Written by Zac Platt.
Walking in to see Man of Steel, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. On one hand there is the burden of a new DC property needing compete with the Avengers franchise, and with a character as iconic and well-explored as Superman. But with director Zack Snyder’s clear love for the source material and that incredible first trailer, there was definitely the potential for it to be something special. As is usually the case with Snyder, he puts the action and the atmosphere at the forefront rather than the characters, making Man of Steel a fun and explosive foundation to a new franchise, but still a fairly forgettable Superman film.
What Snyder did get right was to differentiate Man of Steel by making it a little more “sci-fi” than “superhero”. It’s a side of Superman very familiar to comic readers, but probably less so for the regular movie-goer. The epilogue set on Superman’s home-world is impressively grand and otherworldly. While I question the practicality of a lot of Krypton’s technology, the fantasy sensibilities of the film’s design do manage to add a little more magic and reverence than the more grounded realizations we have seen. The film’s preference of style over credibility is most obvious in an expository scene explaining the villains origin with a very dubious shifting metal motion-comic machine. But given the subject matter (and how gorgeous that scene was) it’s probably the right direction to have taken.
There are a few plot holes here and there, but suspension of disbelief is mandatory when watching solar-powered space aliens doing their best Dragonball Z impressions and beating the holy-hell out of each other. That being said, the film does take a very logical and mature approach to superpowers and our hero’s development, which adds weight to the incredible action scenes. Snyder does an amazing job of capturing the godlike power of Superman and villain Zod as they duke it out on a scale that’s right up there with the New York battle in The Avengers. Not once does it delve into Michael Bay territory: where you know big things are happening but can’t really make them out. Though these sequences would be much more effective if they were spaced a little more evenly throughout the film’s 143 minute run time.
There definitely are some Nolan-esque pacing issues with Man of Steel. The first half seems to be told in an almost episodic structure, which could have been quite effective if it didn’t dissipate once the main conflict began, making the story feel a little unfocussed. Snyder’s problem in general is that he tends to believe so strongly in the concepts of his films that he feels free to let them stand on their own while he concentrates on keeping it visually interesting. His approach for adaptations is to copy the source as closely as possible rather than explore its themes and characters in the film medium. This worked excellently with 300, terribly with Watchmen, leaving Man of Steel sitting somewhere in the middle.
There are two key moments in Man of Steel that should have been incredible payoffs, but because we don’t spend anytime justifying Superman’s motivations they fall tragically flat. The emotional integrity of the film relies on the audience empathizing with both Superman’s need to keep his identity secret, and his isolation and longing to discover the truth about himself. But it’s never earned, we are just told these things matter with no evidence that Clark and his family are anything but whiny and paranoid. With superheroes, character is everything, and sadly this is Man of Steel’s weakest attribute.
Henry Cavill is a passable, if not forgettable, Clark Kent/Superman. He captures the insecurity and loneliness well, but fails to carry the more fatherly traits integral to the characters progression. General Zod is about as cookie cutter a villain as you can get, but Michael Shannon does manage to elevate the moustache-twirler in the script into someone a little more sympathetic and human. If there are any standouts in the cast though, it would be Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Superman’s biological and adoptive fathers. Though different in their philosophies, both guide Clark from beyond the grave with a very honest and parental sense of hope and fear about the future of their godlike son. While their time in the film is brief, their characters are by far the best realized.
Unfortunately Snyder once again gives us a little too much eye candy and not enough heart. The film struggles with the balance between being grand and being human. Putting aside the missed potential and thematic missteps, there is still a lot of fun to be had here. If you can leave the comparisons to some of the more recent superhero successes at home, Man of Steel is a pretty enjoyable action movie with some truly epic scale. If that’s not enough, you can at least marvel at the achievement of giving us a whole Superman movie without a single mention of Kryptonite. Bravo Guys, Bravo.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10