Man of Steel
Krypton had its chance, so says the almost never-named Superman during one of his confrontations with General Zod in this new outing. From one point of view, you might agree with him; what place does Superman have in this modern world of gloomy, introspective Batmen and billion-dollar Avengers? Poor old Kal-El is too good, too god-like, too selfless and uncomplex to really grab. He is, for want of a better word, bland; even with his dead parents and lost world. He needs interesting villains and less interesting weaknesses to make his stories stand out. Nevertheless, after the underrated flop that was Superman Returns and the disastrous Quest for Peace, Zak Snyder and Christopher Nolan have once more decided to step into the Kryptonian breach.
Before I discuss plot, acting, direction or sound, there is one thing you should know about Man of Steel. It sets out to blow you away. The action set pieces, of which there are a large number, are humungous carnivals of special effects, explosions, buiding collapses and extra-terrestrial beat downs. The film starts with Russell Crowe's Jor-El flying a dragon across a massive Kryptonian sky battle, through explosions and weapons fire, and the film barely slows down after this. Superman gets a train thrown at him. Half of Metropolis is levelled. Man of Steel is almost the last word in summer blockbuster. More explosions. More special effects. More super-punches. It is almost worth the entrance fee to sit there slack jawed.
This is not to say though that the film has no plot and it is in this area that we most see the influence of Nolan (producing) and his screenwriter, David Goyer. The film asks what is would be like, how people would react, if they suddenly discovered an indestructible alien living in their midst. How would it be for him? Born during Zod's attempted coup on Krypton, he is cast away from that world aswell, his father knowing that the planet is doomed and believing that his son (the first natural born Kryptonian in centuries) can guide us humans into the future.
Jor-El doesn't count on two factors though, humanity and General Zod. The former won't let Clarke be, laughing at his strange outbursts and wondering at the miracles he tries to perform. His adopted father Jonathan, deliciously underplayed by Kevin Costner, tries to protect him, to convince him that humanity aren't ready for the revelation of his existence. Clarke is admonished for saving his schoolfriends and warned off helping others in dire need. This is all before General Zod and his cronies, freshly escaped from the Phantom Zone, show up and set up an interplanetary show down. To save us, Supes has to don the cape and fight it out.
At the heart of every Superman film lies the key performance of the guy in the cape. His is perhaps more key than the leading role in any other superhero movie; he doesn't get to wear a mask or drive cool stuff or even team up with anyone. The burden is carried admirably in Man of Steel by British actor Henry Cavill. He brings both a boyish charm but also an undercurrent of (yes) steel to Kal-El's tortured journey. Villainous General Zod and noble Jor-El are also well cast, with Michael Shannon bringing a bruising charisma to his scenes. Amy Adams also proves solid casting as Lois Lane, it is one of the few let downs that her role is underwritten. Supporting roles are a mixed bag, although no-one really lets the side down too badly.
All this is held together by Zak Snyder, the man who turned 300 into a polemic about freedom, delivered by the armed representatives of a slave-owning police state. He just about succeeded with Watchmen but then flopped again with Sucker Punch. Snyder is no stranger then to comic book movies and I have to say that he really has achieved what he set out to with Man of Steel. It is grand, operatic and huge but one never misses the human beats during all the set piece showdowns. The film seems the perfect fit for its director, perhaps because it is not as subtle a text as Watchmen or 300 were. Snyder has also chosen, if he chose him, the right composer for his film, the score is stunning.
There is one major criticism that you can level at Man of Steel and it is the same one that you could target at a whole slew of modern reboots (Star Trek), remakes and adaptations (Sherlock Holmes), that their original soul has gone. Superman used to have a sense of innocence and wonder, he used to save people and not get all introspective about what their reaction might be. These were the qualities that Superman Returns had, which we seem to have lost with this 2013 take on the character. Perhaps this take is more realistic, perhaps even in the fifties the response of people and governments would have been one of fear and mistrust of this god-like alien. Comic book worlds though are not necessarily the real world and one feels a little sad that such innocent pleasures have been swallowed up in watching Sub-Commander Faora smash up a platoon of soldiers.
I only thought about the above after leaving the cinema, much as I did after watching Star Trek Into Darkness. Such concerns can be left to one side; with Star Trek because they have stayed faithful to the original characters if skewing towards a more cinemtic, less nuanced take on the future and with Superman for sheer spectacle and joy. Sure the purists will moan about this new slant on Kal-El, critics will drone on about the endless action and CG or the lack of humanity, but I couldn't give two hoots. Man of Steel is epic entertainment with a subtle heart and intelligence. It will make you gasp, smile and grip the edge of your seat. It's epic.