Every Superman movie comes with unreasonable expectations. We already saw how the 2006 Superman Returns directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh (whatever happened to his career?) turned out when it tried to reboot the franchise with a more serious, thoughtful take on the Superman mythology. It wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was, but no matter which way you look at it, the film was a bitter disappointment.
And so I was somewhat apprehensive about yet another reboot, the long-awaited Man of Steel headed by Zack Snyder, the man who gave us 300 and Watchmen, two flawed films I really enjoyed. Snyder is supposedly a massive Superman geek who knows the universe inside out. Coupled with his unique visual flair and penchant for relentless action, it seemed like a good fit. Indeed, the initial trailers and the pre-release word of mouth were promising.
Having now watched the film and given some time digest, I have to admit I still found Man of Steel a disappointment — albeit one that was very interesting (especially in the first half) and had a lot of positives going for it.
One of the biggest positives is Henry Cavill, formerly the unluckiest man in Hollywood (having just lost out on the lead role in Superman Returns to Brandon Routh, Casino Royale to Daniel Craig, and Twilight to Shovelface Pattinson),. Cavill is perfect as Clark Kent/Superman. Apart from being superhumanly handsome and buffed out of his mind, he exudes a vulnerability that at times reminded me of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Nolan, by the way, served as a producer on Man of Steel.
Secondly, a problem with any Superman movie is that everyone knows the plot, so kudos to Snyder for making an origins story that covers some things we have not seen before, or at least not done in a way we’ve already seen before. I’m no Superman expert, but I understand there are quite a few subtle adjustments to the story, characters and narrative progression that made the film feel familiar but fresh.
The best parts of the film, surprisingly (or not surprisingly), are where Superman is out of his suit (which made the controversial decision to keep the underwear inside this time), the bits where he is learning who he is and how to control his powers. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do a magnificent job as Clark Kent’s parents, stealing the show with the most human and emotional portions of the movie.
So the first half of Man of Steel is brilliant, dare I say almost Nolan-esque. The second half, when the villain, Zod, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon, arrives on Earth — well, that’s when things start to unravel and the film morphs into your more conventional superhero affair…except that it goes on for far too long and the carnage is so overboard that it all becomes numbing and dull. OK, maybe “dull” is taking it too far, but the tension and excitement was certainly not commensurate to the number of buildings being blown to pieces.
That said, the special effects were very good, and it wasn’t easy distinguishing between what’s real and what’s CGI. Some of the Krypton technology was pretty cool too, a clever divergence from the typical alien technology you might have seen in the past.
I like Amy Adams, but I never really liked Lois Lane in this one. Her relationship with Superman didn’t feel close enough to warrant some of the interactions between them. It was like we had to accept that there was chemistry between them (when there wasn’t) just because she’s Lois Lane. Adams is good, but the character felt lacking.
As for Russell Crowe as Jor-El, I have to admit he is pretty good in a “I’m Russell Crowe, the greatest f*&%ing actor in the world!” kind of way. I didn’t expect he’d have so much screen time either.
I sound more negative about Man of Steel than I should be, but only because my expectations were so high. The cast and the first half of the film were super but for whatever reason the storytelling in the second half lacked the emotional depth that would have made it a great film. And it was unnecessarily long. All things considered though, it is a solid Superman flick that is clearly better than Superman Returns, but not quite what I believe it was trying to achieve — ie, Dark Knight territory. Perhaps the planned sequel(s) can get there.
3.5 stars out of 5