Empathy is not a quality that should be in short supply in a superhero film — particularly so when, in previous installments, the hero in question went so far as to reverse time and send all the nuclear weapons on earth into the sun as ways to save the world.
That’s why it feels so wrong somehow to see the raging, mindless destruction that fills up the last half of Man of Steel, with building upon building in Metropolis collapsing, killing — one must assume — thousands upon thousands of people inside. But in director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s vision of the Superman story, the most important thing is that Kal-El (Henry Cavill) finally comes to accept who he is and win the hand of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Yes, he does save the world from the evil plans of General Zod (Michael Shannon in full fire and brimstone mode), but that’s merely an afterthought in this loud, brash, and exhausting spectacle.
You might hear the same discussion from other critics and comic book geeks, but it’s most likely going to be drowned out by the chatter about Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who co-produced and help conceive the story) eschewing the well-known Superman origin. The crux is the same, with Jor-El sending his son out into space to save him from the destruction of Krypton. But added into the mix is a Matrix-like angle that involves Kryptonians that are genetically modified to serve certain roles, and Jor-El sending his son with the codex that carries the DNA for a new breed. Naturally, Zod wants this information to help create a super race, and, even after being banished from his world after attempting a coup d’etat on the power structure, searches the galaxies for it.
You can see where this is going, right? Zod finds Kal-El on Earth and wreaks havoc in search of the codex. And that’s when the glass starts shattering, the concrete starts crumbling, and tiresome latter half of this film slogs toward its inevitable happy ending.
The disappointment of Man of Steel is doubly felt because Snyder creates a fairly affecting portrait of Kal-El in the first 40 minutes. The film moves ably between the present day man wandering the Americas, trying to hide his abilities out of a sense of duty for his adoptive father (a grizzled and well-cast Kevin Costner), and his childhood as he grapples with what he is capable of. The weight of these early sequences is supposed to fall on the burly shoulders of Cavill, but it is Dylan Sprayberry playing a teen Clark Kent who captures this internal struggle so graciously, even when he is pushing a school bus out of a river to rescue his classmates.
Once the exposition is disposed of — along with any hint of genuine emotion or warmth that emanated from those early scenes — then it’s time for a bit of the old ultraviolence to make viewers feel like they got their money’s worth. And if you haven’t mentally checked out by the time a truck gets hurled through the Kent family home’s roof or when you catch some of the most egregious product placement this side of a Bond film, you might stagger out of the multiplex saucer-eyed, giddy, and hungry for more. For the rest of you brave souls in the theater, hang tight and grit your teeth for your reward will be great in heaven.