After what felt like an inexhaustible barrage of trailers, TV spots and promo images, Man of Steel is finally here. And with such a Hydra-like marketing campaign (just finished watching one trailer and two more pop up!), you would think that you’ve already seen everything that this movie has to offer before ever taking a single step onto the mysteriously sticky floors of your local cinema.
I’m happy to report that you’d be wrong. Man of Steel has a whole lot more than what we’ve already been shown. And while not all of these revelations are as good as I would have hoped, there is quite a bit that’s, well, super.
Before director Zack Snyder got involved, it was Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, fresh from reinventing Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, that pitched this rebooted Superman tale as a first-contact story, showing how Earth reacts when a couple of godlike E.T.’s come a-knocking really, really loudly. Most importantly though, they were going to treat this version as if there had never before been any other Superman movie, TV series or comic book, and in that regard they succeed amazingly. They may possibly also end up with a severed horse head in their beds courtesy of some Superman purists, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.
While Man of Steel has the broad brushstrokes of the Superman origin story we all know – Krypton, rocketship, Kansas, superhero – they’ve decided to not be beholden to the classic mythology just because. Snyder and co have looked at what a character like this would be like in today’s modern world, and if there’s any aspect that didn’t quite mesh with those sensibilities, the offending aspect promptly found itself tossed out onto the garbage heap right next to Supes’ old red underpants.
Now contrary to what I said two paragraphs ago, Goyer’s script does borrow quite a bit from a number of popular visions of Superman that came before it (hell, even copying some dialogue virtually verbatim from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman) but he weaves these skeins together into a new Superman tapestry that is decidedly more intimate, yet at the same time more monstrously ambitious in scope than previous cinematic visions of the character.
The film opens on Krypton, in the midst of the vivid laser beams and retina-searing explosions of a violent coup, and whereas Superman’s homeworld has in the past generally been relegated to just “that planet that blows up to make those glowy green rocks” (in the original Action Comics #1 it was given only a single panel’s worth of exposition), here Snyder does some immensely impressive world building. We get glimpses of gravity defying alien architecture, surreal technologies and exotic fauna and flora. If we had spent the whole of the movie instead of just the opening 15 minutes on Krypton, you wouldn’t have heard a negative peep out of me. Visually and aurally, everything just jumps off the screen (and no, not due to the virtually non-existent 3D effects) as we follow the unexpected action hero of the film’s first chapter, Jor El (Russell Crowe), as he sets about trying to stop his old friend General Zod (Michael Shannon) from overthrowing the Kryptonian government while also securing safe passage for his son off their dying world.
It’s a superbly apt intro to the film as it not only introduces us to this slightly tweaked mythology, but also gets our brain muscles all warmed up for the utterly ridiculous levels of action that’s still to come.
Seriously, I cannot stress this enough: the insanely action-packed final 45 minutes of Man of Steel, from a scope and intensity perspective, completely dwarfs everything we have ever seen on screen before. Ever. If the Battle of Manhattan in The Avengers left you gobsmacked, Man of Steel‘s climactic battle will leave you gobsmacked, -punched, -kicked, -clotheslined, -suplexed, and any other ridiculous example of fighting you can think of. Even when the individual action sequences start to feel a little bloated and in need of a little fat trimming, there is still no denying the undiluted visceral and euphoric thrill of watching spandex wearing gods punch each other through cities.
But the film is not all fault-line creating fisticuffs and skyscraper melting eye lasers though, as at its core lies an elegantly simple tale about a boy growing into a man and deciding who that man should be, and about knowing when to walk in your father’s shadow and went to step into the light. These are not foreign themes to the Superman mythos, but Snyder and Goyer explore then in a way that brings in a new maturity and realism.
Now notice, I said it’s mature and realistic, not gritty. There”s a fine line, sometimes invisible, sometimes burning with the flame-rage of thousands of fans, between the two concepts and Man of Steel walks it confidently and expertly.
Unfortunately, it also stumbles over some rather simple stuff.
Henry Cavill is a superb choice as Clark Kent/Superman, bringing not only a previously unmatched physicality to the role (gentlemen, if you’re watching this with a lady friend, and you’re not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, prepare to feel grossly inferior) but also shows off an emotional depth and complexity that few other actors who’ve previously worn the blue pyjamas have needed to display. So too Amy Adams impresses as she transforms the character of Lois Lane from walking “spunky reporter” cliche into a fully realized person. That being said, I just do not have much love for their actual relationship, and I use the term very lightly here.
Yes, there are very few females on planet Earth who won’t find their legs transmuted to toothpaste when Henry Cavill first walks out of the ocean topless with muscles as far as the eye can see, but Superman and Lois’ relationship comes across as very forced and unnatural.
Also, the level of wanton destruction on display here, often as a result of Superman’s actions, is enough to give anybody pause. There have already been lots of vocal grumblings on the net about the fact that Supes’ battles through the film probably resulted in more accidental deaths than the genocide that he’s trying to stop. What I find especially grating about this, is that this could have been so easily remedied. Just a single line of dialogue explaining that cities have been evacuated or maybe just showing Superman using his super-sense to determine where the battle should take place to minimize casualties would have been enough. It’s a silly oversight on the part of Goyer and Snyder and which is now earning the film unnecessary but still warranted criticism.
Some of the decisions made by the characters in the film’s climax also makes no sense logically and come across as clumsy attempts to shoehorn in more action and drama, when the film is already already bursting at the seams with them. And then there are the Krypton nanotech tentacles. The less I speak about them, the better.
Actually, I probably need to start speaking a whole lot less pretty soon, before I spoil the film’s most controversial change to the character (which I will talk about at length next week after most of you have seen the film). It’s something that in context, I am completely okay with (and trust me, I did a whole lot of internal monologuing on this point) but which is going – to put it bluntly – piss off some diehard fans.
But even those unflinching neckbeards would be hard pressed to deny that besides for possible inflammatory deviations from the character’s established past, there is so much more that the film brings to the table. And then drops a house on that table.
Michael Shannon plays a superb Zod, an almost sympathetic villain who is still able to to subjugate with just a glance – with or without heat vision – and who is a true threat to Superman in every single way. He smoulders on screen, and while keeping his performance bubbling just beneath the moustache twirling zone, he can still snarl with the best of them.
The rest of the support cast all also turn in admirable performances, with Antje Traue as Zod’s second-in-command, Faora, and Kevin Costner as Clark’s Earth father, Jonathan Kent, being notable standouts, but for very different reasons. While Faora is all fire and ice, Jonathan Kent is the softly spoken heart of a number of the film’s most touching scenes.
And most of those softer moments are as a result of Zack Snyder showing a new, unexpected maturity of direction. In the film’s more quieter second act, he frequently shows off an almost Terence Mallick like touch, interspersing the more adrenalizing scenes with shots of pure visual poetry. The tonal shifts may be a bit jarring here and there, but they work to convey the duality of who Superman is.
Man of Steel is not a perfect movie. Had I treated this review more like a checklist, it would probably have scored lower than the 4 stars it’s currently getting (and this review would probably be even longer than it already is, impossible as that may seem). But what Snyder, Goyer and Nolan have delivered is the Superman film that fans have been asking for for ages. Yes, it trips itself up now and then, but it also produces the type of fist pumping “Hell yeah!” moments that are so rare in cinema lately. As the original superhero, Superman deserved nothing less than the biggest superhero movie to ever grace our screen, and that’s exactly what he got.
More excitingly, it’s also creates a world that stands primed to act as a springboard for Warner Bros to finally get their Justice League act together. And if that is the case, as has so often been unofficially hinted at in the past, then it’s very pleasing to know that this is the way that their world begins; not with a whimper but with a bang.
Last Updated: June 24, 2013