Man of Steel combines the origin story from Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 film version with the Zod storyline in that film’s sequel, but it sacrifices many of those films’ most important elements in the process. Superman doesn’t moonlight as a journalist at the Daily Planet, and Lois Lane uncovers his otherworldly origins early on, so there’s no intrigue concerning his secret identity, which added to the duality of his character. Also, since there’s not much flirtation between Lois and Clark before she finds him out, their relationship is nonexistent; you have no idea why these two are drawn to each other. In the original films, Clark was a bumbling journalist who overcompensated for his inherent lack of human DNA by acting like a klutz, while Lois was a cagey journo who viewed him as a lovable goof, and the opposites attracted. Here, Superman isn’t human at all. Not only is the relationship with Lois MIA, but he also has precious few friendly interactions—or dialogue, period—with the people he’s sacrificing himself for. The comic-book Superman—and Christopher Reeve’s famous portrayal—saw him saving folks with a wink and a smile. A part of Superman always got off on being the hero, the protector, the “god” to these people. In Man of Steel, there’s no clue as to why this brooding, relatively humorless alien wants to save these people, aside from the fact that his daddy told him to.
It’s also become readily apparent that Snyder, known for the CGI fantasies 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch, has become a bit blinded by the wonders of CGI. Man of Steel’s final third is almost exclusively high-octane action sequences of buildings being destroyed—usually by having someone hurled through them (I can’t stress this enough, it’s constant). We’ve seen this footage countless times before, in the Transformers films and, most recently, The Avengers.
To say that Man Of Steel wastes no time setting things up would be no exaggeration. We're straight into a really high-tech Krypton, with a surprisingly low-tech delivery room, as the latest take on the son of Jor-El is born into the world. Jor-El this time is Russell Crowe, a more agile man than Marlon Brando was, and thus Snyder has him swimming, jumping and looking stern in double quick time.
In fact, it feels as if Snyder's foot is rammed against the accelerator for the first chunk of the film. It's basically the same story that Richard Donner filmed that we're being told for the most part, albeit louder and with more crayons available to its director. Furthermore, in the early stages, Snyder's Man Of Steel quickly suggests a much darker, more sombre tone than we've seen from big screen Superman before, and that proves indicative of what's to follow. Those Dark Knight influences are not hard to spot.
Make no mistake: this is a serious take on the character, with the lightness and humour of previous movies long gone. You almost end up overcompensating with a guffaw when the few hints of humour are allowed to shine through. Even characters previously toyed with a little for fun, such as Daily Planet editor Perry White (now in the guise of Laurence Fishburne), are now part of the darker world that's put across here. If it all feels a bit un-Superman in that regard (certainly in the big screen sense, although comics are a different story), then that's clearly very much the intention.
Much of the darkness comes from the villanous acts of General Zod, and here's where Snyder and writer David S Goyer firmly plot their own path. They invest a lot in Zod, keen to put across the reason why he's the nasty, unflinching man we meet at the start of the film. As with lots of Man Of Steel, the character development comes in dribs and drabs, and not in chronological order (Kevin Costner's underused Jonathan Kent is the biggest casualty of this decision), but it's firmly there. And in the shape of Michael Shannon, Man Of Steel has a villain who you genuinely believe has real conviction. You'll struggle to name a single one of his cohorts by the time the credits roll, but Shannon's Zod is very clearly a force to be reckoned with.
Here’s a superhero who almost dares not speak his name: the “S” inscribed on his chest doesn’t stand for Superman after all, it’s the Krypton symbol for “hope”. That is the messianic burden by which this overlong but not disagreeable reboot defines itself.
The man of steel will save the earth, but first he must bide his time. Just as Christopher Nolan (who produces here) did with Batman, Zack Snyder (300) presides over a creation myth: Superman is sent into space by his father, played by Russell Crowe as if he were God Himself, and thus escapes the environmental cataclysm that destroys his home planet Krypton.
He also narrowly avoids the clutches of the rebel general Zod (Michael Shannon), who will return with a vengeance for the story’s finale. It’s in the flashbacks of the long middle section that the film makes its mark.
Clark Kent, played with square-jawed introspection by Brit Henry Cavill, drifts from job to job, trying to keep a lid on his awesome powers out of respect for his adoptive father (Kevin Costner), who believes they will make him a target for evil.
When Clark’s hand is forced and he does save earthlings - drowning schoolkids, oil-riggers trapped by fire - the combination of shock and wonder is impressively handled.
His anonymity is finally blown by Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams with a pert sexiness and no little self-esteem (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter”, she reminds her editor, non-endearingly).
The film loses itself in the last 45 minutes, with fist-fights between Superman and his foes that destroy half the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and half the hearing in my ears. Snyder flouts a simple rule: one explosion can be exciting; one hundred will be quite boring.
Fast forward 35 years and Superman is a very different beast: a lone voice for truth, justice and the American way with an expensive, uninspired attempt at a reboot – 2006's Superman Returns – behind it, and a cinematic universe currently overrun by Marvel's pop art team movies.
Well, hopes are high for Man of Steel. Directed by Watchmen's Zack Snyder, and produced and conceived by The Dark Knight Rises' Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel treads a familiar route at first: Superman – as he is almost never called in this film – is born as his home planet Krypton is disintegrating into civil war and environmental catastrophe, and is sent into space by his father Jor-El just ahead of Krypton's destruction.
Russell Crowe, with a plummy English accent as thick as a cupboard, plays the self-sacrificing father; he does rather well in the complicated opening scenes, which simultaneously introduce the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon), Krypton's rather zany liquid-metal communication-devices, and a visual style that smothers everything in a kind of irradiated backlit CGI.
It's when we get to Earth that Man of Steel starts to take on its distinctive shape. Clark Kent – played by Henry Cavill with a permanent little worry-frown in the middle of his forehead – is revealed as a rootless drifter, blundering from one low-paid job to another in a frustrating battle to keep his taunters unbattered, his rescuees oblivious, and his inner demons placated.
A series of sharp flashbacks show the roots of his emotional malaise: an adoptive father (Kevin Costner) who is pre-emptively convinced his boy will be hated and feared for his gifts.
This, it would seem, is Nolan's principal innovation for this Superman: reminiscent, perhaps, of Batman Begins, this is superheroism as a burden, and a burden transformed into neurosis.
The scenes where little Clark begins to discover his special powers are rather impressive to behold – he's baffled, and traumatised by the unwelcome intrusion of x-ray vision or laser-like heat beams from his eyes.
It's this early part of the film that is most successful; Nolan and Snyder, along with scriptwriter David S Goyer, have created a plausible context for the introspection and self-doubt that dogs the adult version of their costumed warrior.
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