In Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel, the ‘s’ on our hero’s chest stands for hope (in the language of Superman’s home planet Krypton), not ‘super’, although it may as well stand for ‘serious’. Produced by Christopher Nolan (though this isn’t ‘Superman Begins’), it’s a grandiose, sweeping epic – a reinvention of a character put together with enthusiasm and lots of money, but little in the way of subtlety or nuance.
We begin on the planet Krypton, where natural resource harvesting has destabilised the planet to the point where it may have to be abandoned. General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts to rectify the situation his own way by launching a coup. Though this is doomed to failure, it does give Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayulet Zurer) a chance to blast their newborn son Kal-El into space on a collision course with Earth. Kal, as we all surely know by now, will be discovered by adoptive Earth parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and raised as a human, albeit one with extraordinary abilities.
This early story is sensibly told via a combination of flashbacks and the opening action set piece, and although the latter could have been trimmed down a bit (the film is over two hours long, and doesn’t really ‘start’ until 30 minutes in) it’s an effective introduction to a familiar set of characters.
Grown up Kal (Clark, to his parents; now played by Henry Cavill) has been living as a drifter – who occasionally saves people’s lives – until a discovery buried in a glacier leads General Zod to Earth, desperately seeking the Kryptonian exile. It also leads reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams – effective but underused) to Clark, sparking off a romance that will hopefully be given more screen time in the sequel.
The film does a decent job of establishing its central character’s relation to his adopted home planet, though exposition is still needed on a couple of occasions courtesy of a helpfully sentient voice from beyond the grave. Cavill does his best with a difficult role, and he comes off as a likable hero, even if he’s sold short by a script, and a director, clearly much more interested in action that anything else.
Superman has always been a difficult character to get right because of his godlike powers. There needs to be a way into the character that gives him a grounding in humanity, which is why the parts of the film that deal with that side of things are the most effective – like, for example, a sort-of dream sequence part way through in which Zod’s plans are revealed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention given to the weight of the decisions Kal is having to make – he basically holds the key to the continuation of his birth race – but thankfully Zod gets a nicely written speech towards the end, excellently performed by Michael Shannon, who is one of the film’s strongest aspects.
When the film gets bogged down in its rubbery, repetitive action sequences – which play out like live-action anime fights, and reminded me of the finale of The Matrix Revolutions – it can become a little tiresome. These characters are near enough invincible, which severely dilutes the interest in their lengthy flying duels. That’s not to say there aren’t flashes of exciting action in there – Antje Traue, as Zod’s second in command Faora, gets some fun hyper-speed fisticuffs – but the film indulges in this stuff to its detriment. I would’ve liked to spend more time with the characters, rather than seeing Superman get knocked backwards through a line of buildings for the nth time.
Man of Steel is an action-packed spectacle that will no doubt please a lot people. I could have done with fewer action sequences (even some of the flashbacks to Clark’s past are played as heroic rescue missions) and more focus on the meat of the story. The scenes in which characters stand around portentously predicting how the world will react to a superhero are also a bit on the iffy side. The sequel – which is already being fast-tracked into production – needs to find an interesting central idea for the script to focus on, and not be afraid to let its hero breathe.