The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 21, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Like Clark Kent, 'Man of Steel' has problems with dual roles

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — It was only a matter of time, with the success of comic book films over the past five years, before we would see a revisit to Metropolis.

Superman has had a varied, often rocky, past in films -- most recently seen on the big screen in "Superman Returns," a disappointment by most people's standards. But with Warner Brothers rebooting the "Batman" franchise, and making a mint in the process, it was only logical that it would try to rekindle one of its most valuable franchises. "Man of Steel" is the result.

This time, the movie returns entirely to its roots, starting from the very beginning with the destruction of Krypton as Kal-El, soon to be Clark Kent, is sent to a more hospitable planet -- but not before his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is killed at the hands of General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod is captured and tried on his home planet, which apparently is disintegrating as the trial is taking place.

Rather than be condemned to die with the rest of his people, which would have saved the Kryptonians a lot of time and effort given that the planet is about to implode in the next couple of days, Zod and his crew are cast off into some sort of space deep freeze for the rest of eternity.

But when Krypton dies, they are released and begin their hunt for Kal-El, who is unknowingly the keeper of all of Krypton's DNA, or something like that.

In the meantime, Kal-El is now living as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a mild-mannered, all-American boy who loves his mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kevin Costner). He finds himself having to deal with his superhuman abilities while trying to keep them hidden from a world that might not be ready.

When Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers Kent's abilities, it triggers a series of events that brings Zod to earth to try to capture Kent and reclaim the Kryptonian codex.

(If that synopsis is too confusing, try on the IMDB description: "A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race." If that doesn't scream Superman, I don't know what will.)

The movie is loaded with special effects, to the point of overwhelming distraction, and there are some heart-rending scenes.

But for the most part, the movie can't decide what it wants to be. It's appropriate that a character such as Clark Kent, a man who must juggle two identities and thus has trouble maintaining the two worlds, would inspire a movie that also seems to have trouble defining itself.

Director Zack Snyder, who last excreted "Sucker Punch" into theaters, is at the helm this time, something that should worry anyone with a love of the characters being portrayed. Though he doesn't fail, he also doesn't acquit himself entirely.

Snyder works in extreme close-ups throughout the film, many times in simple conversation scenes. Yet he cannot seem to understand the concept of a tripod. The camera jumps and sways as though it is being held by someone on a boat in choppy waters, creating a disorienting effect that is more infuriating than anything else.

Snyder also falls prey to "Transformers" syndrome, in which he takes so much joy in special effects that he decides to pack the screen full of them for a large part of the 145-minute film. The problem is that the special effects,  combined with the aforementioned camera issues, often render the scenes all but impossible to follow. When Superman fights Zod, your guess is as good as mine in any given scene as to which character is which.

The other weak link of the film is Cavill himself. Having made no real impact in "The Immortals," Cavill came in as a relative unknown to one of the most iconic characters in pop culture.

But instead of taking the opportunity to shape his Kent into a memorable person, he instead develops him into a bland, rather milquetoast human. Cavill is fairly emotionless and expressionless throughout the film, and the only time he breaks from that is when he is screaming.

Though the movie can be maddeningly frustrating in its inconsistency, there is a lot to like about the film. Even if the back story is well known by now, some of the flashbacks of young Clark and his struggle to assimilate are actually very moving. Though his powers are shown in a series of sketchy coincidences, it was a touching reflection of the difficulties of fitting in as an outsider.

The film is also filled with solid actors who give believable and strong performances. Aside from the always reliable Lane and Adams and the surprisingly heartfelt Costner, Shannon embraces his trademark insanity as Zod, and Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Meloni, though slightly underutilized, make good impressions.

Though you can see touches of producer Christopher Nolan in the film, Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer try to give the movie their own stamp of individuality, which only hinders the movie. There's a lot to like in "Steel," and an equal amount to be frustrated with. Let's just hope they get things figured out before the sequel.