From its very first second Man of Steel is big. Then it gets bigger and bigger and louder and more destructive and crashes and lens flares and explosions and more and bigger and bigger…
In an early scene young Clark is overwhelmed by the scope of the world he sees. This is true for the entire film.
The first fifteen minutes of Man of Steel are easily the most compelling, an extended prologue as Jor-El struggles against his doomed planet. Unfortunately the lack of a title sequence makes the next half hour a never-ending origin story that has been presented and re-presented a dozen times. Director Zack Synder intersperses scenes of Clark bumming through a series of labor jobs with a running chronicle of childhood traumas: a bus crash, a tornado, bullying, lens flares. Whereas most films use flashbacks to build character, Man of Steel uses them to establish a pattern of set-up, disaster, lens flare, close-up, explosion, bigger explosion, lens flare. And just when you think there will be a moment of peace a fighter jet spins out, explodes, lens flare. The result is two hours of pure sugar rush and lens flares building more and more and more rubble on an empty foundation. Like Krypton, Man of Steel’s core is so hollow that its mass quickly crumbles. Even Clark’s relationship with Lois, traditionally his strongest tie to humanity, is shallow.
While the attempt to throw a little dirt on the boy scout is nice, and there is a place for darkness in the Superman mythos, the unrelenting doom leaves no space to breathe. There’s none of the inherent awe in seeing a man fly.
It’s unfortunate as the tools are easily there to place Man of Steel among great superhero films. This is the single most captivating visual representation of Kryptonian power in any medium. The ground trembles as Clark leaps into the sky, dust clouds plume behind him, villains move so quickly they blink out of existence, every action has a sense of gravity and the environment reacts to Superman exactly as it would. Meanwhile Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon, each playing complex characters with nuanced motives, create wonderful, intense scenes rushed away by a falling building and lens flares.
Man of Steel is not a bad movie, it’s just an incomplete one. It’s heavy on the super and light on the man.