I’ve never really loved Superman. I wouldn’t say he’s my least favourite superhero (probably Daredevil — whilst a blind man being able to see is certainly great for him, it doesn’t really qualify as a superpower), but he’s always seemed somewhat bland.
A large part of that is that over the decades his powers have been increased to such a state that he’s near-invincible, and for there even to be enough conflict for a story one of the numerous flavours of kryptonite has to be wheeled out. The 1978 Superman had him able to reverse the flow of time, for crying out loud!
But here we have a new, modern, shiny version. From the man who made a fair old hash of filming probably the best superhero comic ever written, Watchmen, and with a trailer that contained enough lens flare to make JJ Abrams blush, does Man of Steel even stand a chance?
Actually, it wasn’t half bad.
In a now well-trodden story, the film opens on a dying Krypton, where General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a doomed uprising, as scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant child Kal-El off to safety on Earth. Kal is found and adopted by the Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who raise him under the name Clark.
Sparing us the traditional linear walk through young-Superman, we are first shown Clark as a young man, and only see his childhood and coming to terms with his powers through flashback. It’s a good fit, and a good storytelling approach given that most will already have seen this many times before. It’s something which The Amazing Spiderman should have considered to avoid a feeling of deja vu.
By the time Zod rocks up on earth, Clark has been schooled in basically everything by a posthumous hologram of Jor-El and “become” superman. The explanations for his powers — basically, differences in the environment between Krypton and Earth — are mostly believable, and the depiction of Kryptonian technology and culture are breathtaking and beautiful. Glistening wide shots of futuristic cities, with a fluidic and distinct architectural style It’s how I imagine Gallifrey in Doctor Who should have been.
Michael Shannon steals the show here. Whereas Terence Stamp’s original Zod revelled in his camp over-the-top performance, Shannon gives the character a sort of dark sympathy, a man who is desperate to save his world and his people and who will do anything to achieve that. His rage and heartbreak felt palpably human next to his alien nature.
Russell Crowe also does an excellent turn as Jor-El, and there is an ongoing mutual respect between the two bubbling away under their antagonism. One of the standout scenes, I felt, was the dialogue between the two of them as Zod’s plan approaches its climax. If this had been a film about those two characters, then I would likely be raving about it. And if Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan are reading: that’s where you need to go.
Sadly, this was a film about the titular Man of Steel, and Henry Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El and Amy McAdams’ Lois Lane both felt flat and lifeless. Part of that is the base characters, neither simmer with personality, but there was no reason for an automatic presumption that Lane had to be a love interest (and despite being referred to as “Pulitzer-prize-winning”, she was a fairly useless journalist).
The female characters were disappointingly unimpressive as a whole, actually. They all seemed generic, cookie-cutter, just-add-water characters to fill roles more to do with the plot than any well rounded character arcs. Others have put it better than I, so you should read their views.
Overall, I did enjoy the film. It updated the Superman mythos to make it feel cutting edge and modern, and like a proper science-fiction film. Between stealing the clothes of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and The Matrix, it found a sweet spot of originality — only to fall down on the actual meat of the story. In the end, I was wowed by Kyrpton in the opening twenty minutes, and really would have rather stayed there.