Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: David S. Goyer
Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Release date: June 14th, 2013
Distributor: Warner Bros. Studios
Running time: 143 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: The overt religious symbolism.
It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s….yet another superhero origin story. One by one, famous superheroes are being thrown onto the big screen. Some superhero flicks work, while others spectacularly crash and burn. Marvel’s recent success proves they have mastered the superhero film formula. DC Comics/Warner Bros. most recent effort, Man of Steel, largely succeeds thanks to both scale and inventive storytelling. It essentially becomes the yin to Iron Man 3‘s yang.
Desperate to get a Justice League movie (the DC Comics version of The Avengers) off the ground, Man of Steel provides DC/Warner Bros. the perfect leap off the blocks. For those who don’t know of Superman’s origin story, the film provides a delicate and intricate interpretation of his most iconic elements. The film starts off with Krypton in complete disarray. Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) must contend with Krypton’s apocalyptic problems and their newborn son Kal-El. Whilst Jor-El warns the Kryptonian leaders of the planet’s oncoming doom, General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a military coup against them. Kal-El is sent to Earth and Zod is sent to the Phantom Zone shortly before Krypton’s destruction. Kal-El is then raised as ‘Clark Kent’ (Henry Cavill) by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane respectively). Kal-El/Clark’s resolve will be tested when Zod comes to Earth to reclaim Krypton’s most treasured elements. Aided by enthusiastic Journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Kal-El/Clark must decide whether he wants to be a peaceful citizen or a caped warrior who stands for truth, justice and the American way.
This films sits (quality wise) between a game-changing reboot like Batman Begins and a repetitive cash-grab like The Amazing Spider-man. This reboot sets out to make Superman popular with Gen-Y. To a certain extent, it passes with flying colours. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is one of Hollywood’s most polarising figures. His comic book adaptations lean toward the darker shades of superhero lore. With Man of Steel, he has delivered a gritty and pulsating superhero romp. Here, Snyder displays his knack for kinetic storytelling. Overcoming David S. Goyer’s formulaic screenplay, Snyder presents a well-known origin story in an inventive and heartening fashion. Thanks to Christopher Nolan’s touch, Snyder takes the Dark Knight trilogy approach. For the movie’s first half, Man of Steel looks at the internal aspects of DC’s most popular superhero. After the opening set-piece on Krypton, the movie jumps back and forth in time to valuable parts of Kal-El/Clark’s life. This Batman Begins-like storytelling develops both the iconic lead character and this reboot’s dour tone. However, unlike Nolan’s Batman flicks, Snyder injects fantastical elements when required. Despite its structural/narrative similarities to Thor and The Incredible Hulk, this is more like a sci-fi extravaganza than a by-the-numbers superhero flick. However, Snyder drops the ball when it comes to the subtextual aspects. Some shots, including one of Kal-El/Clark sitting in a church in front of a stain glass window depicting Jesus Christ, are more eye-rollingly obvious than convincing.
Man of Steel‘s biggest flaw is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Snyder’s unchained direction dabbles in both existential drama and pacy popcorn-chomping action. In fact, between the first and second half, the film switches inorganically from one to the other. Thankfully, Unlike the sorely underrated Superman Returns, Snyder’s movie is not obsessive about Richard Donner/Lester’s Superman and Superman II. Despite borrowing a few key elements of those movies, this is a fresher and punchier interpretation of Superman than previous efforts from this century (Smallville included). The only thing bigger than the ‘S’ symbol on Superman’s outfit is Man of Steel‘s epic sense of scale (aided by Hans Zimmer’s thundering score). Despite leaving out his saturated visual style and slo-mo/speed-up tricks, Snyder is often let off the leash to deliver many awe-inspiring set-pieces. From Krypton’s obliteration to Metropolis’ destruction, this movie shows an obvious and gleeful lack of subtlety. Although the action-direction is enthralling (thanks to the shaky-cam), the baffling amount of collateral damage calls Superman’s code of honour into question. Never has a major city suffered this much carnage since Independence Day. In fact, the most engaging set-pieces focus on Kal-El/Clark’s moral conflict. The oil rig, tornado, and bus crash sequences say more about power and responsibility than any of Jor-El and Jonathan’s long-winded speeches.
“I let my father die because I trusted him, because he was convinced that I had to wait. That the world was not ready. What do you think?” (Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Man of Steel).
Some will say this blockbuster sorely lacks joy, humour, and charm. While others will argue that’s the entire point; to strip any sense of fun out of the story to establish Kal-El/Clark’s internal struggle. I strangely agree with both intensifying viewpoints. Delightfully, the intensifying A-list cast brings levity and heart to this visceral tale. Despite the underdeveloped characterisations, everyone gets an emotional payoff that makes them likeable and/or humanistic. Thankfully, Superman is Man of Steel‘s most engaging character. His Bruce Banner/Logan-esque journey through the American wilderness leads him to embrace his fathers’ opposing ideologies. His transition from rugged, angsty individual to symbol of hope is poignant and entertaining. His first flight is particularly effective – establishing the rush of joy that would undoubtedly come with racing from Africa to the Grand Canyon within seconds. Cavill is charismatic as the courageous and stoic hero. Aided by his bulging muscular frame, Cavill proves he is a young actor to look out for. Adams is at her charming best as the ball-busting and Pulitzer Prize-winning Lane. Despite blatantly crossing the line between investigative reporting and detective work, Adams’ Lane establishes herself as a mentally powerful force of nature. Shannon provides a breakout performance as the vicious yet sympathetic Zod. Thankfully, Zod is established as a thought-provoking antagonist and not Superman’s punching bag. Crow and Costner are also enthralling as the clashing father figures.
Despite its issues, Man of Steel is an enjoyable and gripping superhero flick. By putting a unique spin on the Superman mythos, Snyder has developed a pacy, visually-arresting, and heartening look at a well-known cultural icon. Bravely, this interpretation depicts Superman as being much more than just the world’s strongest boy scout.