It’s exciting to see Superman on the big screen, and it always has been. That’s one key reason why this particular franchise has survived the last three films, and why Warner Bros has infamously fought so hard to retain the rights to the character.
There’s plenty banking on Man Of Steel then (not least the future of the Justice League movie project), a film with a similar job to do to The Amazing Spider-Man last year. After all, this is a page one reboot, one that retells the origin story of the lead character, and is a firm entry point for those who have never seen a Superman movie before. And, as with Sony and The Amazing Spider-Man, Warner Bros has clearly reacted to the criticisms of the last film. Superman Returns was too reverential to the previous films, that was complaint one. It was shy of action. That was complaint two. Within ten minutes of Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, both have been very, very clearly addressed
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.
But then so is Henry Cavill’s Superman. And whilst Man Of Steel is a very, very noisy film in several respects, Cavill’s calmness is both welcome and impressive. This film’s more about him as Superman, and being an alien on Earth, than Clark Kent, but Cavill comes across as a man who fully wears the responsibility of the role. His work is about restraint and holding back for good chunks of the film, but there’s enough here to suggest that his casting was a very smart move.
Amy Adams too is strong, and notably, she gets a lot more to do than you may be expecting. This is a very different Lois Lane to the one we’ve seen on the screen before, and there’s little doubt that they’ve worked hard to give her character work that sets her aside from earlier movies. Adams works her socks off to sell it all too, and the central pairing of her and Cavill is crucial to getting Man Of Steel through its rockier moments.
Because, in truth, it has no shortage of them. Snyder’s film has a preference for loudness and spectacle over the quieter, human moments that punctuated the very best Superman movies. Characters talk in speeches more than they do in conversations, and if you’ve got an allergy where lots of handheld shaky shots are concerned, you may want to turn your popcorn in now. Furthermore, the last act feels like a bucket of CG being liberally emptied onto the screen. In a film that’s not short of loud and visually-packed action sequences, the final segment of the film is arguably the least effective and just a little exhausting.
In Snyder’s defence, he’s giving you several blockbusters for your money. On top of a superhero movie, he throws in space battles, natural disasters, and enough frenetic action sequences to keep your eyeballs satiated for some time. He’s determined, to his credit, that you won’t be shortchanged. But still, you can’t help but wish he’d calm things down. To stop a little more often, to spend some quality time with the characters, to let us get a better grip of what’s going on. It feels as if too much of the humanity has been traded off at times, in exchange for making the biggest cinematic spectacle possible.
And one disappointing aside: Hans Zimmer’s score, part of the clear effort that’s been made to give this take on Superman an identity of its own, will have left your head even before the credits have rolled.
But still, for our grumbles, the positives do just about win out. Granted, Man Of Steel feels like a bit of a muddle of a film. A lot of the big things, it does really very well. A lot of the little things, it really struggles with. The guts of Superman himself it certainly captures, and in Henry Cavill, there’s someone who can comfortably carry the character for a good decade or so going forward.
It’s also a more successful reboot than Sony managed with Spider-Man, and a slightly more courageous one. It’s less scared to find its own identity, after all, and has little shrift in trying to be all things to all people. Granted, that identity is notably less interesting right now from the one we’ve been presented with before, but if the aim was to reboot the Superman franchise, put it on new footing, and deliver a solid, watchable blockbuster in the process, then it’s mission accomplished.
That said, for the inevitable Man Of Steel 2, more focus on human beings, slightly less action and a good, solid tripod should be top of the shopping list. For now, the positives just about win out. Superman will have better days than this one, but Man Of Steel is a solid resurrection for the big screen adventures of the most iconic superhero of all. It couldn’t be much more different to the last reboot of the franchise, too.
Man Of Steel is out in UK cinemas on the 14th June.
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