By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Man of Steel” may not be the worst summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen.
But I’m pretty sure it’s the worst “Superman” movie I’ve ever seen.
Worse than the pathetic “Superman Returns,” starring Brandon Routh, the George Lazenby of Supermans. And worse than the pretentious “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” Christopher Reeve’s rather sad (albeit well-intentioned) attempt to bankroll his superhero celebrity into a plea for the eco-future of the planet.
I will give it this, though: “Man of Steel’s” last three minutes are among the best I’ve seen in many a movie, summer blockbuster or not.
But Lord, what you have to go through before that magical coda.
Directed by Zak Snyder, a sort of Michael Bay wannabe, and based on an concept partly dreamed up by Christopher Nolan, (who brought Batman back from the dead), “Man of Steel” isn’t shy about borrowing a few iconic movie images: Mr. If-You-Build-It-They-Will-Come, Kevin Costner, stands in front of a field of dreams…I mean, corn. A menacing squad of “Apocalypse Now” helicopters hovers in front of an angry red sun. There’s even a sinking school bus from “The Sweet Hereafter.”
What I liked best about “Man of Steel” is the way it hints at a sweet hereafter. Or a New Beginning, as “Stars Wars” puts it.
But that only happens at the aforementioned very, very, very end.
“Man of Steel” literally births its franchise creds in the opening scene. A sweaty, straining Lara pumps out Baby Kal-el, in the planet’s first natural (virgin?) birth in eons. As Krypton implodes, choking on its own vain-gloriousness, Russell Crowe, Our Father Who Art In Outer Space, places his Only Son into a space rocket/manger/basket made of bulrushes and speeds him to Earth.
Now, the similarities to the Old and/or New Testament are too noticeable to be discounted. Take the “natural birth” just for starters. When we catch up with Kal-el on Earth, he’s a bearded 33-year-old (kinda like…) named Clark Kent, played by a spectacularly ripped Henry Cavill (who proved his acting bonafides in “The Tudors”)
One niggling thing about this dual Biblical incarnation: Superman was created in the 1930s by a pair of nice Jewish boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and I have to believe they were thinking Moses, not Jesus — though Cavill does strike a perfect crucifixion stance at one point and is introduced all but walking on water as if he were a bit player in “The Deadliest Catch” series.
Well, why not? Cavill looks super-hunky in a macho Eminem knit cap and he seems just as lost at sea as our old pal, Jason Bourne. After the surprisingly (and annoyingly) long prelude on Krypton, we stay on Earth, awaiting intermittent appearances by The Wise Father (Crowe) and meeting the Daily Planet crew: fearless reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams, as game here as she was in “The Master’), Perry White (Laurence Fishbourne, mostly looking relieved he’s nabbed a post-“Matrix’ franchise”) and intern Jenny…I have no idea… maybe a transgendered Jimmy Olsen?
Given a few moments or so to actually act, Cavill proves more than satisfactory. Better than Christopher Reeves? Well, it’s an unfair comparison. As you’ll see (SPOILER ALERT), the whole dual identity fulcrum — which Reeves did to a turn in the 1978 version — doesn’t even come into play until the last bit of “Man of Steel,” which leaves us with one of the best double-entendres in movie history. “Welcome to the Planet,’ Lane says, as Clark Kent steps off the elevator and into his alter ego as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.
But for the most part, Superman’s mission, along with his soul-searching adjustment to his illegal alien status, is to protect his adopted planet from a trio of miscreants who’ve survived Krypton’s demise. They’re led by General Zod; a homicidal dandy, when played by Terence Stamp in the Reeves movies, he’s now embodied by Michael Sheen as an intergalactic thug with anger-management issues and some off-course Aryan ideas.
Everything the movie lacks can be seen in those final minutes I keep obsessing about: humanity, a sense of humor, a respect for and embrace of the earthly part of the Superman myth as opposed to his Krypton origins. The scenes on the Kent family farm in Kansas are like Norman Rockwell Life Magazine covers — or, if you want to get smarty-pants film-critic-y, scenes from Jack Fisk’s little-seen gem, “Raggedy Man,” starring Sissy Spacek and a pre-disfigurement Eric Roberts (as in Julia). More to the point, perhaps, Fisk was the art director on “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” and several of Terrence Malick’s more recent pictures.
A good 45 minutes of smashing, crashing and overdone fisticuffs could be slashed from “Man of Steel.” There’s only so much bone-crushing filler that even the most action-glazed fan can take.
This is also one of those pictures in which an entire city is pretty much blown to bits, but somehow, Lois, Mr. White and Jenny the intern manage to scramble out of the mountainous rubble to right where Superman is standing. Is that luck…coincidence… or merely condescension?
I don’t want to leave out poor Diane Lane, a splendid actress who keeps missing the brass ring (though she came close in “Unfaithful”). Unconvincingly aged as Ma Kent, she has almost nothing to do, but, as the best ones always manage, she creates an affecting little something out of absolutely nothing.
The most surprising thing, perhaps, about “Man of the Steel” is that it’s the first movie I absolutely abhorred that left me eager to see the sequel. Talk about a tease…