Imagine how our world would react if they came face to face with this…
Man of Steel divided plenty of critics and fans upon its release. Superman may be the most recognisable superhero, but in recent years he’s lost his lustre. If you’re re-imagining a character like writer David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder are here then, as the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (or necks).
The film’s plot concerns itself with many things (to a fault). Krypton is dying and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) decides to send his newborn son to another world. In his son’s DNA is, he hopes, the beginnings of a new Krypton free from the failures that blighted his.
General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his lieutenant Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), attempt a military coup by taking control of the Codex, a depository that contains information on the genetic future of Krypton that Jor-El has hidden within his son. They fail and are imprisoned within the Phantom Zone. Upon Zod’s release he seeks to bring Krypton back and his search takes him to Earth where he finds the now grown up Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill).
That’s a lot to take in but Snyder should be commended on attempting to create a new mythology ripe for a new generation of fans. MoS isn’t an adaptation, instead it goes back to the beginning, lopping a backstory on top an origin story and building a world brick by brick.
It’s an approach brought to life in an opening scene that’s huge in scale and sprawling with history. Civil war erupts on Kyrpton with the planet on the verge of imploding. It’s a world away from the slow, quiet beginnings that sets off Superman: The Movie.
Mirroring Nolan’s Batman Begins, Clark’s presence on earth flits between the past and the present. The latter sees Clark attempt to find his place on Earth and forge an identity that ties him to humanity. The former shows a young Clark struggling with what he is and how to use his powers.
These scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent and Diane Lane’s Martha Kent grants the film a heart (and a brain) making this version of Superman a brittle yet incredibly powerful character that’s more relatable than previous incarnations.
Costner’s Kent has the same intentions as Jor-El had and sees in Clark both the potential for good and the threat he could pose. He understands that Clark can’t be pushed into becoming ‘that person’ and though it’s inevitable that he’ll don the suit and cape, the early scenes show it’s not as easy as walking into the Fortress of Solitude and appearing seconds later as a ready-made superhero.
As the film’s title implies; this Superman is a tougher version. The charm and playfulness is replaced by introspection (Cavill’s brow seems permanently furrowed), and a more rustic sensibility and an imposing physicality that plays out in the film’s second-half.
Its in the second-half where MoS loses its balance. Snyder leans heavily into action scenes, so much so that there’s not enough space for the characters to breathe, diminishing the relationship between Cavill’s Clark and Amy Adam’s Lois Lane to the point where its resolution is unconvincing.
Instead the film stretches out into one long fight as buildings crumble and streets are ripped apart. There’s an emphasis on CG effects that detaches the viewer from the realism Snyder pursues. It’s already difficult to reconcile a world and a character as fantastic as this with the notion of ‘realism’ but the action is so over-the-top that any investment in what’s happening begins to wane.
It’s a disappointing note to end on as MoS shows another side of Snyder that’s not often seen. The breathless action is expected but the sensitivity and restraint, particularly in the middle section, isn’t.
There’s any number of ways this character could have been reinvigorated, but this approach feels brave and adventurous. Forging ahead with a new take on an old hero and making him relevant, even interesting.
Flawed? Definitely, but this film brings new insight to this legendary character. He’s not quite Superman but he’s on his way.