Superman has never been the most interesting superhero. Despite being arguably the most well-known superhuman in twenty first century pop culture, the perfect, all-American alien is somewhat hampered by the fact that he is, in essence, a god. Bullets bounce off him, explosions to the face may as well be a cool breeze on a warm day and he has even reversed time by flying around the world.
His image of a breezy, bright boy scout also has little place in a cinema landscape that was completely changed by Brian Singer’s X-Men films at the turn of the decade and was further hammered home in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008. Both showed that darker superhero films could work, and the result was big bucks at the box office.
Although Christopher Reeve’s earnest, slightly geeky Superman connected with audiences in the classic seventies films, now the game has changed. Superheroes are dark. Superheroes are intense. Above all, superheroes are serious. Superheroes do NOT wear vivid red Y-fronts and tights, and the classic Superman films are very much left in the past in Man of Steel.
WATCH: Final theatrical trailer for Man of Steel
Producer Christopher Nolan helped write the story along with The Dark Knight scribe David Goyer, and his influence clearly shows, as the film takes the same approach to Superman in Man of Steel that was taken with Batman in The Dark Knight. That being: how would these superheroes function in the real world?
While this approach worked well for Batman, it was difficult to see how Superman would translate. At least Batman dies when you shoot him in the face. Superman can take a nuke with spikes and poisonous snakes growing out of it to the back of the head and stroll away without a scratch.
The film chronicles Superman’s origin, starting out with his birth on Krypton and details the fall of the planet. His father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, is trying to convince the Krypton government that the planet is dying. Before he can, military leader General Zod, played by Michael Shannon, leads a rebellion against his own people and kills Jor-El.
For his crimes, Zod and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone, which, both conveniently and ironically, saves them during their planet’s destruction. Baby Superman (mostly referred to very seriously as Kal-El) is then sent to Earth to be raised by Ma and Pa Kent, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. There he is given a proper corn chewing, cotton-picking rural upbringing before Zod returns after 33 years to threaten the Earth, leaving it up to Superman to stop him.
Director Zack Snyder, best known for the visual spectacle that was 300, does a good job grounding the fantastical world of Superman, keeping him somewhat relatable despite his god-like abilities. We see the Man of Steel, played by Henry Cavill, being bullied as a child, getting given out to by his father, waiting crummy tables at a down and out restaurant. This all helps to make Superman seem more like a man, and less like a god-alien.
LISTEN: Director Zack Snyder talks about the direction he wanted to take with Superman in Man of Steel
Cavill is a fine choice for the role, and handles the part admirably. He plays it completely straight, and his buff physique and no-nonsense attitude lend a slightly harder edge to the role than what Reeve brought to it in his iconic performance. He also displays a surprising lightness of touch, such as the first time Superman flies in the film. His laugh of pure joy before he comes crashing down to earth helps lend some humanity to an otherwise flawless and holier-than-thou individual.
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However, besides Cavill and Cosner, who brings a very genuine warmth to Pa Kent, there is relatively little character development to speak of. The iconic reporter Lois Lane for example, played by Amy Adams, is given little to do in the film besides have things explained to her by other characters. Although Adams is a fine actress and tries her best, the romance between herself and Cavill seems hurried, and the two have about as much chemistry as a pair of dolls being rubbed against each other in a sex education class.
While the characters can be slightly shallow, the action is spectacular. Snyder is consistently acclaimed as a visual director, and nowhere is this better shown than in the films many, many action scenes. Sometimes you just want to watch s*** blow up on screen, and Man of Steel has that in abundance. There’s ‘splosions EVERYWHERE.
The action is well shot, moves at a good pace and shows the level of destruction that there should be when super-powered aliens show down, although it goes on a bit long and wears slightly during the films third act.
FINAL VERDICT: Snyder has accomplished a great deal with Man of Steel, humanising Kal-El and updating him for a modern audience. It is a shame that most of the side characters get short changed, and a small injection of humour would have been welcome, as the film is more serious than a terminal illness. However, despite some issues, Superman still manages to soar.