Marvel is currently ridding what could be casually described as the “money train”, with the recent success of Iron Man 3 showing no signs of it slowing down. While Marvel has great characters, DC has icons and no other more famous and recognizable than the Man of Steel; Superman. With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the polar opposite farce that was Green Lantern, it’s no wonder then that this reboot gravitates towards the former in terms of somewhat darker style and ‘character-based set pieces’, with the said Batman director acting as producer. Yet while one tells the story of a man behind a cowl, the other is about a near invincible, super strong alien that can defy gravity… yes, a different story altogether. Enter 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder.
Henry Cavill stars as the technically non-titular character of Superman, referred to as Clarke Kent to Kal-El, but not so much as good old “supes”. It’s the classic comic book origin story with a few changes in details peppered throughout; Krypton is about to be destroyed, Jor-El (Russel Crowe) sends his son to another Earth where the different star environment grants the child super human abilities and of course not everyone is happy with this prospect. While it wouldn’t be unfounded to simply say “been there, done that”, with a character SO recognizable, a complete pulling of the rug from under this memorable prologue would actually be a crime, culturally. Instead it is the running message and overall tone that sets this adaptation apart, which is both its strength and its kryptonite.
Man of Steel clearly has its heart in the right place, emphasizing the reality of its other worldly character by the posing the big questions about what it means to be said “super”. The title itself is reflective of this, Cavill playing a “man” of steel, rather than simply just a super man, where even the mention of the original hero title is played for laughs. The film is at its most interesting when the focus is on its characters. Of particular note are the various flashbacks to Clarke Kent’s younger Smallvile years and his relationship with his adoptive father who is the catalyst for the character’s own ideals. This is carried by a memorable if not show stealing performance by Kevin Costner who seems to be the key to injecting a little humanity into this CG powerhouse. By the conclusion I’d be lying if I didn’t find the final flashback to highlight this best. The interactions between Cavill and Amy Adams as Lois Lane also does have a degree of believability to it, with Adams acting as a bridge between his sheltered side and the public hero.
It’s a shame then however as these scenes, as good as they are, are scattered in-between the running narrative, not only fragmenting the pace at times but also shining a light on what is an ever changing tone. It can be jarring when you prop up slow paced thoughtful dialogue next to bombastic action and scenery chewing. The script is trying to have it both ways as a character study and a summer blockbuster and when it comes down to it, sadly the latter always becomes the showpiece and has the potential to lessen any emotion the film makers were going for. To put it bluntly, it’s classic Zack Snyder where style is put over substance, even if the substance we get is actually the centre of the story.
But then again, its style is a whole other beast, but more on that later.
A recurring problem with the concept of Superman in cinema is if a character is larger than life with powers and stories far beyond that of reality, it can be difficult to shoot on a technical level. But this is the digital age and now is the perfect time to really show what Superman is made of. The plausible choice of first villain; General Zod levels the playing field by having another Kryptonian to test out our new incarnation. Even better however is the choice to cast Michael Shannon purely based on physical appearance alone, being the kind of man you would find intimidating with a soul-piecing stare even if he was being wholesome like taking his children to the zoo. Despite doing his fair share of the previously mentioned scenery chewing, Shannon appears to be having fun with the role, fun that’s injected straight back into the film making every scene he’s in a set piece in itself. The perfectly serviceable Russel Crowe as Jor-El is surprisingly prominent despite being dead following the first act, a disembodied presence briefly explained by Kryptonian science the same way you explain the unknown to a child to just to change the subject *waves hands around going oooooooo*. In addition to Shannon, his right hand lady Antje Traue also proves as an effective and memorable villain, if only to act as mini-boss when the action begins to be turned up to 11.
Snyder clearly has a spot for the elaborate set piece and with fights where every punch results in the collapse of a building; the result is what you’d expect, about as subtle as a getting tackled through a falling satellite… which happens in the film by the way. Problem is, when you consider that the audience is supposed to care for our characters up to this point, when Metropolis is getting pounded up, down and side to side, no doubt causing untold numbers of causalities in the process, that previous element of humanity from the first two thirds is lost amongst all the fire and rubble. Instead it seems to be expecting me to suddenly turn my brain off, if only because I got bored then I suppose it worked. While the visual spectacle of seeing super humans throw one another miles back and forth through buildings does a have a flare to it, being a succession of grand spectacles that is sure to please, when the final show down came I felt it was over staying its welcome having dwelled on it for nearly 40 minutes, made worse by the genuinely effective character moment that came by the very end of it, reminding me about the large gap in between. I'm glad that the true power of Superman has been well represented on the big screen, apparently just not as much as the filmmakers.
As the credits ran, I wondered just where this reboot could be taken next. On one hand I felt is had been a success, with Cavill acting the part, perfectly serviceable supporting roles including a couple of standout performances and a new sense of perspective on the character. Yet I also wonder if Snyder has gone all in too soon. Heavy action in a super hero film is not expected, it’s mandatory yet when I’m more interested in the character development than Dragon Ball-style showdown, a balance is in dire need. The overall experience is an enjoyable if noticeably flawed one. Warner Brothers clearly wants this to be a success and should be told as such for what they have produced nonetheless. Where they take the character next is ripe with possibilities, I just hope they realise that they are in the man part of it and not the super.
Now then… Wonder Woman?
Also starring Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Meloni.