Kicking off the DC comics extended cinematic universe, Man of Steel was meant to be the answer to the ever-growing popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Produced by The Dark Knight director, Christopher Nolan, the film was eventually directed by Zack Snyder, known for his previous comic-book adaptations; Watchmen and 300. Despite a lacklustre critical reception of his previous film Sucker Punch, I remember there was an excited buzz surrounding the news that Snyder was attached to the project, amid the hopes that he brought his stylish aesthetic and crisply shot action sequences to the iconic legacy of Superman.
Now I never watched Man of Steel when it came out, I remember hearing decent things about it but Superman as a hero has never really interested me, apart from where his traditional gimmick is subverted somewhat (although I must admit I am a fan of the Christopher Reeve films). But during my quarantine, and in the hopes that the DCEU is getting better after Birds of Prey, I felt it was time to give these films a watch to fill in the gaps (I’ve only seen Suicide Squad & Shazam before this). But unfortunately for me, Man of Steel is closer to Sucker Punch than it is to 300. From the very opening scene, the whole screen is filled with grotesque looking CGI that shows us the planet of Krypton, complete with aliens that look like they were made in the 2008 video game Spore. The gratuitous use of CGI and lens flare creates a horrible looking landscape that hurts the eyes just as much as it does disgust them.
I wish I could say the visuals get better once the film moves down to Earth, but unfortunately while the landscapes look nicer, the CGI is just as bad as ever, with some horrific examples trying to pass as style. The fight scenes and any time a character is flying suffer most in this regard, and anytime something explodes the effect looks like a cheap stock effect. I remember thinking as I was watching that during some of the climactic fights that it looked like an in-game cutscene from a video game released in 2013, and if that was actually the case it would be quite impressive for a video game of the time, but as a film, and compared to its contemporaries in the action & superhero genre, the effects are laughable, even more so when you realise the budget for this film was upwards of $200 million.
The story is pretty standard but verges on bad, Snyder thinks he’s doing something interesting by utilising a non-linear story, but ultimately this just leads to grainy-looking sequences of a 30-year old Henry Cavil pretending to be an angsty young-adult. The whole repression of his powers arc that Superman goes through is laughably stupid, including scenes of Jonathan Kent telling Clark that maybe he should have let a bus full of school kids die, or waving goodbye as he’s sucked into a tornado to avoid Clark revealing himself. I understand the point the film is making, but the writing of these scenes is a joke. The film is also way too slow for its own good, the whole first hour is just setting up Superman, something that could easily have been cut down to tighten the pace. Once the actual threat of Zod is put into place, and Clark’s relationship with Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is set-up, the film plays out significantly smoother
(in terms of pacing) than the first act. But this doesn’t make the film any more interesting as the dialogue is just so lacklustre, I found myself either laughing at the film, or completely bored by it.
There are admittedly parts of the film I found to be quite good, mainly three performances from the cast. First off, Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod was, for me, the best part of the film. He nailed all of his lines, and was both a conceivable threat, as well as confident and in control of all the scenes he was a part of. His performance couldn’t save the effects used in the fight between him and Superman, but I don’t see that as his fault, but whenever he was on screen I was enjoying his performance of the character. On a similar note, I thought Amy Adams did a good job playing Lois Lane, while I’m not familiar with the comics by any means, it felt like Adams was given, and delivered, more agency than usual in the role. Even from her introduction as a reporter in Arctic, to her face-offs against Laurence Fishbourne in the Daily Planet office, Adams brings a sense of dignity to the role, and an authenticity to the relationship between her and Clark Kent. I also enjoyed Russel Crowe’s limited role as Jor-El, he doesn’t have much to do in the film, but what he does have he performs well. Shaping the dignity and wiseness of the character well through his line delivery. Aside from these performances, there were scenes where I thought the camerawork and editing was nice, there’s a lot of good handheld camerawork used throughout. But these moments I liked are encompassed by the terrible unfortunately. Things like Henry Cavill’s completely wooden performance, that carries all the charisma of a bowl of boiled rice, is jarring against the much more charismatic performances of the supporting cast.
Overall, this film was a disappointment, I was hoping the first entry into the DCEU would have started on the right foot but for me it was almost completely a misstep. I found the script and Snyder’s direction to be weak, even at the film’s better moments, and the visual aspect of the film to be a complete mess. The biggest concern for me is that this film isn’t even considered the worst offering from the DCEU so who knows what I have to look forward too going forward….