As soon as I was old enough to read full-length novels, I lost nearly all interest in comic books. But as preschoolers, my friends and I devoured DC Comics (Marvel was barely on the pop-culture radar screen back then). We used to pretend that we were members of the Justice League of America, acting out scenarios from the latest issue and making up our own adventures. Being the only girl in the gang, I never had any competition for the coveted role of Wonder Woman. My two best buddies usually opted for the Flash and Green Lantern.
But here’s the thing: Nobody ever wanted to be Superman. Even for kindergarten-age kids, and even within the morally uncomplicated DC universe, he just seemed too righteous and wholesome and, well, boring. Wielding the whole gamut of conceivable super-powers, being able to do almost anything, survive almost anything, overcome any enemy by sheer strength, just seemed sort of lame. Where was the drama? Sulking in the Fortress of Solitude from time to time, plus an occasional brief dose of Kryptonite exposure, just didn’t impress us very much. Even in our kiddie hearts, I suppose, we were craving the ethical shades of grey, the dark humor, the weaknesses that would end up making the Marvel superheroes exert such enduring appeal as their readers outgrew the comic-book stage.
Still, those Marvel characters have dominated the silver screen in recent years, especially when it comes to summer blockbusters, that one wants to give the members of the DC roster a fair chance to make their case – yes, even that dull, upright, square-jawed champion of Truth, Justice and the American Way. The first couple of Superman movies with Christopher Reeve weren’t half-bad, after all, and the later TV iterations Lois & Clark and Smallville both found enthusiastic audiences and ran for a long time. It would be nice to be able to say that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has managed to transcend the lameness factor, but, sad to say, it has not.
It would appear that Man of Steel was crafted on the same blockbuster model of last summer’s megahit The Avengers: It has most of its weaknesses and few of its strengths. I was not among the legions unequivocally delighted by The Avengers, but at least its script employed frequent flashes of humor. About the only funny moment in Man of Steel is a sight gag in a scene where Superman (Henry Cavill) is brawling messily with a powerful opponent atop a skyscraper under construction: a sign bragging about the number of days that have transpired at the worksite without an accident. It was the sort of thing that one might have expected to see in a Marvel-based movie, but it just seemed like a lonely outpost in this overly earnest, whitebread formula flick.
What the two movies have most in common are an overreliance on CGI and a surfeit of scenes of wholesale urban destruction. The special effects take up so much screentime and space in Man of Steel that when young Clark Kent appeared shirtless in one scene, I found myself wondering whether Cavill is really that ripped, or if even his enviable physique was a camera trick. And even more so than in The Avengers, we see chilling images of huge buildings toppling or crumbling, pandering to the collective nightmares of the generation whose consciousness was shaped by 9/11 the way mine was shaped by the JFK assassination and the Vietnam War.
What makes these scenes particularly creepy is the anonymity of the destruction: the fact that we are shown lots of running people, but nobody actually dying onscreen, no corpses amidst the rubble. Though the citizens of Metropolis are presumably perishing around him by the thousands, the oh-so-noble Superman turns aside from his grudge match with arch-villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) only long enough to catch Lois Lane (Amy Adams) falling from the sky. His sole moment of moral complication comes when he is forced to take a life; to his credit, Cavill conveys the Caped Crusader’s grief and frustration in that scene as well as Chris Nolan and David Goyer’s one-dimensional script permits.
In general, the cast is pretty good, notably Adams, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent. The first third of the movie is dominated by Russell Crowe as Jor-El – an undeniably talented actor who unfortunately comes off as much of a stiff here as he did in Les Mis. Shannon delivers his best scenery-chewing, which is considerable; but Zod has to make a lot of weird speeches about saving his people from extinction that make him sound like the most ethically sound fellow in the bunch, even as he is getting ready to terraform Earth into a neo-Krypton. It all comes across as confusing rather than as an interesting exercise in moral relativism and legitimate competing interests.
It remains to be seen if the opening-weekend financial success of this flick will have legs of steel, but it seems likely that this disappointing effort was but the initial barrage of another ongoing comic-book-movie franchise. I think that I’m going to pass on the sequels, even if Henry Cavill does look really hunky in tights. Meanwhile, I keep wondering: Where’s Wonder Woman when we really need her? And why doesn’t the movie industry realize that its young target audience has a female half?