Zack Snyder may as well not be in the business of filmmaking – he’s in the business of myth making. From his remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to 300 to Watchmen, he broadly constructs films on the basis of establishing a mythic aura around his central characters. Broad religious and social parables can be derived throughout all of his work. Man of Steel does not deviate from the norm, with Snyder aspiring to elevate the works of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to that of scripture. But like all of Snyder’s work, the director’s tendencies as a stylist – a stylist of exhaustingly grand scope – limits him in ever targeting a focus. Rather, Man of Steel is burdened by its vast size, with Snyder asking audiences to invest in ill-conceived themes and hollow characters.
The pulsating sense of energy comes from the onset of Man of Steel as the audience plunges into a cosmic reverie. It’s bombastic and akin to what audiences usually see out of their summer blockbusters, but the material is served well by talented actors like Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon. The Kryptonian prologue gives way to an elliptical narrative that sees Snyder zip through Clark Kent’s upbringing and adulthood. David Goyer’s script fleetingly touches on what makes the alien character so intrinsically human – how Superman has cemented his American legacy as being the all-purpose, pick yourself by your bootstraps immigrant. Disappointingly, Snyder jeopardizes some of Goyer’s efforts, clumsily utilizing handheld cameras as he hustles and bustles the exposition along. But Goyer was onto something for the initial half-hour of the film, setting precedence for a back story while exploring the humility associated with a character of such rich ideals. The problem stems from Goyer and Snyder never expanding on a solid backdrop, with Snyder relishing in turning each and every character of the film into a symbol devoid of human qualities.
It’s the absurdly rushed and problematic series of action sequences that limit Man of Steel’s possibilities. Paced in two halves – one half dedicated to exposition while the other dedicated to soulless CGI battles – any goodwill from the film’s first half is tossed out as Snyder explores his own kind of video-game cinema. For every Terrence Malickian-inspired attempt at capturing nostalgic resonance for Superman’s cultural significance is co-opted by optically undecipherable images – action sequences are constructed under a shaky-cam and smoke-filled aesthetic. This may have all been somewhat more forgivable if the film’s characters were more sharply drawn – actors like Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, and Lawrence Fishbourne are casualties of a design that makes them ciphers for a symbol rather than actual human beings.
But Snyder, for his relatively short career in films, has marked his filmography with a somber reserve for Christian imagery. There’s no shortage of this imagery in Man of Steel with Snyder then complicating the visual palette with excessive patriotism and commercialization. His intentions? It’s really unclear. Call it dumb luck, but Snyder’s haphazard method of filmmaking does, at times, produce some remarkably poignant images where overt scenes of Christianity are bridged with 9/11-esque calamity. Much of his intentions are hazed by smoke and mirror effects meant at establishing the Superman character as a tent pole film franchise. If Man of Steel produces anything it’s a sense of wonder – wonder of how the expansive and potentially vital the character can be if handled by more socially aware filmmakers.