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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:25 am

No Clark makes for cold Steel


Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel.

One of the crucial aspects of superheroes is the notion of the secret identity, the physical and psychic split in the character that delineates the real person from the heroic persona. Whenever this narrative conceit is examined the conversation always turns to Superman and Batman. They were the first two of the modern superheroes, arguably the ones from which all others have evolved. The consensus is that where the Caped Crusader is concerned, Bruce Wayne is the false front behind which Batman hides while Superman is the identity the Man of Tomorrow takes on when the day needs to be saved. But, Clark Kent is the real person, the conscience behind the brawn, the moral center that guides this mighty being.

It’s an important distinction and one that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer fail to recognize in Man of Steel, a massive, flawed reboot of the character that is so bent on delivering one earsplitting, eye-straining action sequence after another that it forgets the human element that is vital to fully realizing this modern myth. To be sure, having to come up with a new approach to a character that’s 75 years old is hardly an enviable task and the tack Snyder and Goyer takes is as good as any. One of the things that has made the Superman story such an enduring American tale is that Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, is the ultimate immigrant and the film focuses on the sense of otherness that he feels. Much is made of the character trying to find himself and realize his purpose on a planet where he is constantly reminded that he will be forever different than those around him and his journey toward self-realization makes up a good chunk of the film’s first hour. Along the way there is action, spectacle, more action, the sight of Russell Crowe as Kal’s father Jor-El riding a dragon-thingie on Krypton and even more action in case you forgot this was a superhero movie.

Problem is, there’s no Clark Kent. Sure, we see him briefly as a confused young boy, trying to deal with powers he doesn’t understand and the easy target of bullies who’ve figured out the boy won’t fight back. But as far as the adult Clark Kent, he’s missing in action, robbing the audience of a way to connect with the character. We’re not allowed to see Kal come to terms with his humanity. There’s no sexual tension between Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Superman and his alter ego; there’s not a dilemma over whether Clark should reveal his true nature to the object of his affection. There’s no wonder. There’s no humor. There’s no charm.

Action though, there’s plenty of that, much of it done well as the villain of the piece, General Zod (a fine Michael Shannon), sets out to terraform Earth to become the new Krypton. Spectacle abounds and while I got a kick out of the destruction of Smallville, what with locomotive engines being thrown through the air and the local IHOP laid to waste, by the time we got to the razing of Metropolis, I was numb from the unrelenting pace and excessive nature of the set pieces that end up abusing the audience rather than entertaining them.

As the title character, Henry Cavill is given little to do. He is required to simply act heroically and fill out the famous suit, which he does ably. He’s not allowed to show what he’s capable of by juggling the roles of Kent and Superman. That will have to wait for the next film. Only Crowe and Kevin Costner as the hero’s Earth father, Jonathan, tap into the emotional gravity necessary to make this a special film in the superhero genre rather than another bloated exercise in computer-generated effects, which it is.

Snyder’s problem has always been his sledgehammer approach and the unrelenting pace of going from one action scene to the next not allowing for the characters to develop or us to breath. I longed for a moment where a bumbling Clark attempted to ask Lois out or a moment of joy where the young alien reveled happily in his powers, something I could relate to. No such port is accorded in this special effects storm, which underscored Superman’s otherness so well, that I was left with a hero I didn’t recognize.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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