Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer (screenplay), Christopher Nolan
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Release date: June 12, 2013
(Note: this was written shortly after Man of Steel's release in 2013.)
Man of Steel is one of the most anticipated movies of this year and has a lot riding on its shoulders. It's more-or-less DC's last chance to kickstart the shared cinematic universe that they've wanted for so very long, it's brought to us by Zack Snyder and Dark Knight duo David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, and it's Superman's long-overdue return to the big screen after 26 years (because 2006's Superman Returns never reeeeaaally happened). But is it as strong as its title suggests?
Man of Steel generally has the basic premise that you would expect from a standard origin story, however this is in no way a retelling of any Superman film that came before it. Here, moments before being sent to Earth by his desperate father during the destruction of his home planet Krypton, we learn that Kal-El (Superman's birth name, for the uneducated) is the first natural Kryptonian birth in centuries, after the planet had adopted a lifestyle of genetic engineering. Krypton’s key to this specific type of genetic engineering is the Growth Codex, an ancient artefact that decodes the genetic makeup of everybody on the planet, and translates a child’s genetic attributes before his or her birth. Superman's father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his son to Earth with the Codex before Krypton is destroyed, and, ever-persistent in his mission, General Zod (Michael Shannon) travels to Earth to acquire the Codex and terraform Earth into a new Krypton.
Going into this movie, it's essential that you know this is a Superman for a new generation. If you're expecting to see the continued adventures of the man who saves cats from trees in his underwear, you may leave disappointed. Here, Superman is inexperienced, having suppressed his powers for most of his life, and is thrown into a world-threatening situation with no prep time. The Superman you know and love may not even be in this movie, but that depends on how you define the character. There are also some spoilery events that occur that are quite unexpected and address the common complaint that Superman is too unrelatable and out of reach from us Earthly folk, although they will undoubtedly enrage some of the more purist fans out there. These events are not really explored and/or explained as well as they could have been, but it's very likely that they're laying down the groundwork for changes and interesting development in sequels. Due to all of this, it's best to look at Man of Steel as one big origin story that's about becoming Superman as opposed to being Superman (in fact, that word is actually barely ever uttered here, with "Kal" or "Clark" usually in its place). It makes a solid standalone narrative and there's no blatant sequel-baiting here, but the plot itself does leave some threads hanging. How you feel about the story as a whole might depend on how accepting you are of certain elements being left open for future exploration.
It's a radical change from the Superman films of old in a lot of ways. There are no attempts to honour the Donner/Reeve movies here. Bryan Singer tried that in 2006 by practically remaking the first film, and it didn't connect with audiences. As a result, Snyder's rendition of Superman and the universe he lives in is very much its own: the (very well-realised) planet of Krypton has more in common with Avatar’s Pandora than it does the white wasteland of the original Richard Donner film and the whole thing feels like much more of a first-contact sci-fi story rather than a standard superhero film. Before Man of Steel's release, there was some concern over whether the film would favour the "dark and realistic" trend of late and possibly betray the character, and while this is the darkest Superman to date, it isn't a dark movie by definition. It is realistic, but not in the same vein as The Dark Knight Trilogy, for example. It's realistic in the sense that it makes no attempt to sugar-coat the consequences of a battle between gods in the middle of a public area, and it doesn't shy away from the concept of how the world would react to the sudden realisation that there is life out there among the stars (Superman is initially distrusted by the US government for not only being an illegal immigrant, but a potential weapon of mass destruction). However, the realism doesn't tone down any fantastical elements such as Superman's powers at all. In fact, Man of Steel actually boasts some of the largest-scale action scenes ever put to film, arguably blowing even The Avengers out of the water. It can be a bit heavier than what is expected from a Superman movie at times with the mass destruction and occasional 9/11-style imagery, but it does give a sense of genuine threat that is often absent from most films produced by DC’s competitor, Marvel Studios. It's refreshing to see some variety in the genre, and if this movie is anything to go by, it seems that DC’s cinematic universe will focus on stories for a slightly more mature audience, while Marvel will continue using their tried-and-tested more family-friendly formula. It's extremely insistent on its strength and epic scale, and takes itself very seriously.
The presentation of Man of Steel is flawless. It's less stylised than most of Snyder's work, but it’s still a very visual movie, with many shots not only looking stunning but telling the story through the visuals themselves. The aforementioned action scenes do become slightly excessive in the second half, as another massive showdown begins just after one that you didn’t think could possibly get any bigger ends, but they are gargantuan in scale and boast some top-notch CG work (oh, and anybody disappointed at the lack of punches thrown in previous Superman films is going to be delighted). The ever-reliable Hans Zimmer also brings us a stellar score. Elements of The Dark Knight can definitely be heard at times, mostly due to the heavy use of drums, but there are some fantastic compositions, such as the piece that plays during Superman and Zod’s climactic battle ("If You Love These People"), which is one of the many highlights due to its downright epic quality.
While he doesn’t completely own the role like Terrence Stamp did in 1980’s Superman II, Michael Shannon is very capable as Zod and plays the part with ferocity and intensity. Here the character is more layered than it's ever been, certainly in mainstream media at least. In a somewhat twisted sort of way, his motivations are actually understandable: to us, he's a complete monster, but when looked at from the perspective of his people, he's only doing what's right. It’s a slightly sympathetic portrayal, and a huge breath of fresh air from the largely black-and-white portrayals of villains that are often seen in comicbook films today. Fellow Kryptonian Faora (Antje Traue, pictured above) also ends up being quite memorable, which is surprising considering Traue's minimal acting experience.
Henry Cavill is the new Superman, and while it’s doubtful that he’ll be remembered as fondly as the beloved Christopher Reeve in the future, he certainly looks the part and does an excellent job with what he is given. The only problem here is that he isn’t given all that much to do other than brood and ponder the questions of his existence. It isn’t particularly overbearing and he's still easy to accept, but some variety in Superman’s character definitely wouldn’t hurt the next time around. There isn't much focus on the relationship between Kal and Lois here, but Amy Adams is solid and plays one of the most well-realised interpretations of Lois Lane outside of the original source material.
You have to hand it to Snyder: if anything, the guy's got balls. Man of Steel is probably going to prove to be divisive. There is room for improvement but it's a fresh, modern take on Superman that incorporates otherworldly elements into a very real world, and it soars high. With the stage for a sequel well-set and some detectable hints being dropped throughout as to who the Big Blue will be going up against, the wait for the next instalment is going to be a long one.