Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Antje Traue
Directed by: Zak Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer
Produced by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
So where do we stand on Superman?
He’s a polarising superhero, it has to be said. Pick a random stranger on the street, and there’s a decent chance they’ll dismiss him as the big blue boy scout (not to be confused with the other big blue boy scout, Captain America). Too powerful to be interesting, too nice to be entertaining. Outdated, cheesy. Personally, I fall on the side that says he’s a great character, but difficult to write well. He’s more purely heroic than certainly any other of the most popular comic book characters, and in the wrong hands that can certainly come off as dull. Get him write though, and he becomes someone truly admirable.
Whatever else they think of him, the Nolan/Goyer team, so successful with their recent trilogy of Batman films, clearly subscribe to the opinion that Supes is, if not necessarily outdated, then certainly in need of a bit of a spring clean. It worked with Batman, for the most part, but Superman is a slightly different beast. Making him more realistic in the same vein they did Batman just wasn’t going to work. Thankfully, Man of Steel sticks fairly close to established mythology in all but a few key areas, which are changed to mixed effect.
The film kicks off with a bang, which is no surprise. Snyder has a variable reputation as a director, but one quality which has never been in doubt is his ability to craft a stonking action scene. What is a surprise is how long the films spends on Krypton, establishing the backstory. It’s probably a good half hour at least before we even get to Earth, never mind getting Cavill on screen. It’s an early indication that MoS suffers from what we might call Hobbit Syndrome. While it would be unfair to say that the intro is bad – quite the opposite in fact – it is without question bloated, particularly because there’s a scene later in the film that recaps all the pertinent knowledge in an artistically interesting fashion, so aside from kicking off with an action scene, and giving Russell Crowe something to do to earn his paycheque, it’s hard to justify it. Yes, it shows an interesting interpretation of Krypton, taking inspiration from Avatar, Ancient Rome and the Halo games, but it could have been at least twenty minutes shorter. Hell, the starting point for any Superman story is a planet blowing up, so any action scene is going to be rendered a little redundant.
You can’t even make the argument that it’s a long wait for the next set-piece. Early trailers had suggested a more philosophical approach to the story, long on grey backgrounds, deep moral musing/whining, and short on Superman punching through buildings. There was much talk of Clark Kent wandering around trying to ‘find himself’. Well, once Cavill arrives on screen, it’s maybe five minutes before he’s leaping into action, albeit sporting a beard rather than a cape, and showing off his terrifyingly chiselled chest rather than the famous S symbol. It’s an impressive introduction to the character.
The following section is probably, all in all, the best section of the film. Cavill isn’t just a pretty face, bringing charm and depth to both Clark and Superman, and his journey from good-hearted drifter to god-like hero is genuinely engaging. He is matched by Amy Adams as long standing love interest Lois Lane, who is handled rather well, certainly better than female leads traditionally fare in super-hero movies. True, she’s a somewhat two dimensional character at best, but given that those two dimensions consist of her actually living up to her reputation as a crack reporter and kicking ass, it seems churlish to criticise. Adams and Cavill spark off each other nicely, too, although romance is more or less left for the inevitable sequel.
It is in this section that the more realistic tone of the film, and the more obvious changes to previous mythology are introduced. Some are smart, logical revisions; for instance, the military are far from keen on the idea that there’s an alien with super-strength and laser eyes living in America. It isn’t a totally original idea, but it’s new to the films, and it’s a nice example of the realistic vision serving the film well. Arguably less successful are the flashbacks to Clark’s childhood. In and of themselves, they aren’t bad, but Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent is badly fumbled, turning him from a moral compass to a scared, almost paranoid figure who, in one disastrous writing choice, seems to argue the merits of letting a bus full of kids die rather than Clark using his abilities. It’s even more infuriating because just one change in dialogue – the existing ‘Maybe’ to an ‘I don’t know’ – would still have conveyed the doubt and fear that makes the scene interesting without making Jonathan come across as the coward the scene paints him as. Clark’s backstory is the main area that would have benefited from a briefer visit to Krypton; strip out ten minutes of Russell Crowe on a dragon, and stick in another scene of Clark and Jonathan, or even a scene of Clark interacting with people his own age who aren’t treating him like dirt, and a multitude of sins would have been forgiven.
But then you get to the last hour of the film, and you’ll probably forget most if not all of the issues you might have had, because God damn this is a film that knows how to showcase superhero violence. Remember New York getting trashed in Avengers Assemble? Blown out of the water. When Superman and Zod clash, it’s like watching two different disaster movies hit the same location. The action in Man of Steel is just staggering, and it’s a good thing because most of that last hour is almost entirely people punching each other, or people shrugging off the massed might of the US military like the soldiers are armed with pea-shooters.
If you aren’t interested in such pyrotechnics, then Man of Steel probably isn’t for you. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot else to like. Quite apart from Cavill and Adams, there are a whole host of good performances; Shannon adds subtle depth to Zod beyond rampaging psychopath, while Crowe is a Jor-El you can both respect and picture yourself having a beer with. Most memorable though is Antje Traue, as Zod’s second-in-command Faora; defiantly one-note, but brutal, terrifying, and not so much scene stealing as smashing everyone else off the screen. A lot of the direction and filming is beautiful, with a shot of Clark drifting in the sea surrounded by whales a haunting, wonderful image that is all the more memorable for being almost utterly irrelevant to the film as a whole. It’s simply there for the art of it. Somewhat shockingly, there’s even a lightness of touch that might just have you laughing at points throughout the film. Most importantly, the Nolan/Goyer/Snyder team have succeeded in their aim – a respectful, faithful, but modernised and suitably realistic depiction of Superman. He’s not the infallible god most see him as, but you can see the seeds of that future, which is all you can reasonably require of an origin story.
However, for all of that, of the two hour plus running time, roughly half of it is action of one sort or another. Action fatigue can and will set in, and it will be then that you start to think about the negatives outlined above. If you’re comfortable watching super-powered aliens beating seven kinds of hell out of each other, then you’re going to love it. If not…maybe give it a miss.
Oh, and if you’re more than passingly knowledgeable about religion, brace yourself for the least subtle Messianic imagery since…well, probably since the New Testament.