It HAS taken a long time to bring the world’s most iconic superhero to the big screen in a form that’s appropriate for the current golden age of comic book movies. Right out of the gate, Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman: The Movie got so much right that messing with it seemed like sacrilege – to the point where Bryan Singer’s nostalgic 2006 pseudo sequel Superman Returns backed itself into a reverential corner by casting someone to play Christopher Reeve rather than Clark Kent.
MAN OF STEEL (12A)
Directed by: Zack SNYDER
Starring: HENRY CAVILL, AMY ADAMS, RUSSELL CROWE, MICHAEL SHANNON, KEVIN COSTNER, DIANE LANE
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Mercifully, Man of Steel doesn’t make the same mistake. From the darkening of the tone and the underpants-free costume to the meatiness of the action and the sonorous, soaring score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), virtually all traces of the previous films have been eliminated from Zack Snyder’s reboot. Instead it follows the lead of producer and co-writer Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, drawing from the vast mythology of a decades-old comic book hero (Superman is celebrating his 75th anniversary this very month) to reconfigure the character – mostly referred to by his Kryptonian name, Kal-El – in a way that feels fresh yet familiar, believable yet still fantastical and otherworldly.
Structurally the two films have a lot in common too. After a lengthy, spectacle-heavy prologue depicting the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton (now a dystopian, futuristic, Earth-like hellhole destabilised by failed population experiments and – as we learn from Superman’s dad, played by a Richard Burton-channeling Russell Crowe – decades spent irresponsibly plundering its natural resources), the film spends its first act skilfully flashing back-and-forth between Kal-El as a frightened kid in Kansas coming to terms with his powers, and as a mysterious adult wandering from place to place as he takes his first tentative steps towards becoming the cape-wearing superhero we all know he’s destined to become.
As the latter, Brit actor Henry Cavill steps immediately out from the shadow of Reeve. Buff, bearded and brooding, he’s like modern-day messiah as he searches for clues to his origins and parentage, leaving in his wake legends of miraculous deeds and frightened and awestruck witnesses confused about who or what he is. Snyder takes care not to over-egg these rather obvious biblical parallels, but since they’re hard-wired into the character’s DNA (and indeed the DNA of most superheroes), he doesn’t try to outrun them either. All the little speeches running through the film (particularly during the young Clark’s exchanges with his foster father, played by an excellent Kevin Costner) about leaps of faith, forgiveness and searching for the good in people coalesce into a character who lives by a strong moral code.
Of course, that’s always been a key trait of Superman and, as a result, he’s frequently written off as a bit of a Boy Scout. But that doesn’t mean he has to be boring, and Snyder balances all the character work with some action sequences that make full use of modern technology to unleash Superman’s powers in a way that makes them seem genuinely spectacular. His first big fight sequence with Michael Shannon’s General Zod, a Krypton fascist bent on holding Earth to ransom as part of a genocidal plan to rehabilitate his and Kal-El’s people, pretty much lays waste to Smallville, but it’s also involving and thrillingly kinetic in a way that the CGI-heavy smack-downs in rival Marvel movies rarely are. We may be watching indestructible super-beings facing off against each other, but there’s still a sense of threat and consequences to their actions, particularly in the final act, which, like Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, goes heavy on the 9/11 imagery.
If that strikes you as a little tasteless, it’s important to remember that, as a character, Superman was partially born out of the impending horrors of Nazism and the Jewish exodus from Europe, so it makes sense that a new version would draw on contemporary horrors to make it resonate for a modern audience. Naturally such things make Man of Steel quite a sombre film, but it’s not an oppressive viewing experience. The iconic moments have a euphoric, magisterial quality to them and there are even a few visual gags too (eagle-eyed viewers will likely spot a few references to Lex Luthor).
The film’s (not-so) secret weapon, though, is Lois Lane – a magnificent Amy Adams – and her relationship with Kal-El. In the film’s boldest move, Snyder dispenses with the Lois Lane/Superman/Clark Kent charade by having Lois figure out the Kent connection early on, freeing him up to develop their chemistry in other ways and setting up a magnificent final shot that plays on the notion – memorably articulated in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – that the meek, mild-mannered Clark Kent rather than Superman is the costumed freak. That bodes well for future instalments, but it’s the story at hand that really impresses. It’s good to have Superman back.