I saw Man of Steel at a midnight showing last night. As the credits began to roll, a friend turned to me and asked me what I thought of the movie. All I could say was, “I’m still processing,” and as I sit down to write this review, I still feel the same way. Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy, certainly had his hand in making this film. I absolutely love his Batman films, and there were several themes from that trilogy that certainly carried over to this movie. This movie was very existential, or at least it was when something was not exploding on screen.
This is Superman’s origin story, and a lot of Clark’s emotional struggles centered around who he is and why he is here on earth. The theme that I could find in this film is that the choices we make define who we are. Jonathan Kent tells his son at one point, “One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be.” Or, as Clark’s good friend Bruce would say, “It’s what we do that defines us.”
The problem with Man of Steel, however, is that as soon as the explosions start, the themes and character development go crashing down in flames.
There are two sides to Superman. One is Kal-El–Superman–the alien who uses his extraordinary abilities to save the world. The other is Clark Kent, a farm boy from Kansas who struggles to fit into society and find his place in the world. There are scattered but poignant flashbacks to his childhood in the first act of the movie that focus on Clark’s turmoil growing up as he works to gain control over his powers and keep them hidden from the citizens of Smallville. As an adult, Clark still struggles to fit into society, highlighted by the fact that he is basically a drifter, moving from town to town in order to keep his abilities a secret.
Anyone who has been through adolescence can relate in part to Clark’s struggles and angst as he tries to find his place in the world. These were the most moving scenes in the film, as they focus on Clark the man, instead of Kal-El the alien. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were superb as Jonathan and Martha Kent, loving parents who fiercely protect and encourage their son. The scene with the tornado was incredibly powerful, in which Jonathan Kent makes a choice that defines his life, and should set up the choices that Clark makes later in his life.
The problem is that as soon as the action starts and General Zod comes to earth, all of character development set up for Clark earlier in the film evaporates. The flashbacks and the scene with Jonathan Kent set up Clark’s inner conflict and the choices that he will have to make later in the film. In the final act, however, Kal-El takes center stage and, pardon the pun, alienates the audience because all of the action drowned out Clark’s inner conflict. Besides the explosions (have I mentioned how many explosions and fight scenes there were? I thought I had stumbled into a Michael Bay movie, which is never a good sign), this was my main problem with Man of Steel. Kal-El lifts cars and leaps buildings in a single bound, but he is propelled through the final act (and through about twenty buildings) by General Zod. He never takes action. He is always on the defensive and reacting to the actions of the villain. He does not make choices. He reacts to the choices of others.
I thought that the flashbacks were great. Amy Adams as spunky Lois Lane was great, and I love that this intelligent woman was the one who tracked down Clark. But as soon as Snyder decided to focus on Kal-El and epic battles between aliens, he lost me as a viewer. While I was invested in Clark’s story, as soon as that vanished, I was pretty done with the movie. I went into the film hoping that the idea of Superman as an ideal, as the boyscout to Batman’s brooding badass, would be shaken up a little bit. I hoped that they would focus more on Clark Kent, the human side to the man of steel, just enough so that the viewer could have empathy for the character and his situation as he struggles and grows. Instead, Zack Snyder gave us a convoluted film that tries to uphold Superman as an ideal, but is never fully able to reconcile the human and alien sides of Superman.