Man of Steel is the bold, brash, blue-ish grey reboot of the Superman mythos by director Zack Snyder. Taking the more Christopher Nolan route than the recent Marvel route, he presents to his audience a dark and brooding take on the last son of Krypton that follows Kal-El’s growth from wonderkid to Super-Man and has him lead the charge into the new DC Cinematic Universe.
Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is the apparent last survivor of an apocalypse that destroys his home world of Krypton. Launched to Earth by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), he is found by Joanathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and raised as his own son in Smallville. Following Joanathan’s death he travels the world trying to understand his true identity, while coming to terms with his incredible powers. The discovery of technology that creates a Fortress of Solitude for him is a precursor to an attack on Earth by fellow surviving Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) who vows to wipe out humanity unless Kal-El gives him the technology in the Fortress that will allow him to resurrect his people under his rule.
The old issues with presenting a character like Superman raise their ugly head throughout, with his indestructability removing most tension and threat. Realistically the only way to portray him is to point the camera inwards and look at the internal conflict between his true self and his secret identity, and between his power and his responsibility. Man of Steel toys with both these themes to varying levels of success.
The biggest problem is that the origin story element has been taken by Snyder to mean that he can toy with the core basis of the character, which leads to some very un-Superman like behaviour that jars with the iconic man of steel. What does work though is his constant decision to hold back from enacting violence upon others, that is until Michael Shannon’s camp-free Zod comes stomping and barking into view. Finally with someone who can take the punishment in the picture, Kal-El unloads his years of being bullied into one person. The fact that he goes too far is interesting, but something that needs to be explored further to be truly effective.
Where it succeeds is the broad, sweeping vistas and the casual Terrence Malick cutaways. In many ways this represents the closest a superhero blockbuster will get to the art house crowd. To say that Christopher Nolan’s style is apparent would be an understatement and there’s a real sense of trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle as Batman Begins. Sadly it falls short. Man of Steel is no Begins and this Superman is no Bale Batman.
Another area where Man of Steel slips up is in its lack of levity. There are no belly laughs as you might expect in a Marvel film. This is supposed to be serious cinema, and the thought of actual laughter is banished along with Superman’s red pants. You can have a series, dramatic comic book, superhero film, but here the brooding tone becomes somewhat unbearable at times with only the loud, explosive action there to break the monotony.
Fortunately something that Zack Snyder is very good at is action and art design and here he is at his best. The beautiful landscapes are one thing, but the living world of Krypton is fantastically realised with incredible touches of genius like the shifting metal and the explosive end of the planet. This juxtaposition between futuristic other-world and homely Earth provide the backdrop to Kal-El’s plight and internal strife.
Snyder’s fight-scene direction remains something of real artistic merit, with the slow-fast-slow method employed to great effect. It’s visceral and heart-pounding in its spectacle and while the collateral damage is worryingly enormous, you cannot deny the scope and size of the battles.
When you bring everything together however, what you’re left with as an uneven comic book film that veers wildly between the absurd and the mundane, between the beautiful and the dull and between the epic and preposterous.