BRYAN Singer’s attempt to bring DC Comics’ Superman back to the big screen with 2006’s Superman Returns was derided by audiences who had been pre-conditioned by Christopher ‘The Dark Knight’ Nolan to expect their superheroes to be dark and gritty.
Part of the film’s flimsy emotional core hinges on Clark’s relationships with both of his fathers. This is where it falls short.
It’s apt then that Nolan is on board as producer and story consultant for writer/director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a stripped-back origins tale that’s heavy on the grit and easy on the humour.
In the last days of planet Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife send their new-born son, Kal-El, to earth where they know he will be granted god-like powers by its yellow sun. The boy is found by Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who name him Clark and raise him as their own, though it’s clear he’s anything but human.
In his pre-Superman/bumbling reporter days, the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) keeps a low profile but his heroic deeds and quest to find out who he really is bring him to the attention of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Unfortunately, she isn’t the only one on his trail.
General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his fellow remaining Kryptons have followed him to earth. They threaten to destroy the entire planet if Kal-El doesn’t reveal himself. Clark is forced to choose between the secretive life Jonathan wanted for him, and the man Jor-El envisioned him to be.
Probably the baddie
Snyder delivered an atypical superhero film with Watchmen, so it isn’t surprising that with Batman’s writer/director team David S Goyer and Nolan on script duties Man of Steel isn’t your average origins film.
To date, Snyder has offered us some pretty gluttonous visual feasts for our eyes. His battles are always lavishly depicted, from the Spartan blood-fest 300 (2006) to the glossy alternative realities of Sucker Punch (2011). There’s no doubting Snyder’s capacity for producing the kind of relentless, awe-inspiring action that pushes the very limits of 3D capabilities. His Man of Steel is no exception.
Once General Zod and Co. arrive in earth’s orbit, the film plays like one extended action scene that takes place in – and destroys – several vast settings. Superman and Zod and his cronies toss each other around like ragdolls in a giant playground of towns and cities that crumple beneath their touch. Tankers are used as weapons. Entire skyscrapers collapse at the barest nudge of a Kryptonian elbow. The action sequences are truly incredible.
However, while other superhero films - Singer’s X2 (2003) and the recent X-Men: First Class, and even Raimi-era Spiderman – balanced action with plenty of heart, Snyder’s offering is sadly lacking. His reboot’s certainly not as dark as Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but this is a relatively humourless film that puts action before character, and, as a result, it’s hard to care about some of the best-loved characters on page and screen.
Brit Cavill’s Clark Kent certainly looks the part of the all-American hero with his abs of steel and icy blues, but – some cursory soul-searching aside – he’s a two-dimensional archetype. His relationship with Lois Lane appears perfunctory and only the interactions with Diane Lane’s excellent matriarch offer any real emotional punch. When he’s asked repeatedly about his true identity, it’s easy to wonder whether there is anything left to reveal.
Part of the film’s flimsy emotional core hinges on Clark’s relationships with both of his fathers. This is where it falls short. Crowe is fine as the ever-present Jor-El but the conflict between the Kryptonian’s grand intentions for his son and Jonathan Kent’s desire for Clark’s safety is never really played out, with Costner’s role lost in mawkish and sadly brief flashbacks.
Amy Adams as revealing reporter Lois Lane
Adams proves gutsy in her role as investigative reporter Lois Lane, but once her part is reduced to damsel in distress and insipid love interest, it becomes harder to justify her involvement in a scene. This is mostly down to the fact that the majority of the film is an ongoing battle between Kryptonians, rather than any failure on Adams’ part, who has had much more challenging performances demanded of her in recent years (The Fighter, The Master).
The standout performance comes from Shannon. Zod should be your standard-model Big Bad, but thanks to Shannon’s performance Zod’s cold fury and villainous lines are underpinned with a gravitas that belies the usual run-of-the-mill villainy. To really experience Shannon at his vicious best, see The Iceman (out now), where he plays real-life serial killer Richard Kuklinski with alarmingly believable cold-hearted malice.
There’s still plenty to love here. Krypton is more realised than we’ve seen before on film, with winged beasts and technology as incomprehensible as it is beautiful. The CG is practically seamless. Superman’s X-Ray and heat vision is awesome. The Fortress of Solitude is reinvented.
There are points to the future and it looks promising. Laurence Fishburne is introduced but underused as Daily Planet’s Editor-in-Chief Perry White. LuthorCorp’s presence makes itself known. Now that the origin story has been dealt with, Superman’s The Dark Knight stage beckons. As an opening gambit, this makes for an enjoyable summer blockbuster that lacks depth but more than delivers on its action quota.
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