So, here it is, finally. The long awaited take on Superman from David Goyer and the Nolan Brothers directed by Zack Snyder. A film with such weight of expectation that surely the only person who could lift it would be Superman himself. So, Is Man of Steel any good? Does it present a bold and interesting new take on the character and will it lead to further instalments in a new franchise? The answer to those questions is kinda, sorta and almost definitely…
Starting out on Krypton, Man of Steel tells a variation on the origin story that practically everyone has heard before. This version of events presents Krypton as an empire that, through its over reliance on eugenics, is crumbling socially as well as physically. On the eve of the planet’s imminent destruction, as Krypton’s military leader General Zod goes about the business of launching a hostile takeover, Jor-El, the planets foremost scientist turns his son Kal into a science fiction Moses, launching him across the void of space in search of a new home as the old one implodes. Fast forward 33 years and Kal, now named Clark – having been adopted by human parents, has grown up to be an incredibly grounded individual despite his alien physiology being granted super powers by our yellow sun. Unsure of his place in the universe or why he was sent here Clark wanders the Earth as a drifter, occasionally stopping to play Deadliest Catch with an oil rig. It is only when Zod returns, having been banished to the Phantom Zone for his attempted coup, that Clark must face up to his heritage and use the powers he has kept hidden for so long to face the menace that threatens his adopted home…
Right upfront it’s worth saying that Man of Steel is a good movie. In terms of summer tent pole blockbusters it throws everything it has at the screen. When your central character has the power to bench press The Moon you either go big or go home and given that Superman’s home gets destroyed at the start of the film he’s only really got big left to go to. The action sequences in this movie are huge, and while they occasionally tend look a bit video-gamey here and there, this picture still sets a bench-mark for large scale special effects (At least till the next big thing comes along). Regardless of his shortcomings in other areas Snyder has always been a director with great visual flair and never has it been on display more consistently than here. From the sepia toned home movie feel of Smallville all the way across the vast emptiness of space to the psychedelic sunsets of Krypton Man of Steel gives Snyder an epic canvas on which to paint not only the hopes and dreams of his home world but also the hopes and dreams of DC/Warner that this be the start of a new franchise to follow in the tyre tracks of its Dark Knight Juggernaut.
Unfortunately it’s in the moments in between the action sequences that the movie’s shortcomings become obvious in ways that can’t disguised by the hat and (3D) glasses of computer generated special effects. The close knit Goyer/Nolan team that had been so successful with Batman Begins and the Dark Knight was feeling a little worn out by the time Dark Knight Rises came about and the issues that plagued the writing in TDKR, such as poor characterisation and baffling plot holes, are just as evident in Man of Steel. While the (very serious) approach – that if someone like Superman turned up tomorrow then the world would be afraid of, rather than embrace him – is an interesting, realistic, take that feels relevant its is never actually gets examined any further beyond that. The movie is so fixated on the people flying through the air punching each other, it never actually stops to ask how it feels for the ones on the ground. Sure, we see them locking their doors and hiding away every time the Kryptonian’s come to party in their town, but once the action is over the story just moves onto the next breakable set piece, presumably leaving everyone else to clean up the mess and start trying and get the trains out of their carpet.
But it’s in the writing of Man of Steel’s characters (or lack thereof) that the film really suffers. There is barely any development for anyone in the film beyond what was presumably the two line brief fedexed over with the script. Supes is an angst ridden man-child torn between the conflicting ideals of his two Fathers (and with it his two homes). Jor-El is an exposition machine, only there to explain various macguffins and offer sagely advice that Supes should be an inspiration. Pa Kent meanwhile hands out homespun Apple Pie wisdom about the burden of responsibility and not getting bogged down in flights of fancy (or fancy flights in this case). Then there’s Zod, who’s a really bad guy which the movie lets you know by effectively invoking Godwins law before you’ve had time to start on your popcorn. It’s the women though that get really short changed in the Man of Steel boys club. Ma Kent has literally one scene of note throughout the entire movie while Lois Lane is practically reduced to a plot device that is only present to explain the change in scenery & to provide Supes with an excuse to verbalise his internal conflict. At least Antje Traue, playing Faora, gets to own the movie’s best action moments, even if she does get shrifted in the dialogue stakes.
Credit where credit is due then to all of the actors and actresses involved that they take what they are given and deliver genuinely strong performances across the board. Shannon’s Zod is far more understated and sinister than the original trailers suggested while Amy Adam’s Lois Lane is nowhere near as bolshy or irritating as previous iterations of the character, and is more interesting as a result. Clark’s two Dads are also great with both Costner and Crowe hitting their mark perfectly, while Cavill wears the cape well as Superman managing to embody the alien human conflict that is the hallmark of this version’s hero.
As I said before, Man of Steel is a good movie. Unfortunately it stops short of being a great one. The script is so overly serious, and desperate to make Superman appeal to a new audience, that it lacks the the comic relief and sense of fun which has helped him endure for 75 years to the old one. Man of Steel may not achieve wonders, but thanks to good direction, great acting and a fantastic score it still aspires to, and manages, something greater, no doubt meaning we can all look forward to the Man of Tomorrow.