*spoiler free review*
33 years ago in a galaxy far, far away, Krypton is dying. Those greedy Kryptonians have used up all their natural resources and started mining the planet’s core, essentially digging their own graves. Meanwhile, Kryptonian SecDef General Zod figures (quite rightly) that the impending apocalypse is the fault of the council of elders and stages a hasty coup. At this point, the only perceived threat to his dominance is uber-scientist power couple Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, and the child they’ve just produced – the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Zod’s coup is quickly flattened, and he and his minions are sentenced to a lifetime imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. But Krypton still blows up.
At this point, you know the rest: baby Kal-El is loaded onto a rocketship and blasted off to a faraway world where the young yellow sun will make him a god to the primitive indigenous people. Kal is adopted by a couple of Kansas farmers and brought up as Clark Kent. He eventually grows up, grows a beard and drifts around the US, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘supertramp’. Clark’s wanderings are brought to an end when General Zod comes to Earth, looking for revenge…and a new home for his band of evil Kryptonians. Punching ensues.
A Cast of Assorted Journalists, Military-Types and Alien Warmongers
So, let’s start with the important question: Is Henry Cavill a good Superman? You’re damn right he is. He perfectly embodies the nobility flavoured with a hint of arrogance that is necessary for the Man of Steel. Kal-El is, after all, effectively a god. By contrast, he also nails the humility and downright honesty that betrays the character’s humble upbringing and makes Superman an everyman. The duality of the godlike alien and the Kansas farmboy is a huge theme in the movie, and Cavill’s measured performance echoes this beautifully. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say Cavill is second only to Christopher Reeve, trumped only because Reeve managed to sell Clark and Superman as two distinct entities, making the oft-ridiculed ‘secret identity’ a believable prospect.
Michael Shannon on the other hand blows Terrence Stamp’s 1980 version of Zod out of the water. Shannon’s Zod is a beast – physically intimidating, powerful and seething with rage. He would stand Stamp’s regal, almost bored version against a wall and blow off his face with blue laser bullets. Zod is also given believable motivations and backstory this time around. He was designed from birth to be the protector of his people, and when that purpose is taken away he becomes all the more desperate and dangerous. He’s the perfect antagonist for our fledgling superhero.
Lois and Clark
The cast in general are exceptional – Chris Meloni’s Col Hardy and Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul stole the show for me, mostly because they raised the level of badassery to 11 whenever they were on screen. Unfortunately, the one area in which the casting stumbles is also one of the most important: the relationship of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. As I’ve already said, Cavill is an excellent Superman, and the same goes for Amy Adam’s portrayal of Lois Lane. While not as brash as Margot Kidder, or as demure as Teri Hatcher, Adams nails the ballsiness inherent in the character. There’s a vulnerability to her, too, as seen particularly in the scene where Clark reveals his reasons for keeping his abilities under wraps for so long.
The problem is when you get Lois and Clark together. The two of them, while great separately, have very little chemistry, which is a problem for the romantic leads. I bought that Lois would want to stick around Superman for the duration to get her story, but I just didn’t buy that they were interested in one another romantically. Maybe this will be improved in the sequel.
My Two Dads
A major theme in this movie is the duality of Clark’s upbringing. On the one hand, you have the everyman Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent (an ably heartfelt performance by Kevin Costner) who teaches young Clark the values so important to Superman’s character, and also teaches him restraint. Jonathan, in a fresh twist, is dead set against Clark revealing his abilities and true heritage to the world at large. He fears for his son, but also for the world itself. He realises that Clark is a game-changer. As Jonathan himself says, ‘you’re the answer to “are we alone in the universe”’.
On the other hand, you have Russell Crowe’s stately Jor-El, who stresses the importance of Kal’s destiny, and grooms him to become the messianic figure humanity needs to help us progress. The two father figures are worlds apart – not only physically across the void of space, but across an expanse of class and culture, too – and Clark is pulled in both directions throughout the movie. In essence, the movie is all about Clark finding himself and becoming the man he chooses to be. Not only that, but as the stakes get higher, it becomes about Clark choosing between his heritage and his home. Krypton or Earth? His biological father, or the one that raised him? It’s an interesting aspect of Superman’s character that the movie thankfully doesn’t shy away from.
Why So Serious?
One of the major complaints I’ve heard about the movie is that fact that it takes itself so seriously, and I’d somewhat agree with that. Obviously, the movie’s weighty subject matter allows for a serious tone, but it would have benefited from a little levity to ease the tension every now and then. Even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy had comic relief from the interplay between Bruce and Alfred. Shit, even the Joker was funny when he wasn’t being terrifying. I suspect that the sequel will address this issue to some degree, given the light-hearted tone at the movie’s close, and all things considered, it’s not a huge problem anyway.
I actually like how DC have begun to establish a gritty, realistic tone for their movies. DC always has and always will be compared to Marvel, even on the big screen, and the two behemoths’ movies are beginning to occupy two very different tonal counterpoints. It’s a smart move. Rather than aping the fun, adventurous tone of Marvel’s offerings, DC are producing more thoughtful, grown-up films. That’s not to the detriment of the Marvel movies: both forms of superhero storytelling are valid. I just like how DC are standing apart from their main competitor.
At this point, I have to talk about the score. Hans Zimmer makes his return to the DC Universe after last year’s The Dark Knight Rises and, while not as iconic as John Williams’ efforts in the ‘70s, he delivers a typically impressive orchestration. His score reflects the tone perfectly, from the quieter, introspective moments, accompanied by a handful of warm piano notes, to the grandiose action sequences, ably backed by a full orchestra and bombastic drums.
My only real issue with the movie is something of a pacing problem. For the most part, director Zak Snyder (and this is by far his best work) achieves a sense of introspection that is perfect for Clark’s journey of self-discovery. You’ve seen this in the trailers – the extreme close-up shots of life on the farm, like something out of Tree of Life; the bearded fisherman scenes; Superman soaking up the sunlight. It works really well, and it’s an approach that’s perfect for the character. Obviously, the transition from this to ball-blistering action sequences is a little jarring, but that’s to be expected. My problem is that the movie spends little to no time dealing with the aftermath of these scenes. That wouldn’t be such a major issue in another movie, but with so much time spent getting into the head of Superman, to switch to such a level of disconnect towards the end feels a bit sloppy. It just feels as though something is missing.
But that’s really just a minor niggle in an otherwise awesome movie.
Verdict: this is a brilliant movie, and at times teeters on the edge of greatness. It’s easily the best Superman movie since the 1978 incarnation, and well worth your time and money. It may have some problems with chemistry, pacing and it may lack a sense of humour, but at the end of the day Man of Steel manages to make yet another Superman origin story feel fresh and relevant. And that’s no small achievement.