Warning: This review may contain spoilers!
Man of Steel arrives with a great weight of expectation on its shoulders. It’s a reinvention of a much loved character, a brand new take on the world’s first superhero. The last cycle of Superman films started in 1978 with Richard Donner’s Superman, while Bryan Singer updated that world with 2006’s Superman Returns, but this is a rebirth of Krypton’s last son.
We live in a time when the superhero film is the leading genre in modern cinema. Comic book adaptations have been sure-things at the box office; many have been successful though some have crashed and burned. Superman has long been a difficult character to update to modern tastes. He’s too clean cut, too noble. He lacks the darkness of Batman, the joie de vivre of Iron Man or the teen angst of Spider-Man. Warner Bros. handed the reins to Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder, men who have made some of the most financially and critically acclaimed comic book adaptations of all times (The Dark Knight trilogy, 300 and Watchmen). The trio have successfully brought Superman back to the screen, updating the legend, yet staying true to the character’s core. It’s a movie that works on many levels, but it also has moments where it falters.
Man of Steel gets a lot right. The casting of Henry Cavill as Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent is spot-on. He brings the right notes of heroism and earnestness to the role, as well as embodying the physical presence of the character. Superman Returns saw Brandon Routh (successfully) following in the footsteps of Christopher Reeve, but Cavill takes a fresh approach. He has to be commended for this interpretation of the character.
The film charts the Superman origin story in a non-linear fashion (like Batman Begins), offering a unique slant on the story. It covers many of the plot points from the Donner films, but gives it much more of a sci-fi orientated spin. The Krypton of Man of Steel has more in common with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels than the icy crystal landscapes of Donner’s world. In fact, there are many elements of the Krypton scenes that are very reminiscent of Lucas’s second trilogy of Star Wars films. The gunships, creature design, inter-galactic politics (and even some CGI camera work) brings to mind Attack of the Clones. Could now be the time when Lucas’ Star Wars prequels have started to feed into the filmmaking psyche like the original films did?
Few actors would be able to replace Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s birth father, but Russell Crowe manages to do it. He adds gravitas to the character and his role is much bigger than you would expect (but more on that later). Kevin Costner is Man of Steel’s emotional core. He brings the baggage of his onscreen persona to Jonathan Kent. It’s an underplayed and small role, but he’s the beating heart of the film, and he gives it its humanity.
Lois Lane has never been a character that has translated well to the screen. On the surface, it looks like Amy Adams has been miscast as The Daily Planet’s fearless reporter. However, Adams manages to get across the right amount of bravery and weakness. She’s one of the film’s main surprises. Michael Shannon brings enough sneering anger to Zod, a general who takes his earthbound mission very, very personally. The film left me hankering for more Laurence Fishburne, and I’m hoping that Man of Steel 2 will be much more focused on The Daily Planet and its employees.
Man of Steel has some great special effects – you really will believe a man can fly. The epic battles between Superman and his fellow Kryptonians are on an epic scale. Too epic. The sheer amount of onscreen devastation is off the cinematic chart. It makes the climaxes of The Avengers and Transformers 3 look small scale. It’s an exhausting eyeball fusing cacophony of CGI. Just because you can show something in the screen, doesn’t mean that you should. It would look much more impressive if there had been less of it. Do you really need to show the destruction of 100 buildings when you’ve already shown the destruction of 10? The man-to-man battles between Superman and Zod are much more human scale, they’re personal.
Hans Zimmer was in a difficult position with his score. The John Williams theme has become so iconic that the film misses its grandeur. Zimmer has some great musical motifs (when they can be heard above the action), but it doesn’t quite match up to his work on the Batman films. He touches the same emotional areas that Williams did, but you can also sense that he’s too afraid to go there. A great theme would have connected the disparate elements of Man of Steel and unified them, bringing the action and the drama together as one.
One of the greatest parts of Man of Steel is the use of Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. However, it’s also one of the plot’s greatest flaws. Jor-El is able to interact with characters from beyond the grave. He can have meaningful dialogue with his son, Lois and Zod. This leads to some great moments for Crowe (and a fun action sequence), but it takes away the haunting emotion of Superman/Clark/Kal-El’s relationship with his father. They could (hypothetically) sit-down, have a beer and shoot the breeze.
Man of Steel is a great event movie and it puts the world of Superman in a strong position for future films. Henry Cavill has a wonderful career ahead of him playing this character and the tone that Snyder et al have taken means that we would potentially see the Man of Steel interact with other characters from the DC universe. However, Man of Steel is far from a great movie. Its best moments are the smaller ones, the human scenes, but the over use of CGI and mindless action during the last act makes it something of a generic blockbuster. A shame, but I suppose that’s to be expected these days.