Man of Steel
Review by Paul Bowler
Over the last thirty five years since DC Comics flagship character was immortalised by Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s genre defining film, Superman The Movie (1978), Superman’s comic book adventures have continued to form some of DC Comics best-selling storylines, and his formative years were explored in the TV series Smallville, staring Tom Welling. Bryan Singer brought the character back to the big screen in Superman Returns (2006), in a film which remained faithful to the original film series, and ultimately failed to find its own identity in the process. Now the last son of Krypton is back in Zack Snyder’s eagerly awaited Man of Steel, with Henry Cavill as Superman, in the blockbusting movie event of the year.
With the planet Krypton facing imminent destruction because of its unstable core, a rebel faction led by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his sadistic second-in-command Faora_Ul (Antje Traue), attempt to wrest control from the ruling council. The scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his beloved wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) implant the genetic Codex of Krypton into their newborn son, Kal-El, before sending him to Earth in a spacecraft in order to preserve the future of their race. After his plan fails Zod and his associates are captured and banished to the Phantom Zone, before Krypton is destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion.
The craft carrying Kal-El crash lands in Kansas where he is discovered by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who then raise the child as their own on their farm. As the young Clark Kent (played by Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry) grows up in Smallville he struggles to control his powers, feeling increasingly like and outcast, until he finally leaves home in search of his destiny. Clark (now played by Henry Cavill) spends the next few years as a drifter, using his powers only in the most extreme of circumstances, but a chance encounter with intrepid Daily Plant reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) sets Clark on the path to discovering his Kryptonian birthright.
Lois promises to keep Clark’s identity a secret, but after General Zod escapes from the Phantom Zone and his spaceship arrives in orbit, the world becomes aware of his presence when Zod hijacks the planets communication systems and issues an ultimatum to Kal-El, stating that he has twenty four hours to give himself up or the people of Earth will suffer the consequence. Superman has no choice but to surrender himself to the military, where he is interviewed by Lois, before Faora_Ul arrives to take him to General Zod.
Superman is unable to reason with Zod who plans to terra-from the Earth and rebuild the Kryptonian race using the Codex bonded to Kal El’s genetic structure. Superman attacks the General’s forces back on Earth as Zod unleashes the devastating power of the World Engine, leading to a titanic showdown between Superman and Zod in city of Metropolis itself…
Zack Snyder wisely avoids the pitfalls of Bryan Singer’s uninspired misfire Superman Returns (2006) by adopting a completely fresh approach to the character, with Christopher Nolan on board as producer and storyline co-writer, Man of Steel is a reboot that grounds itself in a harder edged reality in much the same way Nolan’s award-winning Dark Knight trilogy. Snyder supplants the basic premise of Superman’s origin, depicting Kal-El more like an extraterrestrial messiah than the superhero he ultimately chooses to become. We follow Kal-El from the moment of his birth, where Krypton faces civil unrest as the planet teeters on the brink of certain destruction. This is a Krypton like no other we have seen before, a stunning mix of Star Wars and Avatar like visuals, blessed with incredible technology and beautiful winged beasts that swoop across gleaming oceans as a ravaged moon hangs in the perpetual twilight of this doomed world.
In the aftermath of Krypton’s destruction the escape ship carrying baby Kal-El brings him to his adoptive world and into the lives of Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise him as their own son. Flash-Forward to the present day and we meet Henry Cavill as the troubled Clark Kent, a bearded loner who is struggling to find his place in the world. It is at this point that Zack Snyder skilfully begins to refer back to Clark’s childhood at key points throughout the film, were he was bullied and ridiculed as his powers began to manifest themselves, before following Clark into adulthood as the narrative of the present is punctuated by his relationship with his adoptive parents.
Henry Cavill gives a great performance as the outsider from another world; he brings a darker edge to the character, together with an imposing physical presence that helps balance the benevolent side of Superman’s character with the furious rage he later unleashes against Zod. The introduction of Amy Adams as Lois Lane coincides with the moment that leads to Clark discovering his true identity, and he forges a close relationship with the Daily Planet reporter. Like any good reporter worth her salt, Lois Lane is right at the heart of the action, and doesn’t let a dressing down by her editor-in-chief Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) or the impending threat of Zod’s invasion put her off. Amy Adam’s is entirely convincing as Lois Lane, her steely resolve stands her in good stead, and her dedication to keeping Clark’s secret is cauterised by a selfless act of trust. Although they can’t match Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder’s fabulous onscreen chemistry, Cavill and Adam’s are both superbly cast as Lois and Clark, brining a sense of believability to their blossoming romance, and there is certainly plenty of potential here to explore in the future.
Man of Steel is full of standout performances that really help enhance Snyder’s new take on the mythology of the man of tomorrow, with Russell Crowe giving a stellar performance as Kal-El’s biological father, while Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent provides the moral compass that steers Clark along the rocky path to adulthood and the hero he ultimately becomes. Diane Lane is also exceptionally good as Martha Kent; her scenes with Henry Cavill are particularly moving, especially when Clark returns home after discovering who he really is.
Michael Shannon makes General Zod a force to be reckoned with in Man of Steel, leading a coup against his own people, his return from the Phantom Zone after Krypton’s demise hones the tragedy to a razors edge for Zod. He travels to Earth having scoured the galaxy for the remnants of his people’s technology, finally tracking Kal-El to Earth, where he intends to rebuild his race. Shannon exudes intense evil as Zod, it would seem the misguided General has been driven almost to the brink of madness by loss of his home world, and he will let nothing stand in the way of achieving his goal. He tempers his performance with the same icy menace Terrance Stamp established with Zod in Superman II (1980); to make his armour clad Zod a fearsome engine of destruction. Zod even uses a metaphorical form of Kryptonite against Superman, when the atmosphere on his spaceship drains Kal-El’s powers to make him vulnerable, as the full horror of Zod’s apocalyptic vision becomes apparent.
Zod’s most trusted warrior Faora-Ul is played by Antje Traue, her character seems to delight in her newfound powers, perhaps even more so than Zod. Her strength and skills are used to devastating effect, Traue is brilliant as the Kryptonian warrior, she gets to fight Superman and also ruthlessly cuts a swathe through the military forces sent against her.
Zack Snyder has brought us some of the most visually striking films in recent years, with Sucker Punch, 300, and Watchmen all delivering their fair quota of big action set-pieces – although sometimes at the expense of style over substance. What sets Man of Steel apart is the way Christopher Nolan’s influence has given the film a much wider scope, allowing the characters a chance to grow and develop, striking just the right balance between Zack Snyder’s earth shattering action sequences and the more emotively charged scenes. There are even a couple of well placed “Easter eggs” that hints towards other characters in the DC universe. However, the story does get a little bogged down at times, especially as Clark has to decide if he should surrender to Zod, and the religious imagery that accompanies much of this clunky exposition is less than subtle.
We also get a much deeper insight into how Clark’s powers work. The novelty of X-Ray vision and Super-Hearing are quickly dispelled, becoming a horrific assault on the senses, and it is this terrifying experience from his childhood that he uses against Zod during the initial stages of their conflict. The power of flight is also brilliantly portrayed, especially when Superman takes to the sky for the first time, you really get a sense of the raw power and effort it appears to take as Kal-El joyfully soars through the clouds at incredible speed.
The special effects for this $225 million dollar reboot are truly spectacular: Krypton’s death throes are an awesome spectacle to behold, a burning oil rig collapses into the sea, and a young Clark saves his schoolmates when their bus sinks into a river – and that’s just for starters. By the time Clark has discovered his Kryptonian identity, Zod arrives on Earth, soon the World Engine is threatening to tear the Earth apart, leading to a breathtaking finale where Superman battles Zod in Metropolis – where Snyder gives Michael Bay a run for his money in terms of wanton destruction and slavish pyrotechnic chaos. Here we get to see the full extent of their powers, every punch sends the other flying across the screen, buildings topple all around them, and when the dust settles the price of victory is high indeed.
Though its ending may prove to be too much of a step away from what defines the character for some, it still cannot diminish the added depth that Zack Snyder has managed to bring to the mythos of the last son of Krypton with Man of Steel. The films final act remains a breathtaking spectacle, this is the first time we have ever really seen Superman unleash his powers so ferociously on screen, and its made all the more exciting by the groundwork set down earlier in the film that paves the way to this monumental clash of the Kryptonian titans. Man of Steel may not be the perfect film we were hoping for, but it’s definitely a confident step in the right direction.