Man of Steel
Three stars (out of four)
A planet explodes, buildings collapse and heroes and villains battle amidst the debris in Man of Steel, a blockbuster in every sense of the word.
The film’s most impressive feat, however, is considerably more cerebral: convincing us that the Superman movie we don’t need is one that we may actually want — and the thought of a more streamlined sequel is even better.
Zack Snyder’s take on the familiar comic book saga is every bit the spectacle you’d expect from the man who made zombies run (Dawn of the Dead), beefcakes tussle (300) and vigilantes rage (Watchmen).
Snyder packs more details into a single montage than most directors put into an entire movie. He’s in no rush to place thoughtful British actor Henry Cavill (TV’s The Tudors) into the body-hugging revamped Superman suit, or even to have his superhero referred to by name, which barely happens.
Instead Snyder luxuriates in making Man of Steel a true origin story, giving us a view of doomed planet Krypton never before glimpsed in innumerable previous Superman movies.
It’s a smoky sci-fi world of ancient splendour, Gigeresque nightmares and Freudian daydreams, where quicksilver gadgets all hint of sexual insertion. It’s where leading scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and military defender General Zod (Michael Shannon) have waged futile attempts to protect the populace from impending extermination, the result of environmental abuse the ruling aristocracy has failed to take seriously.
Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), have secretly conceived and born a son, Kal-El, whom they dispatch to Earth as Krypton explodes, carrying with him the planet’s “Codex” (global DNA) and a parting wish to “make a better world than ours was.” Furious General Zod brutally intervenes, but his actions and intentions aren’t yet fully revealed.
Kal-El, soon to be known as Clark Kent, makes a rough landing on Earth. So does Man of Steel, alas, which sets about hitting the standard Superman story marks with considerably less finesse than at the movie’s outset. Snyder’s propulsion hits the padding of an overstuffed story by screenwriter David S. Goyer (Blade) and producer Christopher Nolan of the rebooted Batman franchise.
We meet in due course Kal-El’s adoptive Earth parents, Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane); scoop-hungry newspaper reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams); her gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); and assorted military and government shouters who will soon be coping with an alien invasion and winner-take-all battle.
The good news is the casting is impeccable, beginning with Cavill as an uncommonly brooding but refreshingly deep Superman. The script doesn’t give him much to say, but it doesn’t need to. Every thought that crosses his brow registers him as a benign alien presence struggling to cope with a hostile new world, one that he can’t yet fully reveal himself to.
Shannon’s Zod has similar dramatic weight, being a villain more by circumstance than by intent. His zeal to protect and recreate Krypton violently exceeds his mandate, and the only thing missing from the portrayal is the wickedly dry humour that Shannon excels at.
Humour is rarer than kryptonite throughout Man of Steel, and that’s just part of the bad news about the film. It’s likely more Nolan’s fault than Snyder’s, since the one thing lacking from Nolan’s otherwise sterling The Dark Knight Rises last summer was the dark levity previously supplied by the late Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Man of Steel is almost too generous with the action set pieces, all of them set to Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score. You lose track of how many times either Superman or Zod slam each other into a building, which inevitably collapses under them, but you can count the film’s witty remarks on one hand.
Ditto for romance: the slowly developing connection between our shy leading man and Adams’ forthright Lois Lane is not exactly one for the cosmos, since he’s a beer-sipping introvert and she’s a whisky-shooting extrovert.
This is not the same as saying they’re not right for each other. Time will tell, and Man of Steel’s grandest achievement is making us care enough about all these characters that thoughts of the inevitable sequel beckon rather than repel.
Origin stories rarely achieve 100 per cent success, since there’s usually too much story to their origins. Man of Steel is no exception, but there’s reason to hope that future chapters will really lift us up, up and away.