It’s fair to say that Marvel has been battering DC in the plex stakes in recent years – with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. From Iron Man (three films) to X-Men (what’s it? Six including the upcoming Wolverine?), to Thor, Captain America, Spidey, The Hulk and – of course – Joss Whedon’s mega-mega Avengers Assemble, it’s been pretty much one-way traffic, even if you include the Green Lantern movie, which almost qualified as a DC own goal for Stan Lee and Marvel.
So DC was overdue a big-hitter other than Gotham City’s Caped Crusader, and the obvious choice was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, last seen in cinemas in Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns. But unlike Singer’s version, Man of Steel goes back to the beginning, something Hollywood hasn’t done with Superman since Christopher Reeve debuted in 1978.
Given his success with the recent Batman trilogy, it’s no surprise to see Christopher Nolan on board as both a producer and a writer, but this time around the director’s chair went to Zack Snyder, a man with impeccable comic/geek/blockbuster credentials. His directorial debut was a remake of Dawn of the Dead (heralding the zombie craze that continues to this day), and he followed that with an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, and then went on to film Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, Watchmen.
So far, thumbs-up. A glance at the cast and the mood gets even more upbeat. The relatively unknown Henry Cavill – his biggest previous role was in US cable company Showtime’s drama The Tudors – landed the Clark/Kal/Superman role, but he's got a great Clark Kent face. Around him are some impressive acting chops, ranging from Michael Shannon (who’s been a hoot as Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire) playing General Zod, the film’s main antagonist, to Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, Diane Lane as Ma, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Supe’s birth father. Laurence Fishburne's an ideal choice to play Daily Planet boss, Perry White, as is Amy Adams in the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder.
All we need now is a movie.
Opening with a welcome and lengthy look at Krypton as the doomed planet headed towards destruction, we get quite the lowdown on how baby Kal-El ended up on Earth while Zod, along with his coup-hungry co-conspirators, were despatched to a cryogenic limbo. It gets the film off to a great start, but unfortunately it’s also the high-point, as the plot gets a little bit sketchy before it goes all Transformers.
After Kal-El’s landing on Earth, the story skips ahead to an adult Clark Kent, an apparently aimless drifter who moves from job to job and town to town, with various flashbacks filling in some back story, showing why he has been reluctant to reveal his true self to the world. As Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent points out to young Clark: "You’re the answer to whether we’re alone in the universe." It’s quite a burden to place on any pair of shoulders, even ones capable of carrying Cavill’s impressive, quarterback-like torso.
Out of the blue, a hard-nosed journalist, Lois Lane, happens to be in the same part of frozen Canada as Kent, and he ends up saving her life. Before you can shout "UFO!", General Zod and his mutinous Krypton crew tell the world that they’ve 24 hours to hand over Kal-El or it’s ka-boom time for humanity. So Clark Kent decides to get superhero-suited and come out of hiding and ally himself with the very Earth folk he feared would react negatively to his existence.
What follows, basically, is a visually stunning if ponderously long fight-off between Superman and Zod’s mob that turns Metropolis into Rubbletown. They make even more of a mess than the Avengers and Loki managed in Avengers Assemble, where the fighting threatened to spill off-screen, like a spandex version of Blazing Saddles.
While it’s understandable that what starts out as an exploration of the brittle mental state of someone in Kal-El’s unique situation descends into a skyscraper-splitting Mill of All Mills (target audience: game-playing 12-14-year-old boys), it is a pity that so much film time is taken up with impressing younger views with spectacular CGI. I mean, it’s not as if comics and superheroes are for kids.
Seriously though, while there is much to enjoy in Man of Steel, it’s caught between being a spectacular action movie and a relatively thoughtful study of someone unique and unsure of themselves in a potentially hostile world where conformity is almost compulsory. Fair play to them trying to satisfy both camps, but it ultimately falls somewhere in-between and may satisfy only the hardcore fans, which would be a shame.
But redemption is at hand. Without giving anything of consequence away, the final scene sets things up just nicely for a sequel, which was announced just as this review was completed. So, who’s going to play Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor?