One of the better elements of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, and widely considered its best sequence, was that film’s opening credits montage, which forcefully played with pop culture iconography to impressive degrees. In a way, that sequence was an effective hint of what was to come with Snyder’s reboot of the Superman property; a cultural icon lavishly portrayed in a titanic fashion. It is big, bombastic pop cinema that wears its emotions on its sleeve and takes an everything-or-nothing approach to delivering its sci-fi melodrama tale on a grand scale. At accomplishing this, Man of Steel is, for the most part, a huge success.
The film opens with a prologue set on the dying planet of Krypton, following the future Superman’s father Jor-El (a fine Russell Crowe) and introducing the antagonistic group of General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his supporters. Jor-El has his son Kal, the first Kryptonian newborn of natural birth in centuries, sent off into space to any planet that can accommodate him, alongside a handy MacGuffin related to preserving some continuation of their race. The film throws itself full-force into space opera mode from the offset, but manages to avoid silliness and convey some thrilling gravitas despite these well-known origin story beats and only twenty minutes of running time. It is then admittedly a little jarring when upon having baby Kal crash-land on Earth, the film cuts to a twenty-something version of the last son of Krypton, now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), making his way around North America, working constantly changing jobs and having to keep using aliases because he just can’t help saving people.
The shift from the film’s initial linearity is so that Clark’s childhood can instead be depicted through various flashbacks. The approach feels a bit discordant at first, but eventually settles into a nice groove, their purpose being to establish this mysterious super-powered being having become a mythic figure even before finally discovering his roots and donning the famous outfit. Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent is a delight in these beautifully Americana-heavy flashbacks, finding emotional poignancy in quiet moments even amidst a sequence like a tornado set-piece. One senses Jonathan has rubbed off on Clark in a potent fashion through Cavill’s nicely understated take on Superman; he conveys a lot of shades, loneliness and naïvety among them, through even the smallest physical and vocal gestures.
The discovery of an ancient spacecraft in Northern Canada brings Clark into contact with his ancestry and reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Among the film’s revisions to the previous Superman film formula, such as the relative absence of the hero’s moniker (“Superman: that’s what they’re calling him, sir”), is an avoidance of Lois and Clark’s relationship being built on romance. Here it’s a camaraderie mounted on building respect between a focused, thoughtful Lane and the man at odds with how to operate in this world. One side effect of the approach is that when a kiss between them does occur towards the end of the film, it feels out of the blue and under-developed. Another aspect of the Superman lore that feels a little thin in realisation is the inclusion of The Daily Planet and even Metropolis itself, though Laurence Fishburne is a welcome presence as Perry White. Man of Steel is full of strong actors giving weight to small supporting roles, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff and Harry Lennix among them.
If one of the biggest issues with Watchmen was its slavishness to replicating specific panels from its source material, Man of Steel does a far better job in its evocation of comic book combat. Despite backdrops of extensive CG-assisted details, and the sheer mammoth power of the beings it concerns, every hit in the last hour’s extended set-pieces has palpability, and, in a real surprise considering the glut of superhero fiction in mainstream cinema, elicits actual oft-chilling awe at times. The one downside to the action-heavy hour is that while the spectacle is effectively delivered, it’s almost as though the inspiration behind the action was only a select few panels. There are two big brawls in both Smallville and Metropolis, and both sequences have a tendency to repeat the same beats of characters crashing into buildings or showing said structures falling, combined with an over-abundance of both CG zooms and especially shots of flying debris surrounding the background behind either Superman, Zod or one of the latter’s minions. One still feels all the brunt and the collateral damage, but the visualisation of it all admittedly gets a bit stale in stretches.
Despite these issues, Man of Steel’s aesthetic elements, Hans Zimmer’s score included, are generally stellar, and the film as a whole re-launches the character in a very strong fashion. The optimism of Superman’s roots nearly a century ago remain, but that notion is harder to grasp; Cavill’s Kal-El is arguably the most rounded, investable incarnation yet seen on screen. This is quite easily the best film of Snyder’s career so far, and though the go-for-broke audacity of the film’s style may be difficult for some to take, those able to succumb to this epic’s charms may find greatness.
— Josh Slater-Williams