Much of the criticism surrounding Man of Steel – and there have been torrents of criticism, resisted valiantly by small pockets of praise from those who believe this is the Superman movie we’ve all been waiting for (a testimonial I would have agreed with based on the evocative trailers alone, but then I actually saw the movie…) – has centered on the film’s smash-bang-crack-boom last act. And that grand guignol of crumbling buildings and 9/11-reminiscent ash, which ends with Superman committing his one cardinal sin (though that part doesn’t bug me that much since screenwriters Nolan and Goyer never go out of their way to make that a “thing” for their version of Superman), deserves its own special circle in superhero cinema hell.
But my criticism can not be reserved solely for “The Super-Sad Metropolis Death Hour,” because by that point in Man of Steel, the film had already been tainted by a nomadic, homeless first act that should have involved epic, planet-spanning stakes-setting, but managed to bore me immeasurably instead. Zach Snyder’s vision of Krypton looked cool – everything Snyder does looks cool – from what I could see through my fluttering eyelids. All that stilted talk of a Codex and a genesis chamber and a phantom zone and of arcane Kryptonian custom regarding the criminal justice system couldn’t be saved by a neat-looking bird thing — it all drowns out any possible nobility Jor-El’s last stand could have held. It’s telling that Jor-El, in life a stoic, species-saving martyr, the perfect audience-identification character, is much more sympathetic after his death when he is nothing more than an all-knowing CPU that helps Superman and Lois Lane get to the next level when battling their way through General Zod’s Halo level of an evil plan.
Speaking of Ms. Lane, she shares virtually no chemistry with Superman, with whom she does share a pointless, unearned kiss at the film’s climax, prompting more shrugs than chills or whoos. Which isn’t the beautiful Cavill’s fault (he makes a fine, upstanding Superman) but the script’s – what is so wrong with the classic Lois-Superman-Clark love triangle this film ties itself in knots to avoid, to the point where it offers the ageless love affair between the two up to the audience without explanation or rationale as some cosmic inevitability rather than an actual attraction between two sentient beings? When that dynamic works, as it does between Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve in the Richard Donner films, it works in spite of it’s inherent silliness; and it can work like gangbusters when committed to. The moment in the original Superman where Clark considers revealing his identity to Lois and his whole being inflates to god-like proportions only to deflate like a month-old balloon when she walks back in the room, is one of my favorite in all of cinema. Ever. And that is saying nothing of the rooftop scene which precedes it, and is perfect. So yeah, Lane’s relationship with Clark in Man of Steel may not click due to lack of chemistry, but Lane does share immense chemistry with the audience, who is put in the strange position of rooting for the hero’s girlfriend more then they root for the hero.
Unfortunately, Amy Adams’s funny, intelligent performance is just too little too late for a film that has nothing too specific wrong with it except that it’s dull and rudderless and wastes an exceptional cast. Man of Steel had so thoroughly lost me by the time Adams showed up that no amount of charm and drive from her – and she brings it, the MVP player on a losing team, like Lebron stuck in Cleveland – could salvage what I’d long expected would be a profound (or at least profoundly good) moviegoing experience. The film was neither of those things, but that middle act of the film, before all the smashing commences, where Lois tries to figure out what’s up with this inordinately handsome man who can cauterize her wounds with his eyes (and has extraordinary success doing so in spite of objections from her very pragmatic editor Perry White – she earns that Pulitzer), is some Grade-A world-building and character interaction that seems imported in from a much better superhero film. Not quite “Nolan Batman” level, but at least what we’d get from, say, Captain America.
Still, that last act would have needed a lot of stellar rationalization for all that Codex nonsense, and, in fact, for all of the conflicting messages young Clark gets as a confused, sheltered Superboy from a sympathetic but morally baffling Johnathan Kent, to ultimately make Man of Steel work. And so, while the flying and punching in Smallville and Metropolis is thrilling and a sometimes-pleasure to look at, its great crime is two-fold: yes it goes out of its way to make Superman seem as un-heroic as possible considering his nonchalance toward the high death-toll being nurtured by the collateral damage from his Kryptonian throwdown, which is attributable to his Zod-smashing laser-focus; it also fails to tie a thematic bow on a movie that develops its characters in fits and starts, if it develops them at all. This film needed a character-motivated final hour that could finally explain once and for all some of this film’s deep but meaningless psychobabble; instead it got a city-leveling UFC fight. In Man of Steel, a thoroughly charmless exploration of reluctant heroism, the Metropolis skyline goes through more dramatic change than Superman.