I’ve never been a Superman fan. He’s just too good. Too super. Thank heavens for the team behind Man of Steel then – finally, a Superman movie with an edge to it! This isn’t The Dark Knight levels of grit however, but it’s a more solemn take that treats the character’s fantastical elements in a more grounded, realistic manner.
Directed by Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen fame, and produced by Chris Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Man of Steel recreates Superman for the contemporary audience. It’s just as much a sci-fi piece as it’s a superhero movie, with an opening act that’s more alien and exotic than anything in Marvel’s Thor. Indeed, just as Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Comics are hopeful that Man of Steel will be the first entry in a new shared silver screen universe which will eventually build towards a Justice League movie (DC’s version of The Avengers) – featuring all-new incarnations of heroes like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash and Batman.
So far so good. The movie spends its early minutes by delving into the origin of Kal-El – that’s Superman’s real name (he’s an alien from the planet Krypton!). Russel Crowe features heavily in the role of Kal’s father, Jor-El, who sends his son to Earth in order to escape the impending destruction of Krypton. Many years later, wild-eyed General Zod (Michael Shannon) discovers Kal’s location so brings his surviving Kryptonian forces to Earth to locate a mysterious codex that his nemesis Jor-El hid with Kal.
Fortunately, Man of Steel wisely saves us from retelling the traditional Superman origin story in full. This time around Kal’s upbringing as the human Clark Kent is told in flashbacks that pepper the movie throughout, allowing the core plot to move forward while occasionally dipping back in time at appropriate moments to explore facets of Kal’s/Clark’s character. It’s a smart move that evenly balances Superman’s dichotomy as a child of two worlds, allowing actor Henry Cavill (Immortals) to better convey the character’s inner conflict.
One of the big themes of Man of Steel is whether Kal should reveal himself to the people of Earth, and what would our response be. Jor-El wanted Kal to lead humanity to a bright future whereas Clark’s adopted father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) was fearful that humanity would reject him. This is an integral part of Kal’s character arc in the movie, so it’s a shame then that the film never addresses the public perspective. Sure, Kal makes his choice but the question of whether the public accepts or rejects Superman is never answered.
Even The Avengers had a cliché newsreel following the Battle of New York in which citizens were interviewed on what they thought about the existence of aliens and superheroes – no such luxury is afforded in Man of Steel. What we’re left with is a lack of catharsis and a significant void in the story, although one that may prove to be the jumping off point for the sequel. One can already imagine a villain like Lex Luthor rallying the people against Superman after the climactic events of Man of Steel.
And how about that action! It’s essentially live-action Dragon Ball Z done right. It doesn’t really kick into gear until the last hour but when it does it’s essentially nonstop. This is both a blessing and a curse. Snyder is an exceptional action director and any one of his setpieces is brilliant in its own right, but the issue here is that all of them are at the same lightning-fast tempo. When you put them together you get a movie that just sort of plateaus instead of thrilling you like a rollercoaster.
I never thought I’d say this about Snyder, but for once he could have used a little more slowmo (this is the guy who directed 300 after all!). Take The Matrix Revolutions for example; the final confrontation between Neo and Smith is comparable to the climax of Man of Steel, but in that film it’s more engaging because the Wachowskis used a variety of techniques to alter the action’s tempo. It also helps that it’s a thematically richer and more cathartic throwdown.
Still, I was never lost in the action and it all looks spectacular. Like Ridley Scott, it seems you can always trust a Zack Snyder picture to look terrific – especially the costuming and special effects. Stay away from the 3D though; for a movie with so much flying, the 3D failed to exhilarate and just made the already bleak colour scheme that much bleaker. Nevertheless, Hans Zimmer is on hand with a percussion-heavy score. It doesn’t hit you in the gut and get the adrenalin pumping like his scores to the Batman movies, but it does have a way of making everything seem epic. And that’s Man of Steel in a nutshell: it’s no The Dark Knight but it’s nonetheless a new superhero epic and a promising start to DC’s shared movie universe.
Superman gets rebooted Nolan-style in this sci-fi, superhero spectacle.