The recipe for a great superhero movie is quite elusive.
How much of it should be canon? How much should be fresh?
Is it personal or universal? Gritty or fantastical?
For kids or adults? For fans or newcomers?
A superhero movie is typically lauded or panned on these points, sometimes with the same decision paying off in one film while failing in another.
Zack Snyder decided to do all of it. He did canon. He did fresh. He did personal and universal, gritty and fantastical, all of it.
Man of Steel is essentially three entirely separate films, none of which feel fully realized. They can be described by the three identities of our main character:
There’s the Kal-El film, the Clark Kent film, and the Superman film.
The movie opens on Krypton; the Kal-El film. It’s a well developed Krypton—we get to see the world, the society, the people, the culture—but it feels remarkably goofy.
By entering Krypton amidst a panic—their world is about to end, after all—we have no time to suspend our disbelief, or get acquainted with anything, or even feel like we’re watching a Superman movie.
Instead, it feel like an 80s sci-fi B-movie. It’s set on another planet but it’s humans speaking English. It’s exactly like Earth except they wear silly costumes and their technology is a bit more advanced (and in that superfluous B-movie way, too).
It’s here that we establish Michael Shannon as General Zod, who was engineered to ensure the survival of the species, no matter the cost.
With the world ending, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van defy the law and have the first natural-born Kryptonian baby in ages. A big fight ensues, as little Kal-El is loaded into a space pod and shot towards Earth.
Here’s where we start Movie #2, the Clark Kent film. The gritty, intimate exploration of a young boy’s alienation from society because he’s different.
This is a compelling angle to take on Superman, and from the trailers, it seemed like Snyder’s entire film would maintain this tone, but it doesn’t.
Admittedly, Snyder isn’t the best at pulling small-scale personal drama performances from his actors, but these sections looked absolutely beautiful. With a dull, grayed color palette and high contrast, Snyder connects us with Clark Kent’s existential ennui (who’da thunk I’d get to use that phrase in a Superhero Movie review?).
The Clark Kent film cuts between Kent as a young man, wandering the Earth looking for purpose and identity while staying out of the limelight, and Kent as a child, learning about his powers and getting valuable life lessons from his father Jonathan, played by an on-point Kevin Costner.
This is the section where we meet Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams. She’s a reporter for the Daily Planet on assignment in the arctic, where she crosses paths with the quiet Kent, whose working another in a series of manual labor jobs.
When Lois accidentally sees something she shouldn’t, regarding Kent’s identity, she tries to spread the word of Kent’s existence, though she is met with skepticism and hostility from her boss and the public.
But then, General Zod shows up again. Begin Movie #3, the Superman film. Zod and his army were frozen and shot into space, in a plot point that seems to lack much time or logic, and he has returned to snag Kal-El (or the Earth gets it!).
This is the moment Kent has been waiting for! The moment he can define his identity! The creation of Superman is actually carried out convincingly, as each different “film” has its part to play in the identity of the main character, which is—in theory, at least—the main struggle of the film.
And while the Superman movie is equally as beautiful as the Clark Kent movie—the action sequences are honestly stunning—the blockbuster action flick just doesn’t fit with the tone that we’d been dealing with for the past 45 minutes.
All three worlds coalesce in the final act of the film, causing a jumble of beautifully frenetic fight scenes, totally silly Kryptonian mythology, and a “realistic earth” that is unnaturally unburdened by the craziness that has beset them.
What it amounts to is an unfocused jumble that fails to capture the audience at any turn. There are surely compelling bits in Man of Steel (none of them are in the “Kal-El movie” though), but as a unified piece of filmmaking, it doesn’t work.
One thing is for sure, though: Zack Snyder has a real sense of visual style, and it actually serves the story in a welcome way.
To cap it off, Snyder introduces a fourth element, the childish comic-book influence, in a bit that feels epically out of place.
Man of Steel does not feel like stereotypical Superman, which is not necessarily a problem. The problem is, it doesn’t have any clear idea what it’s trying to be.