I distinctly remember leaving the cinema after Superman Returns in 2006 with a sense of disappointment. It not only made Superman rather creepy, but it was terribly dull. With a plodding story and a slavish link to the Christopher Reeve films of the 70s and 80s, it left many questioning if Superman had a place in modern cinematic times.
Leaving the cinema yesterday (after a second viewing), there is now a clear answer to that question. Superman does have a place, though it isn’t what we expected.
DC have long struggled with transferring their stable of heroes to the big screen, with several aborted attempts. Batman, and in particular Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy were the main success, both commercially and critically. So it was unsurprising when Warner Bros. hired Nolan as producer, as well Batman scribe David S.Goyer, to get the biggest superhero of them all off the ground. In turn Zack Snyder was hired to direct, which led to another question. What type of film would we see? A grounded Nolan take or a bombastic and stylized Snyder movie?
Man of Steel gives us small, powerful character scenes alongside CGI heavy action scenes and really is a melding of the two. Most of the characters are given moments to shine, and those film goers who felt let down by the action free Superman Returns will find enough for several films.
Though it will is billed as a superhero film, it’s more a straight up sci-fi flick. The beginning especially as we are presented with a fully fleshed out Krypton, which is not only visually stunning but almost a short standalone film as we watch the events leading to baby Kal-El’s trip to Earth. In these scenes (in fact the whole film) Russell Crowe shines as Superman’s father Jor-El. Rather than merely a font of exposition, Crowe portrays a driven scientist who is willing to do what is best, and also very handy in a fight.
Kal-El is a lucky chap indeed, as not only is his biological Father fantastic, but his Earth father, played by Kevin Costner, matches Crowe’s performance in a much more sombre way. I understood (yet didn’t always agree with) his point of view and his performance really shines in the scenes with all the actors who portray Clark.
Which leads us to the Boy Scout himself. Henry Cavill’s entire presence exudes just the right amount of confidence, thoughtfulness and hope. His Superman, though clearly a rookie, is pitch perfect as a hero you will aspire too. From his physique to his smile he is Superman. Much credit must also be given to Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry as the younger Clarks. Both do a brilliant job accurately portrayal the loneliness and confusion he would feel.
Investigating a mysterious man travelling the word helping people, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), is a conundrum. We are hit over the head a bit with her being a great journalist, though she seems extremely willing to trust Clark. Adams does a decent enough job with what she is given, though she can come off cold at times. The way in which their relationship develops is so subtle that it almost doesn’t exist, until the film feels that something needs to happen and pushes it along jarringly.
On the villain front, a lot of attention has been given to Michael Shannon’s General Zod. Though truly evil, you understand his intention, which raises questions not only in the audience but in both Superman and his Father. Not quite up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker, but beyond anything in the Marvel films. Zod’s second in command Faora (Antje Traue) pushes Shannon close for not only her zeal in killing innocents but also the intensity of her overall performance.
Though many films nowadays let the military fade into the background once the heroes show up, kudos is deserved here as not only does Superman make an effort to work alongside them, but they make a real contribution to dealing with the menace provided by the rogue Kryptonians.
After two viewings I’m left with a few issues. For a film whose main character saves people, a hell of a lot of people die! Not to give too much away but there is a level of destruction seen here which puts Michael Bay to shame. Sat in my seat wondering if Superman could have done more was not a position I expected to be left in. Though I’m pleased that this time we actually get to see Superman punch things, it’s verging on too much as we have city wide destruction and thousands of lives lost. It’s exciting, and bar the odd scene with less than perfect CGI (you’d think we would have this fixed 20 years after Jurassic Park) it is very cool.
But sometimes a film needs to let itself breathe, and Man of Steel is so intent on giving the audience what they want, it forgets at times what they need. More time with Jonathan Kent and less time getting thrown through skyscrapers would have served the film well and helped it fly higher.
At last a Superman film I’m invested in, Man of Steel features not only the best Superman yet, but one that fits well with the world we now live in. Yes it stumbles a few times, but I believe that ultimately people will come to appreciate the choices it makes, especially once the inevitable sequels have been released. Those hoping for a perfect child from the Nolan/Snyder relationship won’t find that, but they will find a strong entry into this increasingly crowded genre.