After the almighty travesty of celluloid that was Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder had to make some serious amends for me to begin to give Man of Steel the time. Slowly the adverts drew me in, the involvement of Nolan & Goyer on scripting & conception suggested this would be something different, something possibly worth the time. Whilst Man of Steel isn’t anywhere near perfect, it’s certainly a vast improvement over Sucker Punch and possibly his best film since he remade Dawn of the Dead.
Enough of the Superman story remains for this to still be recognisable, but like Batman Begins, this updates the story into a modern film-making framework. Truth and justice remain, but clearly the American way has been ditched as the question of how the states treats foreigners is alluded to. Yes, he comments that he’s from Kansas and thus about as American as they come, but that’s after the main meat of the film has played out. This is an altogether more serious approach (although not adult, there are still jaw dropping amounts of carnage), this is not bright and breezy – the bumbling Clark Kent is absent for much of the film, although wonderfully alluded to at the end.
So what is a success? Well for one thing it moves the story out of the comic genre into something approaching science fiction. The opening Krypton scenes are superb as massive ships bombard the surface – Zod’s crimes are seen rather than alluded to here – and the population is grown in pods for the reasons of eugenics, the sense of scale is immense. These scenes also indicate that whilst he makes occasional duff choices, Russell Crowe is still a damn fine actor when he wants to be. There’s just enough of a twinkle behind the gravitas here to make these scenes fun, indeed the film could lose ten minutes off its middle to expand this part of the story, and the thought of Snyder doing a proper hard science fiction film is possibly something to savour.
Likewise, Henry Cavill makes a fine Kal-El (is Clark Kent not being front and centre), being the right mixture of physical presence and physical calm to give the sense that he could split the world in two if he wanted. Michael Shannon is an odd choice for Zod, but there’s something about him that makes it work. I wish there was a little more for Amy Adams to do as Lois Lane, but that problem may be because the focus here is on two near-gods duking it out.
Technology has caught up enough to properly portray a true clash of the titans, and for the majority of the second half of the film this is what we get as Superman and Zod cut loose on each other, reducing much of Metropolis to ashes in the process. This is where the films problems begin, quite simply it goes on a little too long and it’s sometimes hard to separate what the difference is between the two (not physically – the production design is superb and it’s always clear what is going on), both seem hell bent on reducing the other to ashes. There’s little of Superman as someone who saves lives, although maybe that’s the point? The denouncement certainly takes us on an unusual route (and one I don’t want to spoil), and looking back it sort of makes sense of what precedes it, but subtle characterisation has never been Snyder’s strong point.
In all, the good is good enough to make it worth seeing. For once the film doesn’t feel too long, just occasionally focussed in the wrong areas. The characterisation sometimes relies a little too much on the audiences familiarity with the characters (and when it does diverge it goes in some odd directions – I’m still unsure as to where they were going with Pa Kent, although Costner is very good). It’s a little muddled around the edges relying on you to fill in the gaps. However, the casting is very good, the action scenes brilliant and the production design nothing short of superb (the armour designs are beautiful). I’d like to see more of Kent emerging in the sequels, more humour, but this is still a very good summer movie – not quite top drawer, but certainly better than most.