Man of Steel

Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 143
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Comic Book
Country: USA

When the first naturally born son of Krypton in one hundred thousand years is sent to Earth as his planet explodes he begins the longest journey of his life, but it’s not the interstellar trek to his new home but rather the self discovery of what he can be and what kind of man he wants to be.

There’s something about Zack Snyder.  When it was announced that the 300 director was taking over the helm for Warner’s latest attempt to reboot and make relevant Superman it looked as though Snyder could be the biggest threat to the Kryptonian’s existence since President Luther.  Yes he is an incredibly visual director but with Dawn of the Dead being largely unnecessary, Watchmen being unbelievably bloated and Sucker Punch supremely pointless the stakes have never been so high.  What his previous offerings (we’re ignoring Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole as who can be mean to owls?) lacked was a screenplay with either, pace, direction or on some occasions narrative arcs.  Enter David S. Goyer and The Dark Knight trilogy [reviews 1, 2 & 3] director Christopher Nolan to add their touch of realism and pathos to the man of steel in a way that would hopefully sidestep the stumbling step of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and the ever present shadow of the late Christopher Reeves.

For the most part, it works.  As origins stories go you’ve traditionally got two types.  The protracted, inevitable drawing out of skill, power and colourful clothing only for our hero to realise who he can be fifteen minutes and one set piece before credits roll ala Sam Raimi's Spiderman or the tale of two halves in which we’re treated to an hour of discovery and another hour of our moral crusader righting wrongs across his city as seen in Batman Begins and most recently The Amazing Spiderman.  There’s a third type that deals in historical shorthand and an understanding that the audience knows enough to fill in some of the blanks.  Goyer’s screenplay, and Snyder’s direction plays with this type as after an initial, and thrilling piece of exposition on Krypton with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) we’re skipped forward thirty years to a fully grown Clark Kent (Cavill) as he wanders the United States looking for his place in the world, conflicted between his instinct to “do right” and his (Earth) father’s mantra to stay below the radar for the greater good of everyone else.  He’ll not be accepted, and Jonathan is largely right.  Paralleling his modern day journey are key moments of young Clark’s childhood which showcase just how hysterical (and ungrateful) us Earthlings can be.  Showcasing the “origins” allows for the audience to interact with the movie.  If we’re in the screen watching then chances are we know enough to play our role in his story and the nomadic touch pushes Kent away from this golden boy of small town America idea that was always difficult to swallow.  People talk, people living in small towns talk and know everything about you, so if you can bench-press a school bus at the age of thirteen chances are you’re going to stick out as a freak thanks to the nosey crones of Smallville.  In all likelihood they’ll point, and whisper (which you’ll hear thanks to your super-hearing) and make you feel even more of an outcast.  The only solution – short lived stays with superficial relationships that keep humanity at arms length.  It gives a degree of realism to the narrative that Goyer and Nolan are great at.  Certainly, there are many moments throughout the ‘lonely wanderer’ section of the film that makes you feel as though you could be watching the director’s cut of Batman Begins yet it could also be the origins of our pal The Incredible Hulk.  The key is their status as lost children of greatness.

Snyder’s movie looks beautiful.  That’s a given, regardless of quality Snyder’s movies always look beautiful but there’s a concerted effort to target the flairs in style for the greater good of the piece and it only strengthens Man of Steel.  Cal-El and Zod’s interaction in the Kent backyard before Cal sinks into a quicksand of human skulls against a burning sun is lifted straight out of the graphic novels and painted across the screen with a love of enthusiasm for the source material that simply can not be faked.  Similarly the scenes on Krypton have a richness and fantasticness to them that demonstrates not just Snyder’s maturing as a director but also the first sign that a balance between the fantastic and the familiar, the remarkable and the realistic that surely bodes well for any possibility of a Justice League of America film – surely Warner and DC’s top priority having witnessed the monetary heroics of Marvel’s Avengers movie.  In fact everything about the visual of Snyder’s Man of Steel points to a calibre of movie largely unavailable to comic book heroes, certainly unavailable to the DC universe of late (with the exception of Batman).  The handheld work gives the movie a real grounding, especially considering the subject matter.  The colour palette is beautifully rich, and orchestrated set pieces, of which there are many, are handled with a composure and skill that’s breathtaking.

Much has been made of the casting in Man of Steel.  An inevitability when it comes to superhero movies.  Fans hold the characters as close to their hearts as some of their family members and though there was some outrage at the gender reassignment that Jimmy Olsen underwent it’s difficult to fault anything or anyone within the movie.  The truth of the matter, and many fans won’t like this, but Olsen is a peripheral character who is used to further the narrative.  There’s no shame in that, many beloved comic book characters are.  Henry Cavill is outstanding as Cal-El/Clark Kent/Superman.  He brings to the role a rawness, a physicality, a strength and power that’s never really been seen in the man of steel before.  Reeves had a softness, a grace to him that Routh and all others have been adhering to, most likely out of respect, and it has trapped the character in an age we have moved on from.  Cavill’s hero gets angry, he fights…he fights dirty, he’s emotional and when he takes off into the sky not going do you feel it but your front windows will cave in as he breaks (with ease) the sound barrier.  He fills the suit, in every possible way.  The man has worked out, he’s the size of a moderately priced suburban home and demonstrates his internal struggle on screen without being incredibly showy.  Adams (as Lois Lane) is a great piece of casting.  Granted she’s not got an exceptional amount to do and her characterisation relies more on the audience than on the script but there’s room to flesh her out in future instalments and her relationship with Cal is one that’s a lot more believable of an award winning investigative reporter.  It’s one based on an equality rather than deception and works a lot better than what we’ve come to know as the tried and tested.  Crowe is solid, Diane Lane heartfelt and Kevin Costner hands in a masterclass on doing much with little as he schools and moulds his son into the saviour of the human race.  Their scenes together (starring younger Clarks, brilliantly cast) are sincere and beautiful, extremely touching and do so much for the legend of Superman.  Laurence Fishburne (Perry White) isn’t given much to do and doesn’t really leave second gear but he, like Olsen, is a character for exposition.  Then we have Michael Shannon.  Shannon is perfect in Boardwalk Empire and in Man of Steel he’s downright Shakespearian in his approach.  What I love about Zod is how much he gives you to read into.  Superman’s creation, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was almost a way to exorcise the horrors of the Second World War.  Seventy years later we’re greeted with a movie that invites comparison to the Nazi invasion of Europe as Earth stands on the brink of a global holocaust and their character, with some minor tweaks, is still imbued with all of the hopes, fears and catharsis that went with creating him.  Zod’s brutality holds a mirror up and reflects the self sacrificing beauty of Superman.  Shannon is a soldier, a warrior and a banished terrorist.  He is as tactical as he is brutal and he draws out the physicality of our hero, forcing him to raise his game to a level that threatens to close that invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  The graceful, gentile days of Reeves are long gone – out of necessity as much as anything and it’s this change that gives Superman the greatest chance of survival.

Man of Steel won’t change your opinion on anything.  If you’re not a superhero fan you’re unlikely to get anything from this film but what it is, is hope.  The symbol stands for hope, hope for humanity, hope for the future, hope that DC can put behind them the embarrassment of The Green Lantern, Superman Returns, that they can sidestep the problems that will arise from a Flash movie, from an Aquaman movie and from the transition of power from Nolan to whoever takes over in Gotham and bring to the big screen a Justice League to rival The AvengersMan of Steel is an action packed, exhilarating, masterful display of how cinematically the world changes but when you trim away all the explosions, gunfire and last minute rescues we’re left with a story of acceptance and beauty in an all too often ugly world.  Superman is back, and he’s stronger than ever.


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