Now that’s a summer movie I’ve been waiting for! In reality I could end the review right now, because I have just shown my hand and, quite honestly, no amount of words will convey how awesome “Man of Steel” really is. Nonetheless, I think I’d like to say a little bit more on the subject.
Following yesterday’s screening of the long-awaited reboot of the Superman franchise I was so pumped I had serious difficulties focusing my thoughts enough to write the review and I spent a better part of the evening listening to the excerpts from the Hans Zimmer’s score to “Man of Steel” (which is epic, by the way, and come Monday there is no force in the universe that could stop me from buying the CD) wearing my Superman T-Shirt and feeling awesome and invincible. And before I get to the nitty gritty, I just wanted to say that this is what a superhero film is supposed to do to you; it ought to be the definition of ‘awesome’, epic and unforgettable. Clearly, Shane Black could learn a thing or two from Zack Snyder, because “Man of Steel” is everything that “Iron Man 3” isn’t. While it certainly has its flaws, which I’ll discuss later on, the film delivers on almost all fronts by being respectful to the iconic stature of Superman in pop-culture and all the while elevating his story to the proper modern standard.
The origin stories in superhero universes are almost invariably awkward – just as adolescence is in real life, I presume. In them one needs to provide enough background information for the story to actually count as an origin, but it needs to be done with some class so that it’s not heavy-handed. We all know how easy it is to desensitize the viewer by overloading him with data (“Oblivion” and “After Earth”, I’m looking at you, guys) and going for a sloppy brush-over job is not going to cut it any longer; it’s not the 70’s any more and we have the technical capabilities to give Kal-El a proper background story, without the cheap crystals, sheets and bathrobes. Moreover, “Man of Steel” – whilst clunky in the beginning in delivering the actual background – did give Superman solid foundation in his universe with very vivid interpretation of his home planet Krypton and the plot that led him to Earth.
In that spirit – for those who are unaware – it all begins on a distant planet Krypton. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) is born and it is a special affair. I shan’t reveal why that is, because by some it might be seen as a minor twist in the movie, but the newly born Kal-El needs to be protected at all cost. More so because his father – being an important figure in the governing structures – discovers that Krypton has become unstable and is going to explode, thus claiming lives of its inhabitants. No-one, including the ruling council, believes Jor-El’s gruesome revelations, apart from General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup d’etat to ensure the planet’s survival. Jor-El doesn’t trust the young and ruthless general and refuses to join him. Despite all that, Zod with his insurgents carry on what they started, but Jor-El gets killed in the process. He does, however, ensure that his son is sent off in a capsule headed specifically to Earth. The revolution gets thwarted in the end, Zod and his henchmen banished, and Krypton – according to Jor-El’s predictions – meets its untimely demise.
When Kal-El lands on Earth (somewhere in Kansas) he is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who adopt him as their son and name him Clark. As the boy grows up, his other-worldly powers start to surface and make Clark into a social outcast. After years of living in solitude, drifting through the world and living under various aliases, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) gets a shot at understanding his past, his powers and his reason to exist. He tags along as a technician on an expedition where a young and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a possibly alien artefact frozen in polar ice for millennia, which will turn out vital for Kal-El to become what he needs to become. And little does he know, that once banished General Zod, now brutally scarred, betrayed and hungry for retribution has found Kal-El’s refuge and will stop at nothing in order to claim his revenge.
This is why I think origins stories are difficult to get right: it takes 350 words to summarize 25-30 minutes of a film and I think I held myself back a little with the details and intricacies of the story. I would certainly understand that to some people the first act of “Man of Steel” feels a bit out of tune and needs a bit of time to start rolling, and by the time the final act is upon us, it’s gleefully steam-rolling through the screen in a sensory overload of epic proportions. However, I found the first act quite pleasing, as the very details of Clark’s coming of age are delivered through flashbacks and dreams instead of a blatant biopic-like borefest. While this approach feels fragmented and slows down the pace, it never really hurts the story as a whole, because meanwhile we get to see how Clark slowly becomes Superman by gradually learning to understand and love the people of Earth. I personally loved, how Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer chose to deliver Superman’s mission. While Kal-El is far away from being dark and edgy, he is no longer the clumsy Clark Kent, as portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve – Henry Cavill’s Superman is no mere superhero… He is not your friendly boy scout, for he is a messiah. By the way, when Clark finally finds his roots, hones his powers and comes to terms with his mission in life, he is 33 years of age – just like Jesus… And his character is led more or less in a messianic way, with selfless choices and sacrifices he is willing to make.
But that is not the best part… The best part is that “Man of Steel” finally delivers a Superman that we needed. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate Chris Reeve’s classic Superman, but the forty years that stands between us make him look… cute and adorable… “Man of Steel” gives us a Superman that – no questions asked – is faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Henry Cavill’s Superman is the supersonic indestructible god it ought to have been for decades now. Thanks to technical advances in special effects, Superman is no longer a levitating guy in a red cape – he is a force of nature and any sequence with Kal-El in it is quite simply jaw-dropping. Indubitably, “Man of Steel” goes to ridiculous lengths to show us how gods would fight each other. Everything about this film is ultra-fast, massive, epic and packed with adrenaline. Whilst the first act is quite slow, dreamy, or even clunky, the remainder of the film compensates for it in a way you have never seen before.
On top of all that – the action and epic sequences – we can also find some solid acting in “Man of Steel”. Henry Cavill (first non-American to portray Superman) does a fantastic job at grounding Kal-El in the world he is in, so that it feels more natural to see him emerge as a god who would give his life to save his compatriots. While Cavill’s demeanour certainly fits the expectations, he surely doesn’t feel like a run-of –the-mill Chris Reeve lookalike, but breathes new life into Kal-El’s character and contributes vastly to the impact of “Man of Steel”. Amy Adams as Lois Lane very nicely adds to the picture. I didn’t seem to understand what her game really was for a while, because Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” is not just a damsel in distress any more (well, she is once or twice), but I think she is more of an embodiment of everything Kal-El is fighting for.
And the villain… Having a believable and scary villain in a movie is almost as important as getting your protagonist right. Michael Shannon as general Zod does a fine job creating a frightening and ultimately dangerous counter-balance to Kal-El. If it hadn’t been for certain one-liners and the initial insurgence plot-line, I would have thought Shannon’s Zod was close to the level of Ledger’s Joker, but he clearly had to grow into the boots he wore on the screen. While the older scary Zod is a fine villain and I have nothing against him, the younger Zod who revolted against Jor-El was quite artificial and laughable (almost like Commodus in “Gladiator”) and I couldn’t find him scary or threatening at all. On the other hand, that might have been the plan all along as Zod’s character seems to grow scarier in time, so that by the time we hit the climax, he’s got everything he needs. A late-blooming villain, but still…
In summary, “Man of Steel” has become my personal favourite Superman movie and it definitely is the biggest summer film for me. Well, until “Pacific Rim” is out, but that we shall see… Anyway, it is an all-round powerful sci-fi that recognises Superman’s mythos and is not afraid to bring something new to the table. The special effects are delicious and perfectly crafted and one can clearly notice someone has been taking notes from J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” with the lens flares, shooting against the light and super-zooming. Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon gave bang-on performances and only Russell Crowe looked to me as if he didn’t belong there quite as much. All this was covered with a thick layer of icing in a form of a powerful and truly epic score by Hans Zimmer, who has managed to slip in some uplifting crescendos in between the lines, so that the overall messianic feel of Superman’s mission was all the more elevated in the end.
By know I realized this article has become too long to be ended with finesse, so I shall say only this: “Man of Steel” turned out to be not only a great summer movie, not only a great Superman movie, but a very good movie in general. In fact, the film was so good that – contrary to what I normally say – I can’t wait to see the sequel…