Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Running time: 143mins
The lowdown: Six years after Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s sort of sequel to the original Superman movies, Batman reviver Christopher Nolan and Watchmen director Zack Snyder deliver the first real Superman reboot. Going the origins story route that resurrected Batman Begins, Snyder, Nolan and Dark Knight co-writer David S. Goyer retell the legend of the lad from Krypton with the realism and grit now expected from comic book adaptations. And happily the Bat-method has worked; Man of Steel is big, bold, epic moviemaking, not without flaws great and small but enough to get all suped up about a second instalment.
The full verdict: Odd to think that Superman was the first comic book hero to hit screens successfully in cinema’s modern age, as Siegel and Shuster’s creation has proved a tough nut to crack since. Diminishing returns zapped the 1980s Superman movies, Superman Returns flopped after years in the phantom zone of development Hell and, with Lois and Clark and Smallville, it seemed sequential art’s biggest character was best suited to the small screen.
But, despite the character’s dramatic limitations – invulnerable, square-jawed, moral, bloody do-gooder – filmmakers and a studio looking at a potentially super payday keep brushing off that red cape.
Thankfully, the partnering of Christopher Nolan’s intelligent, character driven storytelling with Zack Snyder’s eye for big scale filmmaking means Man of Steel delivers huge blockbuster entertainment and should please those turned off by the (underrated) Superman Returns.
Snyder, Nolan and Goyer stay true to the origins story, with a few spins to fend off complete déjà-vu.
Superman is now regarded literally as an illegal alien and WMD in this post 9-11 telling. Krypton is not the fluorescent tube lit planet of Richard Donner’s 1978 version, but an expansive alien landscape somewhere between a Star Wars prequel planet done right and the Asgaard of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.
And Crowe’s Jor-El gets to do superheroics of his own in a prologue that has him flying a four winged dragon, battle Michael Shannon’s genocidal General Zod, and fire son Kal-El off his doomed homeworld on a course for Earth.
Wisely, Goyer’s script tells the story of Clark Kent (aka Kal-El, aka Brit actor Henry Cavill) in flashback. Clark’s derring-do (rescuing drillers from a burning oil rig or a busload of school kids) is intercut with life lessons from Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent (urging the superteen to keep a low profile until humankind is ready) and a discovery of his powers (in a knockout scene x-ray vision and super-hearing overwhelm a young Clark) all in a way that avoids feeling like box-ticking before the inevitable climactic smackdown.
A criticism here would be an overabundance of story and character to squeeze into even a 140 minute running time. Amy Adam’s tough-talking Lois Lane gets a good subplot following the trail of miracles left by the nomadic Clark, but Superman’s interaction with humans is disappointingly military focused (no cat in a tree here) and there is much to-ing and fro-ing before General Zod reveals his nefarious plan of world domination.
Elsewhere, Pa Kent’s demise is a groansome misfire with none of the pathos Glenn Ford brought to Donner’s version, the Christ parallels are part of the mythos but evolution needlessly gets a supervillain endorsement, and crucially the film lacks the heart and emotion of Richard Donner’s still definitive big screen take on the character.
But, all this is to dismiss the good work writ VERY large. Crowe’s Jor-El is a reminder of how impressive the actor can be at both action and drama, Shannon channels intense ideological fury into his Roman emperor fringed megalomaniacal villain and Adams gives another performance to savour in a role requiring more meat next time around.
And Cavill. Even with Brits dominating superhero movies right now (Bale in Batman, Garfield in Spider-Man, McAvoy in X-Men) it still surprises that a Jersey lad was allowed to travel faster than a speeding bullet. He looks the part and conveys the turmoil of a character accepting extraordinary abilities, but only a sequel will tell if he can handle the Clark element (the 1978 film’s heart) as well as the alien.
Ultimately, Man of Steel’s true star may just be Zack Snyder. After the lechy stumble of Sucker Punch, the director guarantees enjoyment by throwing everything and several kitchen sinks into a final hour showdown, clearly attempting to best The Avengers’ climax.
Two awesome superhero v. supervillain action sequences (one that levels Smallville, the other Metropolis) are astonishing in their scale (buildings topple, train carriages fly, punches put characters into the next postcode), expertly choreographed and, with heroes and villains often moving faster than the camera can see, almost invent a new form of onscreen motion.
Admittedly, this boils down to a who-can-punch hardest contest, but in these moments Snyder captures the legend’s awe and wonder, assisted by Hans Zimmer’s score, pitched midway between John Williams and his own Dark Knight soundtracks.
You won’t just believe a man can fly. You’ll believe that the upcoming Justice League movie (with Cavill again as the big “S”) is a credible Avengers contender. And with a visual wink to Lex Luthor during this film’s climax, Man of Steel II could be Superman’s The Dark Knight.
Which is all Super indeed.