Man of Steel Spoiler-Free Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
It’s been seven years since Superman had a cinematic outing and thirty-three since he had a decent one, but in this world of Avengers and Dark Knights, it was never going to be long until somebody gave the granddaddy of superheroes another turn. But since his creation the landscape, in both comic books and films, has changed significantly, and the challenge of making people care about Superman again was a monumental one.
It’s become slightly clichéd to mention it when talking about superhero movies, but The Dark Knight really changed everything: it made the public want superheroes who are flawed and, for want of a better term, human; a concept which jars when talking about an invulnerable man from another planet who can do things most humans could never dream of doing. Superman is less a superhero than a deity who just happens to fight crime and beat up bad guys, and so the challenge in the post-Dark Knight world was to make Superman more human, more relatable.
This is, unfortunately, one of the ways in which Zack Snyder’s film falters: Henry Cavill’s Superman is too calm, too overtly alien to be relatable, and the divide between his Superman and his Clark Kent is not as significant as in previous iterations. Gone is the awkward, gawky but easily relatable journalist Clark Kent, replaced by an angsty drifter moving from one place to another until he finds his real personality, which happens to be that of Superman. While he does soften significantly throughout the film, due in part to his burgeoning relationship with Amy Adams’ feisty Lois Lane, he nonetheless feels too much like an outsider for a human audience to identify with him.
The structure of the film is also something of a struggle to engage with: after an action-packed romp through the strange, alien landscape of Krypton, Clark’s life on Earth is presented in a rather jarring fashion, jumping between his young adult life wandering across America and trying to ‘find himself’, and his troubled youth in a perpetually-miserable Kansas. At times it seems as though Snyder is so desperate to get to the next big action set-piece (which admittedly are his forte), that he jumbles the chronology in order to minimise the gaps between explosions. However, finding a new way of presenting a backstory which even a casual viewer will be familiar with the beats of is something to be applauded, even if the manner in which it is done is slightly flawed.
There is also a tendency with Superman to allow him to overcome his weaknesses simply by struggling through them and finding the strength within himself to do whatever needs to be done, and Snyder falls into this trap once or twice. However, it is refreshing to be done with the signature glowing green rocks of kryptonite, replaced by an inherent weakness to the very atmosphere of his planet of origin.
My thoughts up to this point paint a rather negative picture of Man of Steel, but there are a considerable number of elements within the film to be praised. Firstly, and in Snyder’s case this almost goes without saying, but the film looks amazing: even the dusty plains of rural Kansas look lush under Snyder’s directorial control, and when he is given free reign to create an entire alien planet, the man’s skill is undeniable. The Krypton realised on-screen in the film’s opening sequence is an incredible environment which feels entirely alien and left me wanting to explore it further; similarly, the unnamed Metropolis in which the finale takes place continues to look stunning even as it is systematically destroyed by various parties.
This brings us to another of Snyder’s strengths, which he plays to with great effect in Man of Steel: destruction, and widespread destruction at that. The superpowered fight sequences which punctuate the film are incomparable in their frenzied brutality on both sides: punches are thrown which are literally earth-shattering, blows are exchanged which toss people into buildings and out the other side, and dozens of explosions are walked through or shrugged off by the core group of superhumans, and that’s to say nothing of the considerable property damage. As the action ramps up, vehicles are crushed or smashed to bits, buildings are sliced into pieces with heat vision, and entire populated areas are levelled. At some points the sequences feel slightly too frenetic, with more glass smashing and fiery explosions in a single scene than in the entirety of the Dark Knight trilogy, but when you remember that these characters are superpowered aliens duking it out, the overwhelming nature of the action becomes a little more manageable.
Speaking of characters, it would be remiss not to pick up on the performances within the film. As previously mentioned, Cavill’s Superman is a far more inherently ‘alien’ than many previous performances, which makes complete sense within context but remains slightly unnerving when the entire film hangs on the audience’s ability to relate to him. It is fortunate, then, that Amy Adams’ Lois Lane picks up some of the slack: again, this is a Lois Lane far removed from the screaming damsel in distress we have seen in previous incarnations. Adams brings a more adventurous, confident quality to Lane, now a scotch-chugging investigative reporter unafraid to tell military personnel to stop ‘measuring dicks’ or to explore a mysterious ice-cave on her own. This doesn’t stop her from slipping into damsel-like behaviour at certain points through the film, but when considering the entirely alien and rather unforgiving situations she is placed in, this is understandable. She also brings out some more recognisably human emotions in Superman, which helps us to really root for him in the last act.
Elsewhere, out of Clark’s two dads, focus is most definitely on Russel Crowe’s Jor-El: through some vaguely-sciencey magic, he is able to communicate with Clark throughout, and acts as a kind of ‘spirit guide’ to both him and Lois during some of the more perilous aspects of their adventure. He is also very much an ‘action dad’, donning some seriously heavy-duty battle armour and riding a four-winged dragon during the opening sequence on Krypton, and a far cry from the stoic, haughty Jor-El famously brought to life by Marlon Brando in the original Superman films. As a result, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent feels somewhat extraneous, spending the majority of his limited screen-time struggling to help his adopted son deal with the bizarre things that are happening to him, and excluded from the meat of the film in a rather ridiculous manner.
But the real highlight of the cast is Michael Shannon as the vengeful General Zod, whom he plays just the right side of foaming-at-the-mouth lunacy and injects a real sense of blind purpose into what could have been a two-dimensional megalomaniac. This version of Zod is a general, first and foremost, and he clearly sees everything he does as ‘necessary’: while it does mean that we miss out on an updated version of the iconic line (‘Kneel before Zod!’), his characterisation is ideal for the context both of this film and the new cinematic landscape which exists for superhero movies.
The main cast is ably supported by the likes of Christopher Meloni as a conflicted soldier, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the down-to-earth editor of the Daily Planet, Richard Schiff as scientist Dr Emil Hamilton (friend of Superman from the comics), and Antje Traue as Zod’s violently sinister follower Faora, all of whom get their moment of glory in the latter stages of the film, and rarely feel unnecessary.
Finally, one of the more surprising elements of the film which turned out to be entirely beneficial was its commitment to focusing on Superman alone. While this seems like an odd thing to bring up, before the film’s release there was rampant speculation on cameos from the likes of Bruce Wayne and Hal Jordan (aka Batman and Green Lantern) in order to allow Man of Steel to function as the first step towards uniting the Justice League. However, aside from a few nice Easter Eggs (make sure to look out for who owns the satellite destroyed in the final act of the film, and the name of the female soldier who thinks Superman is ‘hot’ at the end of the film), this is a film entirely dedicated to carving out a world in which Superman can logically exist, rather than struggling to fit him into a pre-existing one.
While the over-the-top action, the somewhat overwhelming visuals and Zack Snyder’s disjointed directorial style may put some people off, there is enough substance within Man of Steel to justify the spectacle. But most importantly, for all the film’s flaws, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has accomplished something which many people didn’t think was possible: he has made Superman feel relevant once again.