You don’t want to think of Superman as a bully. At least I don’t. But that’s what Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” is.
No, I don’t mean the fictional character is a bully in the movie (though at odd moments when he’s not keeping his super powers hidden, his concern for vulnerable humans is worrisomely minimal). And no, I don’t mean there’s anything remotely bullying about Henry Cavill, the absurdly handsome Brit who now plays him (and young Clark Kent) and is so boring that he makes old Christopher Reeve back in the day seem like the life of the party.
I mean the movie itself, which is a relentlessly serious exploration of Superman’s origin story and his adjustment problems on the sleazy, paranoid third planet from the sun (or, as Superman’s Dad Jor-El puts it, the planet near “the yellow star”). It is almost as pitilessly loud and spectacularly full of CGI in collision as a “Transformers” movie and it has, by my count, exactly three certifiably lighter moments in its punishing 145-minute length. And two of those lighter moments occur in the last five minutes. (One, to give the film some credit, is the mildly twinkly moment that ends the film and promises a whiff of charm the next time around.)
Let me admit that the penultimate action sequence – just before the two-hour mark – is actually as exciting as it is spectacular (a difference which this movie will draw for you in quite savage precision before it’s over).
Let me admit, too, several niceties in the big comic book movie racket along the way: the strong emotional charge of the death of Jonathan Kent (Clark’s Dad, played by Kevin Costner) in Kansas; the audience adrenaline rush when the bad guys are mean to Superman’s Mom (Diane Lane) and you know there will be consequences.
And you’d be hard put to find any journalist – especially this one – who doesn’t grin ear to ear at this summer blockbuster’s ringing endorsement of newspapering as a profession.
But the movie is no fun. And there’s no profundity to it either. Lois Lane, I’d bet, would have been the first to admit it. As incredible as the relentless CGI is to look at, people are going to leave the theater and have a terrible time admitting to each other just how little they actually enjoyed the last two and a half hours of their lives.
In fact, if you want to know how diabolically clever movie marketing can be, there is even a moment early on in this film when Russell Crowe – as Superman’s Dad Jor-El – is fighting with evil General Zod (Michael Shannon) over the certainty of planet Krypton’s demise and someone says “Jor-El was right. This is the end.” You’ll recognize the last four words as the exact title of the frequently hilarious megaplex apocalypse comedy that is also opening this week.
You can bet your kryptonite that some very clever studio folks figured out early that the merrily sophomoric silliness of “This Is The End” is likely to give audiences everything in an end-of-planet movie that no one could possibly get from “Man of Steel.” That, I submit, is a counterprogramming ploy for the business grad school textbooks.
Me, I liked it better when Superman was Jewish.
Oh. You didn’t know? Well, for a few decades now, writers and critics have understood that it was far from insignificant that the Superman/Clark Kent duality was invented by a couple of nice Jewish boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Cleveland. Or, as Harry Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way” (Free Press), “The comics industry came out of the streets of Lower Manhattan, mostly from Jews and Italians who were one step away from the immigrant experience and two steps away from respectability … Shut out of the centers of American culture, they created new cultural forms to bring America to them.”
“Who knows what lurked in the memories of young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created their tale of immigrant refugee baby Kal-El’s arrival on Earth? … Is it just chance that he is sent from an old world, Krypton, that is about to explode, to a new one, Earth (which will readily be seen standing for Europe, on the verge of self-destruction, to America, with its promise of new life, especially in those 1930s.)” Which is when Superman was invented.
And which is the story told to us in the 21st century with pitiless solemnity and spectacle and explosive violence in “Man of Steel.” It’s a war movie where General Zod – exiled from Krypton just before the planet’s fiery demise – is not only the bad guy but, because he’s played by Shannon, is also the tallest guy in the movie.
He’s the snarling Nazi stand-in. All Kryptonians seem to be survivalists, not to mention believers in themselves as a kind of super race. They don’t want to talk about ethics. If it means destroying the human race so they can start a new planet, what’s it to them? (Any of that sound familiar from World War II?)
The trouble with watching this old variation of the tale from the ’30s is that it’s utterly and profoundly joyless in this telling.
It isn’t even that much fun when a little eensy-weensy mini-droplet of romantic chemistry shows up between Amy Adams as Lois (a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less) and Superman.
You have to give the movie some credit for clairvoyance. There was no way its makers could know what the current news would be when the film was finally released, and yet here is a movie where a giant Kansas tornado is a dramatic turning point and where government manipulation and investigation is a huge pro-and-con issue.
So help me, none of it seems to matter that much – especially if you remember those ’70s and ’80s Superman movies directed by Richard Donner and, would you believe, the great lunatic comedy director Richard Lester? (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” “The Knack” “The Three Musketeers.”)
This thing gives you Siegel and Shuster’s origin story in the most solemnified and quasi-reverential way but not in any way that gives you any hope for rollicking pleasure when it moves permanently from Krypton and Kansas to Metropolis.
The movie, of course, will make a fortune. And you might, as I do, wish Clark and Lois and Perry White (played by Laurence Fishburne) etc. a safe trip to Metropolis for good next time.
But you might also wish dearly that the on-screen survival of our whole species and our whole planet depended more on people who might actually find it a cause for happiness, much less joy.
Man of Steel
Rating: 2½ stars
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon and Diane Lane. Directed by Zack Snyder. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some profanity.