Superman is kind of a big deal.
However he has been conspicuous by his absence from the big screen in recent years. After Superman Returns (2006) failed to resonate with audiences as well as its mutant, web-slinging and brooding comic stable mates, transforming an indestructible man with unimpeachable morals into a relatable character began to look like an unenviable task.
That said Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder knows all too well the challenges of adapting a beloved graphic novel or two and brings his own flair for visual effects and action to a tightly-plotted, modern origin story co-devised by Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer which does not disappoint.
It’s a familiar tale: Krypton’s leading scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have a child, Kal-El – the first natural birth on Krypton for centuries. With the destruction of their planet imminent, they send their son to Earth knowing he could be an outcast, or a god.
Meanwhile General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a failed coup to seize Krypton which gets him and his followers banished to the Phantom Zone but not before vowing to hunt Kal down.
The opening 20 minutes shows more of Krypton than any Superman movie has before; you get an idea of its grandeur and strangeness before its destruction. Lara’s tender goodbye to her son and the clash between Jor-El and Zod kicks the film off with just the right level of action and emotion.
Fast forward to adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) anonymously drifting from job to job and you don’t see a god-like figure of perfection; you see a man avoiding a world that might reject and fear him. You get an idea of the loneliness he’s grown up with, that’s new, and brings some much-needed pathos.
Investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) joins the story after witnessing Clark’s abilities first hand. Chasing a scoop, she uncovers his well-hidden tracks and before long Zod stays true to his vow and arrives on Earth to exact his vengeance. The stage is set for a final act Kryptonian barny on the streets of Smallville.
The film works because Snyder et al take the mythology seriously.
Clark isn’t portrayed as a hero in dork’s clothing; he’s a man wrestling with his Kryptonian and human identities to become the person who embodies the best qualities of both. Man Of Steel’s Superman is a hero we have not seen before. Casting Costner and Crowe is also spot on; the two personify humanity’s integrity and Kryptonian valour respectively and both have a hand in Clark’s development.
Shannon’s steely-eyed menace is mesmerising. Everything Zod does is for Krypton, and his single-mindedness snaps from eerie calm to snarling rage in a frightening instant.
Action scenes are enjoyably over the top but it is satisfying to see the threat level so high.
Adams is the right choice for Lois but she’s arguably the weakest link with a few great moments giving way to a rushed romance that would’ve felt more natural in a sequel. On the plus side the character doesn’t get fooled by a pair of glasses – a glaring plot hole for a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist if ever there was one. A bit more from her and Martha (Diane Lane) would not have gone amiss.
Don’t let the Nolan/Goyer connection throw you; Superman isn’t about to get ‘gritty’ for the sake of it. The trailers have held back a lot of the action and it’s a colourful and imaginative film that does more with Krypton, character development and action than you might expect. It plays around with familiar characters and storylines while giving us something fresh and dropping hints for the future.
Superman’s last outing clung too tightly to the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner era and the film struggled to find its own identity.
Thankfully Man Of Steel does not make that mistake. Snyder gleefully takes the Superman story back to zero in a welcome break from the previous movie continuity which explores both sides of the superhero’s nature.
Just as the symbol on Kal-El’s chest stands for hope, Man Of Steel represents the hope for this rebooted franchise. It’s a modern Superman story carving its own path free of the shackles of nostalgia, and an outstanding summer blockbuster.