After the trailblazing financial and artistic success of The Dark Knight Trilogy, it was inevitable that studio executives would hastily eye up the potential for D.C. Comics’s other icon to return to the silver screen. In fact none other than geek deity Christopher Nolan is taking a the role of producer, and Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer has carried on his duties here. Elements of this film do feel more in line with the angst-ridden saga of Bruce Wayne ahead of the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Tony Stark and Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, a tone which many will feel is more natural for Superman, bright red cape and all.
The film is strong on solemn voice overs and childhood flashbacks which effectively outline Man of Steel‘s focus on the mythology of Superman, and the burden of being a compete outsider. As the trailers have indicated, Clark Kent or Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is both freak and god to the ordinary citizens of Middle America, and several scenes depicting Clark Kent’s attempts to hide his burgeoning powers expertly build the anticipation to his discovery of his Kryptonian heritage via the consciousness of his alien father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who is seen at the start of the film sending baby Kal to Earth to escape from both Krypton’s oncoming apocalypse and the intimidating renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon). This sets up the story which follows the template of superhero origin movies set out by both Spider-Man in terms of the wise surrogate parents here played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and the extravagant science-fiction action scenes in which the hero tries to gain the trust of the government and military that were seen in Thor and Avengers Assemble.
It is this sci-fi element that vastly distinguishes Man of Steel from Nolan’s Batman films, and indeed director Zack Snyder’s vision creates a whole different animal. Snyder certainly has never lacked for talent when it comes to blockbusters with a striking visual style as seen in 300 and Watchmen, and he may have surpassed himself here, along with cinematographer Amir Mokri, with the grandeur in which he showcases not only the fantastical world of Krypton with its strange semi-organic machines but also the gritty, dust-filled Kansas in which Clark comes of age. The hyper-kinetic action scenes means that even if your mileage is low on appreciating flying aliens pummeling each other or slow-moving humans saved at the last second, you can at least appreciate the energy of Man of Steel.
This talent may indicate Synder was an excellent choice as director, but the flaws in Watchmen and 300 are still very much in evidence. Snyder’s skill seems to be from they eyes out, rather than at achieving any real warmth or humour within the story. Indeed the comedic asides in the dialogue are painfully stilted, whilst the romance between Superman and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) seems to have been shoehorned in. Furthermore it is very tough to swallow the amount of expositional dialogue that supporting characters spout such as Lois Lane’s exasperated line, “I’m a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter!” that sorely cried out for a script polish.
However a Superman film is naturally not the most obvious source for nuanced dialogue and character shading but at least the key roles are filled out capably, first and foremost by relative unknown Henry Cavill, who is a great improvement on the blank Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006 in case you forgot), and seems to have the charisma that one would gain from having two dads played by former Robin Hoods. On the subject of which, both Crowe and Costner anchor the film with much-needed gravitas, of which both actors seemed to have grown into with middle age. Meanwhile the always brilliant, bug-eyed Michael Shannon is wonderfully suited to the demented yet strangely noble Zod.
Man of Steel has not mounted a serious challenge to the quality and complexity of the Dark Knight Trilogy, and indeed the movie is hardly subtle in its execution but Snyder’s enthusiasm for the source material is somewhat infectious and the epic scope of the story is impressive, aided by Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. Although it will not shake you to your core, it is still a spectacular event movie of which there are increasingly few to match its ambition.
Man of Steel (2013), directed by Zack Snyder, is released in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below.