We’re a bit later with our Man of Steel review than a lot of sites. Brendon ran a first impressions piece earlier in the week but he kindly left the longer-form review job to me.
That’s because while Brendon knows about film, all sorts of film, I just really like superhero movies.
Sure everybody likes Marvel’s Avengers movie. The Nolan Batman movies were all huge hits. But I even loved the superheroes with ‘kick me’ signs pinned to their capes: the cruelly underrated Iron Man 2. The somewhat overlooked Incredible Hulk. I even have a soft spot for Daredevil, which a lot of people slated. And you know how somebody had to have enjoyed Green Lantern?
..well, that somebody was me.
I tell you this to establish a baseline. I am unusually tolerant of big, stupid Summer tentpole movies. So if I tell you I liked Man Of Steel so much I want to ditch writing this review and go and watch it again, you know where that opinion is coming from.
So, before I stray into any detailed breakdown that might be considered spoilerish by more sensitive readers who are about to leave the room, let me leave them with that thought: I liked Man Of Steel so much I want to ditch writing this review and go and watch it again.
The first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies are the benchmark for Superman films. Reeve embodies the idealised purity of Superman, and won the hearts of moviegoers forever with his pitch-perfect characterisation of Clark Kent, the hero’s nebbish mask, . But there’s more than one Superman. The Reeve films evoked, for me, Silver Age Superman. The guy with the power of a god, but with a smile on his lips.
The Brandon Routh soft-reboot started well enough, with that breath-taking air rescue stunt, but the air slowly went out of that balloon as Routh’s Reeve tribute act gave way to Creepy Stalker Superman, and Deadbeat Dad Superman.
Man Of Steel makes no effort to evoke Reeve’s Smiling Silver Age Superman. This is a movie that wants to dazzle us with Kal’s power, not enchant us with Clark’s charm.
Of course every superhero franchise has to start with an origin story. We see more of Krypton than we’re used to. It’s a Brave New World sort of world, with genetically-engineered castes of perfect politicians, perfect warriors, and perfect scientists.
The perfect scientist we get to know is Jor-El. As played by Russell Crowe he’s a markedly more kickass scientist than any previous Jor-El. He’s brought into conflict with General Zod (Michael Shannon) in a way that sets up Zod’s later arrival on Earth much more clearly than the film we’re all going to be comparing this film to, Superman II.
Incidentally, is the House Of Zod insignia a little nod to Red Son? Or am I imagining that?
Once little Kal is launched on his way to Earth, director Zack Snyder moves things along quite quickly. There’s no long, idlyllic, childhood in Smallvile here. Kal is almost from the get-go effecting rescues, doing super-stuff. There’s all the expected New Testament imagery that you expect with a Superman movie – he’s 33 when he first puts on the suit by the way – but the short scenes of young Clark owe more to the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of St.Thomas than any approved Messianic text.
There are new slants on the origin of the Fortress Of Solitude, and of the start of the Superman-Lois Lane Romance. There are a lot of new slants on the Superman canon generally, but this is still a faithful and loving take on the Kal-El legend.
And it is explicitly the Kal-El show. It isn’t so much a Clark Kent story. With Christopher Reeve, no matter whether he had the Superman suit on or not, there was always a bit of his demeanour that was still Clark Kent. With Henry Cavill, whether he has the Superman suit on or not, there’s always an element of his performance that is Superman.
..and to extend the metaphor; with poor Brandon Routh, no matter what he was wearing, the clunky script ensured that those red underpants were always looped awkwardly around his ankles.
To make it explicitly a Kal-El story, Snyder has developed a complex interleaved structure, where key elements of the character’s development are told in short flashbacks rather than in a long block. I think we all know the Superman basics well enough that this plan works out just fine.
It’s still a while before Clark Kent actually puts on the suit. And in that time we discover that he is almost comically ripped. There are scenes in this film that many ladies, and certain special gentlemen, will enjoy immensely.
That connects to an attempt to explain Superman’s powers in more nuts & bolts terms. Krypton is described as a high-gravity world with an atmosphere that is toxic to humans. Clark’s metabolism learns to tolerate the different conditions on Earth and, almost as a by-product, manifests incredible powers.
Zod’s army of Kryptonian newcomers doesn’t have quite as much time to acclimatise, but is still a formidable force. There are rather more of them than we saw in Superman II, which means that we never quite get to know who they are. They’re just a (sometimes quite literally) faceless phalanx of goons to be dispatched by Supes and an admirably useful Lois.
The US military gets a look in too. They’re not the hapless surrender monkeys of Superman II. They fight admirably and make the ultimate sacrifice when required.
Of course no film about a colossal aerial assault on an American city, no matter how light-hearted, can ever escape the legacy of 9/11. Man Of Steel contains multiple scenes that evoke that awful, pivotal day. Skyscrapers tumble and civilians look up with ash-caked faces. The body count of the epic Kryptonian smackdown towards the end, while not explicitly shown, must be immense.
And it’s that epochal event in the new DC cinematic universe that is their ‘arrival of Thor’ and their ‘Battle Of New York’ all in one. If Warners were to spin a Justice League movie out of this timeline, it would make perfect sense Even though the only hints to a wider DCU that I spotted were a couple of LexCorp trucks.
Man of Steel is a luscious-looking film. It cares about its source material, but is not over-reverent. Amy Adams is a promisingly capable Lois Lane, even if she doesn’t have quite the sass of Margot Kidder’s wonderful take on the Pulitzer Prize winning illiterate.
There is an astounding amount of action in this film. The second half is really just one long battle. And the Superman we see here is a more uncompromisingly savage Superman than we’ve seen before. I think quite a few people will object to that.
Amid all the action there is from time to time a little too much Action Figure Smackdown™ where it gets a bit confusing about which CGI Kryptonian is punching which other CGI Kryptonian. But there are some action sequences that are pure joy; Clark discovering his ability to fly is a particular highlight.
No matter what I said here, I think this film will be an epic smasheroo. But if you’re interested, what I said was this;
I liked Man Of Steel so much I wanted to ditch writing this review and go and watch it again.