Clark Kent, Kal-El, Supes, Superman. Call him what you want, the Man Of Steel is the pinnacle of the superhero genre. So it is something of a surprise that, with the tidal wave of superhero films flooding out of Hollywood, we’ve had to wait seven years since Bryan Singer’s admirable but ultimately flawed Superman Returns to see him fly once again. But while he’s often proved to be the ideal hero on the page Superman is often undone on the screen. For many Superman is too perfect, too moral and lacks the intensity or moodiness of say Batman. With The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan lauding over Man Of Steel as producer, does Zack Snyder’s Superman fly faster than a speeding bullet or plummet to the ground like a lump of Kryptonite?
On the planet Krypton there is something very A Brave New World going on. Babies are harvested artificially and destined to perform a specific role in society. With the planet dying, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) allows his wife to give birth the organic way, breaking Kryptonian law. As General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries to stage a coup on the planet, Jor-El launches his only son Kal-El into space with the codex, a device that holds the DNA of all Krypton along with him. Zod defeated and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, Krypton and all its inhabitants die. Thirty-three years later the grown-up Kal-El, now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is struggling to find his place in the world. But as he recollects his adoptive father Jonathan’s (Kevin Costner) words he begins to understand he is destined for greater things.
On an expedition to a recently unearthed spacecraft, buried for thousands of years beneath ice, Clark meets intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who soon begins to wonder who this mysterious man is. But before Clark is ready to reveal himself to the world Zod returns, determined to make Earth a New Krypton. In order to facilitate his master plan he needs Kal-El and so the man who was born on Krypton but raised on Earth must choose which side he will fight and which side he will defend.
Given how ingrained Superman is in popular culture it is perhaps not surprising that much of Man Of Steel feels familiar. The action, while always spectacular, is often generic with many set pieces feeling lifted from other films. The Matrix trilogy in particular has a heavy influence on Synder’s execution. But make no mistake, this is jaw-dropping stuff, the very definition of an ‘event’ movie which demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with bass so loud it’ll make you shake. The subtlety of writer David S. Goyer’s Dark Knight scripts is seriously lacking here and instead we are treated to something altogether less intelligent. If anything the story tries to shoehorn more than is necessary, forcing certain issues where a more emotional driven plot would have happily sufficed.
What it does have in common with Nolan’s Batman films is a determination to extract detailed character ticks from its protagonist. It’s here that Man Of Steel is at its most engaging. For too many of his screen incarnations Superman has been nothing more than an all-conquering hero, a bastion of moral virtues and all things good. That’s not to say this Clark isn’t the boy scout you’re familiar with but there is a sense of tragic hero here. At times the point is a little too laboured, ramming home the Jesus metaphor to such a degree as to actually have Clark stand in front of a stained glass window depicting Jesus as he asks a priest for guidance. But in the first half, with Clark wandering the globe, struggling to understand his purpose and powers, Man Of Steel is a fascinating insight into a character who is rarely given this much depth.
Visually Man Of Steel is one of the most beautiful and sumptuous superhero films to date. Once on Earth, Snyder’s aesthetic is bordering on Terrence Malick levels of delight. Sunsets that kiss the fields of Kansas and witnessing Superman finally don the cape, wind billowing it against a setting sun will have even the most cynical of viewer smiling with the sheer breathless wonder of what a true superhero icon can look like on screen.
As Superman’s Kryptonian father Russell Crowe feels slightly hammy, adopting a British accent to ram home the importance of his character. But he’s a worthy fit to Marlon Brando’s former incarnation of Jor-El. Michael Shannon is perhaps a little too pantomime villain to be genuinely scary. At times you sense a hint of humanity bubbling beneath the surface of his Zod but the script then demands him to return to barking his lines. Amy Adams, perhaps on paper not the most logical Lois Lane, is typically solid in her role. Her Lois is tough yet warm towards Clark, making their chemistry something you will want to see more of in the inevitable sequel.
But had the casting gone wrong Man Of Steel could easily have become something less solid. Henry Cavill, in still a relatively burgeoning film career, brings a brooding strength to the character. We never have to witness any bumbling reporter efforts that often undid his predecessor Brandon Routh, instead Cavill’s Superman is messianic, a pillar against which the world can lean on but with enough internal conflict beneath the surface that when he lets out one of his many frustrated battle cries you feel the anger building inside.
When it’s good it’s Super but towards the final CGI infused battle Man Of Steel feels a little worn and rusted. If this is Superman Begins, Snyder, Nolan, Goyer and Cavill have certainly given food for thought.