Man of Steel
As might be expected of a reboot, the plot of Man of Steel is not entirely unfamiliar territory. Beginning on the far away world of Krypton, we witness a society in crisis. With the planet’s core crumbling and leaders stubbornly refusing to accept it, chief scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) decides to take matters into his own hands, stealing the planet’s genetic codex before sending it and his infant son Kal to the safety of Earth. Meanwhile, the commander of Krypton’s military, General Zod (Michael Shannon), stages a failed coup against the government, leading to his imprisonment in the off-planet Phantom Zone. When Krypton explodes soon after, Kal-El is safe, but so too is Zod – determined to attain the codex and restore the Kryptonian race, no matter the cost.
For the next 33 years (Messiah anyone?) Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a name given to him by his adoptive Earth parents Jonathan and Martha (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). It is far from an easy journey. Baffled by his possession of abilities he cannot understand, Clark is quick to discover that he does not belong. With Jonathan insistent that Clark should conceal his secret rather than risk rejection, he becomes a drifter, travelling North America under a series of aliases whilst he desperately seeks his purpose.
It is the perfect approach to take. With the back-and-forth chronological structure shifting between Clark’s adult life and his childhood, we see an innate desire to help others juxtaposed with the need to remain anonymous; the very formation of the superhero ethos. Interestingly, where Superman’s alien nature previously made the character seem invincible, here it does the opposite, the isolation of his travels allowing him to appear vulnerable, like humanity should be the ones protecting him. Enter Lois Lane, hot on the trail of an urban legend. Played wonderfully by Amy Adams, Lois as envisioned screenwriter David S. Goyer is finally the sort of determined, fearless and experienced reporter we can imagine having won a Pulitzer – a far cry from Kate Bosworth’s 23 year-old wunderkind in Superman Returns. The writing decisions made in setting-up her future relationship with Clark may upset some fans, but it’s difficult to deny that the dynamic makes sense for this modernised take on the tale.
But if that all sounds a little self-reflective, don’t worry: Snyder knows that Superman wouldn’t be Superman without somebody to punch. And boy, does he punch hard! With the battle between Supes and Zod’s invading forces making up the entirety of the third act, it’s thrilling to finally see the character given the kind of action scenes he deserves. Girders are swung, vehicles are thrown, bodies fly through buildings and it all looks fantastic. Not only have Snyder and Goyer thought of interesting ways for Kryptonians to fight, but the effects department have realised them superbly (and thankfully without Snyder’s usual wearisome reliance on slow motion). Yet that’s not all the technical team need credit for, with the introductory vision of Krypton proving equally arresting. A world where fields of exotic creatures lie side-by-side with sleek cityscapes and flying shuttles, this is the kind of fully formed sci-fi society the Star Wars prequels can only wish they’d had.
Yet even with so much to be impressed by (heck, even Superman’s vulnerability to his home planet doesn’t seem silly any more), still the film does not feel quite as definitive as it could. Casting isn’t to blame. Sure, Shannon’s Zod isn’t Hall of Fame material, but he handles rage fuelled snarling like a pro, and both Costner and Crowe shine in their fatherly roles – one deeply affecting, the other a rousing and surprisingly physical presence. Meanwhile Cavill handles the pressure of his role with ease. American accent primed, body honed and lonely stare perfected, he is the very encapsulation of restrained power; when he flies for the first time, you’ll smile just as much as he does.
But perhaps a sense of ease is just the problem. Clark makes major sacrifices to spend his life in the shadows, yet when he puts on the suit the conflict is gone. He is Superman. His readiness to take on the role makes sense – Clark Kent has always been the disguise, not the other way around – but with this moment occurring even before the catalyst of Zod’s arrival, one can’t help but feel that Kal-El’s realisation of his destiny is a rather casual affair. The result is a film that, though highly enjoyable, lacks an iconic moment; a Man of Steel that is undeniably solid, but not quite a cast iron classic.