Man of Steel (2013)
Bringing the Last Son of Krypton to the silver screen has always been difficult business, and although Christopher Reeve’s campy seventies-and-eighties incarnations of the Man of Steel have become cult classics in their own right, hardcore fans of the Man of Tomorrow have never felt that Hollywood has done Kal-El justice. And let’s face it – the less said about 2006’s aborted reboot Superman Returns (an appalling little film that comic book and movie fans alike try to sweep under the rug) the better. Therefore, to say that Man of Steel had huge expectations to fill would be an understatement the size of Metropolis city itself. And thankfully – much to the surprise of this reviewer, at least – it mostly succeeds.
The team behind Man of Steel is a true Hollywood supergroup. To create this movie, acclaimed director Zack Snyder, responsible for comic book epics such as 300 and Watchmen, joined forced with the Hollywood golden boy (and powerhouse) that is Chris Nolan, who was (of course) behind the recent revival and subsequent popularity of Batman, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Therefore, even a layman could see that the Metropolis Marvel was being given the superstar treatment from a duo that had well and truly done their homework. The result is a Superman movie that exceeded the expectations of even the hardest of cynics, blending Nolan’s keen eye for mature, gritty filmmaking with Snyder’s signature directorial flair – a flair which really shines during Man of Steel’s numerous – and spectacular – combat scenes.
Thankfully, there are very few dull moments in the film’s 143-minute runtime, with some excellent performances bolstering the directorial foundation. Interestingly, the film begins on a pre-destruction planet Krypton – no longer a shining crystal paradise, but more a techno-organic space empire reminiscent of the Architects from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, complete with biomechanical birthing pods taken straight from The Matrix. Russel Crowe takes centre stage during the movie’s first act/intro with a stellar performance as Superman’s father Jor-El (including some Avatar-style flying reptile riding), and returns (albeit in hologram form) to steal the spotlight in some of the later scenes.
Fast forward to a place a little closer to home, as the baby Superman is catapulted (actually, teleported – a seemingly throwaway note that turns out to be an important plot point) across the universe to Earth. Here, the film begins to pick up pace, with Superman’s background as a lone alien on a large and confusing world told mostly via flashback. Henry Cavill – the first (gasp) British actor to portray the Man of Steel – proves an unconventional but intelligent choice of Superman, dispelling fan cynicism in a manner reminiscent of Nolan’s casting of then-pretty-boy Heath Ledger as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. He even manages a cheeky lean on the fourth wall, announcing that his Superman is as “American as you can get” – before flying off over the horizon. Managing to remain consistently powerful and believable in the role, his Superman is a more restrained and realistic depiction than Reeves’ famous archetype.
Michael Shannon’s portrayal of General Zod is an intelligent and menacing foil to Cavill’s Superman, providing one of the best portrayals of a comic book villain to date, without straying into pantomime territory – a pitfall that many comic book movies fall into (I’m looking at you, Iron Man 3…). The inclusion of Kryptonian villains allows the film to explore territory that Superman rarely gets to tread – giving the Man of Steel an opponent that he doesn’t have to treat like a human. While Cavill’s Superman is the most alien portrayal to date, his enemies are also the most inhuman. Those familiar with the infamous World of Cardboard speech from Justice League Unlimited will find parallels here with Superman’s battle with Darkseid.
To summarise – Man of Steel is going to get a great deal of bad press. Fans of the light-hearted adventures of previous Superman incarnations will criticise its Nolan-esque moodiness and lack of levity – with the success of Marvel’s light-hearted summer blockbusters, this is going to be inevitable. But if you want to watch a take on Superman that emphasises the alien origins of the Man of Tomorrow, grounds its mythology in as much sci-fi ‘realism’ as possible, and doesn’t shy away from heavy themes and collateral damage (the absence of which robbed all urgency from the final battle in The Avengers) – then go and watch Man of Steel. Preferably with an open mind and a huge bucket of popcorn – you won’t regret it. Here’s to hoping this is only the beginning.
– Joe Cladingboel.