth to hunt out Kal-El, who is, in turn, being guided rather conveniently by his dead father. Unlike Marlon Brando who was merely an interactive telegram (by way of floating hologram head) in the first, masterful Superman film, Russel Crowe’s Jor-El seems to have turned into a Siri-like helper who guides not just Clark, but Lois. And all for some MacGuffin that sounds like a cough syrup.
As you can probably tell, there is little room for simplicity and stark, shadowy moodiness now as the film juggernauts forward, crammed with much malarkey. General Zod tackles fighter planes like a livid quarterback, and Clark smashes into him, hard. They keep ramming at each other and creating giant sonic booms under them, again, and again, and again. This mindnumbing, increasingly frustrating sequence of city-tearing explosions — which feel just like waiting for friends to stop playing Mortal Kombat or at least hand you a controller — lasts for at least 45 minutes. This? This is why Snyder wolfed down huge bites of narrative? This is what we had to get to? It’s unforgivably bad (unforgivably Bay, even) and things aren’t helped by the fact that unlike in the Marvel movies where New York is New York, the fictionalised DC capital of Metropolis is stripped of all its character. So we have a skyline with lots of mirror-covered buildings, but no soul. Kinda like Gurgaon.
Oh, and while I want to rant on and on about the film’s last scene, I promise not to spoil it for you here. So when you get to the final moment, just remember there’s no possible way it can make sense after the rest of the film you just saw. No way.
There are, as said, small joys to be found in Snyder’s film: the early bits with Crowe, or with a young Clark who is literally too sensitive to function. There is Lois, drinking scotch and finding a way around her contract, and there’s Toby Zeigler, always a joy. The art direction is impressively detailed, as is the visionary bling, and the 3D never seems too dark. Plus, there’s a pretty good sight gag about toner cartridges.
But Man Of Steel (which invariably sounds, to me, like a rejected title for a gay-themed Remington Steele episode) never quite musters up the charm or the levity any story of Superman requires — and deserves. It looks good and is populated by fine actors (and we get a peek at trucks belonging to a bald man this movie could have used but doesn’t have), but the clunky Superman-as-Jesus imagery running through it all symptomises the problem with this narrative: too much steel, not enough man.
Rating: 2.5 stars
First published Rediff, June 14, 2013