Man of Steel
Zack Snyder’s mega-hyped Superman reboot arrives burdened with great expectations. Not only must it win over audiences disappointed by 2006’s Superman Returns; not only does it have to measure up to its billion dollar stablemate, the Dark Knight (as interpreted by Christopher Nolan, here wearing his producer’s hat); but it has also been tasked with establishing a cinematic universe comparable to its Marvel competition, allowing other characters and franchises to launch from its muscular shoulders and finally giving DC a chance to catch up. Not surprisingly, Man of Steel doesn’t quite succeed in delivering the knockout punch that Warner Bros might have wished for, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here, and, crucially, further sequels are an attractive prospect.
We begin, as Richard Donner’s 1978 adaptation did, on the dying world of Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe, standing in for Marlon Brando) and his wife launch their baby, Kal-El, in to space on a course for Earth in order to avoid imminent death. General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries to prevent what he sees as an act of treason, for reasons which become clear later, and is sentenced to prison in the Phantom Zone for his troubles. Then, KABOOM. Flash forward to a fully grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) on Earth several years later, drifting from one job to another, struggling to conceal his superpowers, with brief flashbacks to his childhood under the care of farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and wife Martha (Diane Lane). When Zod escapes from the Phantom Zone and arrives on Earth looking for Kal-El, the entire planet is placed in danger. Will Kal choose to defend his adopted home?
Though the plot does indeed roughly trace the same route as Donner’s film and its immediate sequel, this feels very different in tone and style. Whatever you might think of director Zack Snyder, he has bags of style and it is in evidence throughout Man of Steel. The darker, grimmer look of the world here is tonally attuned with Nolan’s take on Batman. The simple business of catching wrongdoers has been replaced with morally weightier subject matter. Superman isn’t just a big boy scout anymore, he’s a man with a guilt complex and an outcast from society. Zod is no longer just a bad guy, he’s a victim of genetic engineering, seeking only to fulfill his sole purpose in life - to protect the people of Krypton. Certainly this adds depth to the characters, but it also weighs the story down in a manner that feels alien to those of us who grew up watching Christopher Reeve wearing the red cape.
If you felt that Bryan Singer didn’t bring enough action to Superman Returns, then Snyder more than makes up the difference here. The devastation wrought onscreen is loud and immense, to the point of becoming repetitive, and recalls the worst excesses of Michael Bay in its cynical detachment (it doesn’t help that the technology from Krypton is vaguely reminiscent of Bay’s Transformers either). Yet there’s no denying its spectacular stuff, as Supes and Zod throw each other through building after building. Possibly it goes too far, but it’s also rather satisfying to see these superpowered comic book adversaries let rip in a way that was never visually possible before.
It’s to Snyder’s credit (and also that of Nolan and writer David S. Goyer) that the cast aren’t lost amid the carnage: Cavill has the looks and quiet determination necessary for the part, even if he lacks Reeve’s reassuring warmth. Shannon is on top shouty form as Zod; if glaring could win awards, he would be a frontrunner for next year’s Oscars. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is a far better fit for the role than Kate Bosworth was in Returns, though her relationship with Superman isn’t given much of a chance to develop. In fact there’s very little room for anything like romance or humour, but the closing shots suggest there could be room in the inevitable follow-up. One could quibble about things like the frequent, distracting crash zooms or the choppy editing, but there’s plenty to like here too (Hans Zimmer’s score is a big plus). Superman may have changed, but it’s good to have him back all the same.