The film currently dominating the box-office, Man of Steel, sees Superman imagined for a new, grittier audience. Superman is one of the most iconic comic book characters and one of the most difficult to portray on screen. There’s a few reasons for this – the character is dated, existing as a slice of wholesome Americana, and modern audiences don’t react well to his Apple-pie and boy-scout tone. He lacks flaws and internal conflict; Superman is an unstoppable god, driven by a need to do good for the sake of doing good, and unlike Batman, who is haunted by his parents’ death, Superman lacks motivation.
Audiences don’t know what makes the character tick, and so past attempts to bring Superman to the big screen have been flawed – with the 70s Richard Donner movies now coming across as dated and cheesy, save for the excellent performance from Christopher Reeve, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns little more than a weak homage to the past. Warner Brothers have attempted to reboot the franchise numerous times over the years – including, and deadly serious here, a version involving Nic Cage fighting a giant spider – but it wasn’t until comic-book adaptation king Christopher Nolan stepped in, fresh on the wave of his critically successfull Dark Knight Trilogy, that the franchise was given the push it needed. And so with Nolan producing and action-oriented Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, we’re presented with Man of Steel – a Superman for the modern age and without a doubt, the hero’s best screen appearance to date.
Everyone knows the story here, though it’s slightly reshuffled this time around. Krypton is on its last legs, and so Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his son Kal-El to Earth for the chance to start again. Said son grows up into Clark Kent/Superman/Henry Cavill, meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and struggles to find his place in a world which doesn’t quite understand him. As this occurs, Kryptonian war-criminal General Zod (Michael Shannon) makes his way to Earth looking for Kal-El with revenge/real estate on his mind. Superman doesn’t take kindly to Zod’s terraforming schemes, and epic battles ensue.
What’s first noticeable about Man of Steel is how much it seeks to distance itself from the Donner movies. The corny, all-American wholesome tone is gone; this is a considerably darker Superman, light on comedy, and the material is taken more seriously. We understand the rules of this Superman – we know this time round, why he’s so strong, why Kryptonite hurts him, all ideas which were likely in the comics but have never been adequately explained on screen before. More importantly, we’re given a far greater insight into Superman as a character. He’s an alien god who struggles with duality, torn between his powers and his morality. It’s the Kents (excellently played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) who shape Superman and make him human. His conflict comes from balancing his need to help others with the need to hide his true identity. For the first time, we’re given a more realistic approach to how America would react when confronted with an all-powerful, foreign god-figure. People fear Cavill’s Superman, for they don’t understand him. We really get the sense in Man of Steel of Superman’s alien heritage – he feels other worldly, and the approach works.
All of this is helped by Henry Cavill, he’s a likeable hero, very easy on the eyes, and comes with a great sense of justice and anger. The elements of duality give Cavill more to work with, and he fits into the role well, playing Superman with a slightly darker, more tormented edge than before. Some will argue that such an approach was not needed for Superman, but it serves to make him a more flawed and interesting character. The glee on his face when he is finally allowed to let loose and punch Zod says a lot. This is a character torn by his identity – Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman – and this conflict makes him a more endearing character; the audience can understand him. His need to do good, despite the damage it may cause to himself, is fascinating.
Cavill is backed up by Amy Adams who finally plays Lois Lane right – this is a smarter, competent Lois, finally worthy of her Pulitzer, and crucially, she’s much more integral to the plot this time. There are of course the standard falling-damsel-in-distress moments, but for the most part, Lois has a lot more to do in this movie, and Adams and Cavill have great chemistry together – even if the script essentially assigns them couple status before the characters naturally get there. Shannon is a good villain – more of a character this time around, he does bad with good intentions, always thinking of what’s best for his people, and his terraforming scheme is suitably bigger in scale than Lex Luthor’s plans in past movies. It fits more with the Superman character. Shannon is icy and threatening and backed up Antje Traue’s sexily sinister Faora, whilst Laurence Fishburne is a likeable Perry White and Russell Crowe is a protective and wise Jor-El in the wings.
Not all of the movie works, and the beginning sections especially are poor. The opening scenes on Krypton, suitably alien and with a hint of Star Wars, go on for far too long and keep us from getting to the actual story. Once we’re with Cavill, the opening, Batman Begins-esque origin story, told out of sequence, makes Man of Steel feel disjointed and clumsy. The opening scenes don’t flow and seem like a cheat, providing big set pieces without character development and plot to get in the way. There’s some very clumsy dialogue at times, a few plot holes (we know why Superman has his powers, so why does Zod?) and some poor exposition – the opening scene, which we’ve already spent a considerable amount of time watching, is explained by Jor-El for a second time. This stops the movie dead.
The movie works then, in terms of sheer spectacle and scope. Finally, we have the special efforts to portray Superman’s powers as, well, super. The sheer epic scale of this movie, particularly in the climatic, city-levelling battle, is very impressive, and there’s some great action set-pieces throughout. Man of Steel feels more like an alien invasion movie than a superhero one and comes with the same giant threat and amount of mass destruction. For the faults in the narrative early on, it’s a lot of fun to watch super-powered gods throwing themselves through buildings. Snyder has matured as a director this time around and this is his best film. The action scenes are fantastic, thankfully lacking in slow-motion, and the flying scenes have a great deal of weight to them. This is a big movie, one which fits the Superman character, and one which demands to be seen in cinemas.
Man of Steel is the best Superman movie yet. It’s a big, bold, action epic which finally portrays Superman as a relatable character. It’s set to be the start of what will be a huge franchise (eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed the LexCorp logo in this film) and it’ll be interesting to see where Snyder goes with this universe. For now, we finally have a Superman for modern times.