“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This quote isn’t entirely true about Man of Steel, the highly anticipated reboot of the Superman film franchise – as well as potential launching point for a Justice League film to rival Marvel’s The Avengers. It’s just that huge explosions and mass destruction alone do not a good movie make. And as visually impressive and technically faultless Man of Steel is, it’s also utterly soulless. Those of you expecting the thematic depth and ambitious complexity of The Dark Knight are likely to be disappointed, particularly if you consider that trilogy’s writer-producer-director Christopher Nolan wrote the story and oversaw production of this comic book adaptation as well. Zack (Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch) Snyder is in the helmer’s chair for Man of Steel, for the record.
I suspect Man of Steel can best be described as a Superman film for people who don’t like Superman, on screen or in comics. If you have fond memories of the Christopher Reeve quadrilogy back in the 70s and 80s, you won’t find any goofy charm here, although Michael Shannon’s villainous Kryptonian General Zod has his fair share of shouty moments.
Anyway, with the exception of maybe three moments, Man of Steel is deadly serious throughout. Do not expect any comical role-reversals as reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ignores dorky farm boy Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) but is all tongued-tied around Clark’s cape-and-tights-wearing alter ego, Superman. There is absolutely none of that in this reboot… and it’s unlikely to feature in any sequels given events here. In fact the filmmakers should have done away with the romance entirely because it really doesn’t ring true given the two characters’ bland, bleached-of-chemistry interactions in Man of Steel.
Man of Steel is an origin story set almost entirely before Clark joins The Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis. The film is about the young alien’s “coming out” after years of shame and fear in regards to his freakish abilities and overwhelming desire to help people. Unfortunately, the discovery of Clark’s extra-terrestrial origins attracts the attention of Kryptonian Zod, who had a complicated relationship with Clark’s biological father, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe). As it turns out, Clark AKA Kal-El is even more of a Christ figure than usual in Man of Steel. Although I won’t reveal why…
Man of Steel plays out as a combination of Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright and J Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One. The thing is, both of these miniseries/graphic novels had more to say, and more to say eloquently, about Kal-El’s choice to reveal himself. Man of Steel just lacks substance; real emotional resonance. Obviously if you haven’t read these books, you’ll probably find Man of Steel’s approach refreshing. If you have, you’ll already have seen things done better on the printed page.
Now these gripes aside, this isn’t to say that Man of Steel is without multiple components that work really, really well. Cavill is an excellent Superman, much more than just a gorgeous face. His Superman has his moments of cockiness in regards to interactions with the human authorities (very much welcome) but he also is emotionally vulnerable and conflicted. His is a Superman with the emphasis very much on “Man” – or “Boy” depending on how you feel – and he provides a highly appealing and identifiable take on the character.
All round in fact, the cast does excellent work. Even if characters aren’t developed, they still come across as “real” in the midst of the epic town, city and world-levelling destruction. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive human parents are particularly good, and I especially liked Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet head, Perry White.
Antje Traue meanwhile wins fans on the bad girl side, as Zod’s brutally efficient second in command, Faora. She is also gifted with pretty much the only single moment that really indicates Zack Snyder’s involvement in the movie – a split-second of hand-to-hand combat that utilizes the filmmaker’s signature alternating-slowmo-speed-up style.
Speaking of Faora and the Kryptonians, Man of Steel is the first Superman film to actually present Superman’s home planet in a more well-rounded, fully-realised way. This isn’t men and women in white turtlenecks standing around in sterile white spaces. It’s full-blown sci-fi, complete with robot AI, alien beasties and laser battles. In terms of production design, Man of Steel is stunning. The Kryptonian armour and bodysuits are particularly intricate and gorgeous. So you’ll find no complaints from me about the changes to the Superman costume.
Although the post-production 3D conversion adds nothing noticeable to proceedings (i.e. try and watch this one in 2D if you can), it doesn’t hurt the viewing experience either. Man of Steel is technically faultless. While the initial fight scenes on Krypton are too frenetic and shot in close-up to discern what is going on, the film concludes with a string of far more coherent action sequences where Superman refreshingly doesn’t have to pull his punches at all. It starts with a super-powered brawl in Smallville – trumping a similar small town sequence in Thor – that cleverly peppers the background with “folksy” American brands like Seares, IHOP and U-Haul. And the climax builds to a gravity-defying, dizzying punch-up between Superman and Zod, which some are likely to find overblown, and others gratifying.
I certainly fell into the latter camp by this point. Tired of waiting for the Dark Knight depth promised by the Christopher Nolan association, I decided to just guzzle the eye candy instead. And that ultimately is your number one reason for watching Man of Steel – the spectacle. It’s better than Superman Returns, going the gritty, not glossy route. However, there’s nothing much else happening here except for big explosions and pretty special effects. You’ll believe a man can fly… but you won’t thrill to it or feel it in your heart.