Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe
So far, every attempt to bring the story of Kal-El to the big screen has been plagued with weaknesses. Most definitive is the Christopher Reeve era of the 70’s & 80’s; now visually dated, the Reeve films suffered from appalling pacing and scripts that tried too hard, too often, to be funny. Meanwhile Bryan Singer’s attempted reboot, Superman Returns, was both fun & exciting but also infuriatingly stupid. Man of Steel’s star, Henry Cavill, is relatively unknown and it’s director, Zack Snyder, is the guy who brought us Sucker Punch, one of 2011’s biggest duds. The odds are against them, as is the narrative; it’s hard to make an origin story feel like anything more than an extended prologue. It may not be perfect, but Snyder’s film succeeds where others have failed with lots of heart and strength worthy of its titular hero.
For the first 20 minutes or so, you could be watching an updated version of Reeve’s 1978 original as we watch Kal’s father Jor-El ensure the survival of his only son before their planet, Krypton, is destroyed. It’s a superb opening sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come; exciting, visually enthralling and with somber undertones that resonate throughout the rest of the film. However, whereas the original gave a liner account of Kal’s arrival to earth and his transformation to Clark Kent/Superman, writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan skip ahead to Clark as an adult, telling the story of his upbringing in pivotally placed flashbacks.
Like Nolan’s Dark Knight, Man of Steel’s main interest is in the man in the cape and Cavill’s performance lives up to the material. The genius is in his restraint; Kent is a man learning to fit in with humans & avoid detection despite the power gifted to him and Cavill’s encapsulation of this is masterful. The close bond Clark develops with humanity, mainly through his parents & later with Lois, is what drives the film and gives Supes an effective vulnerability; he may be able to survive anything, but they cannot.
Man of Steel’s ace card though is Michael Shannon’s General Zod. Immediately menacing & consistently terrifying, it’s a towering performance that’s debatably as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker and almost certainly as effective. By developing Zod’s story from the start, Goyer & Nolan are able to avoid the pitfalls of most origin stories, where the villain is simply tagged on at the end for a more exciting climax. As Zod’s second in command, Antje Traue deserves a special mention as Faora; her piercing blue eyes and unyielding determination to protect her species is one of the script’s greatest successes, making Faora more than just another foil for Superman’s powers.
Snyder has said previously that he found the character of Lois Lane the easiest to cast and in the role Amy Adams makes it her own. Lois remains determined & career driven, but both Adams and the writers use it to give Lois a vulnerability that was lacking from Margot Kidder’s interpretation. Lane’s willingness to throw herself in to the situation means she’s generally in distress, although she’s by no means a damsel; mostly using her own tenacity to get out of the sticky spots she finds herself in.
Dividends must be paid to the supporting cast too. One of the biggest problems with Reeve’s Superman was Marlon Brando, who seemed to simply be playing himself as Jor-El; such a key character in the Superman universe needs to be played with heart & soul and Russell Crowe delivers. Jor-El is the pillar of guidance that Kal needs and narratively, the film feels more cohesive by making him so integral to the plot. It’s a shame Goyer doesn’t invest as much in Costner’s Papa Kent, a great performance that sadly feels wasted through the lack of screen time given to the character.
At its heart, Man of Steel is all about the characters but that doesn’t detract from the action beats that sustain the second half of the film. Whether you see it in 3D or not, it’s impossible to not be blown away by the way Snyder’s vision, as he turns both Smallville and Metropolis to piles of rubble. The effects are outstanding but it is Snyder’s editorial restraint that must be specifically congratulated, willing to not constantly cut the shot but instead hold and focus on the action happening.
Some elements fail to hold up, most notably the development, or lack, of Lois Lane and Superman’s relationship. The bond between them is never given room to breathe and the inevitable kiss at the end feels forced. It’s a shame as the Lois Lane/Clark Kent/Superman relationship is the core of Kal-El’s story and Goyer would have been better off developing such an important relationship in the next film (especially given Man of Steel’s final scene) instead of cramming it in to this one. Meanwhile, the religious iconography that can be seen throughout the film feels unnatural, with a scene in which Clark turns to a vicar for advice feeling painfully out of place.
After struggling to find his place on the big screen for decades, Man of Steel delivers the Superman film you have been waiting for. It’s not without its weaker elements but there’s still more than enough here to keep most purists happy. Snyder’s film is the rejuvenation Kal-El’s character has needed since the Reeve era and the best superhero origin film since Batman Begins.