I have only seen two movies directed by Zack Snyder other than “Man of Steel” – “300” and “Watchmen” – but I truly hated them. No personal disrespect to Mr. Snyder is intended when I say this. He might be a really nice guy! But I mean, wow. I hated them.
What’s surprising about “Man of Steel,” at least considering my previous experiences with Zack Snyder’s movies, is that I didn’t hate it. It has a lot of problems, but it fits fairly comfortably within the summer/superhero blockbuster scheme and makes a concerted effort to earn its ticket price. It wants to impress you. The result of fitting the film into the 2000’s movie superhero pantheon, though, is that it has a little less of Zack Snyder’s personal stamp on it and is just that much more generic. And as strange as this is to say, that’s a little disappointing. It’s nice to have some diversity in a field as crowded as this.
Snyder’s films had a particular visual style that helped differentiate them from the work of his peers. He tended to use the comic books he was adapting as strict visual guidelines, which he interpreted as license to use as much color-correction and slow-motion as possible. For “Man of Steel,” he replaces these techniques with more common modern ideas like the shaky camera and the snap zoom. These get overused, as well, but their usage is inconsistent, which makes the film feel somewhat uneven. In general, though, “Man of Steel” shares its visual sensibilities with its competition much more than it does with Snyder’s previous work.
The film doesn’t feel completely unlike his others, though, as “Man of Steel” is also rigorously serious. In this tonal decision, Snyder may have found a like-minded partner in producer Christopher Nolan, whose recent work has taken on an almost morbid ambience. Together they have created a version of Superman that focuses squarely on Very Big Ideas and takes these ideas very seriously. It seems as if there is not a single scene that occurs without someone speaking directly to Superman (Henry Cavill) about how important it is that he not reveal his powers, that he must decide to use these powers for good or for evil, that he is a link between two distant worlds, and on and on. There are few conversations that occur that bear any resemblance to the way people in real life might actually talk.
This makes it increasingly difficult to form a personal connection to any of the characters on screen, even as the movie jumps back and forth in time between the present day and Clark Kent’s upbringing in an attempt to illuminate the problems he and his (earth) family have faced over the years. Clark Kent is built up as a tragic figure but never as an actual person. Eventually, this leads to some aimlessness in the narrative as you try to figure out what, if anything, you can relate to. Not a whole lot is happening in terms of forward momentum in the present day and not a whole lot is being developed emotionally in the scenes that occur in the past. It’s an awkward balance.
Still, there is something magnetic about seeing Superman on the big screen. His story and what it represents for American (and worldwide) cultural ideals remains relevant despite our recent inclination toward the darker, grittier tales offered by Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and elsewhere. Snyder understands this and as silly as it might be, it’s still nice to watch Superman fly through a bunch of mountains for a few minutes.
It’s thematically overwrought, far too blunt in its execution, and too similar to the rest of the superhero pack, but “Man of Steel” ain’t awful.