Review by Mark Potter.
Man of Steel is currently the number one movie in the world. A bold, modern retelling of the Superman story this is an instant classic that will be looked back on for many years as perhaps the definitive take on the first superhero. Please be warned this article contains lots of SPOILERS, you have been warned.
It must have seemed like a gamble to bring back the Last Son of Krypton, the previous attempt 2006’s Superman Returns proving to be to melancholic and lacking in spectacle to offer serious box office performance. Enter Christopher Nolan the man who resurrected Batman to such spectacular effect with his Dark Knight Trilogy to get things moving.
Nolan along with his fellow Dark Knight alumni David Goyer set about rebooting Superman to retell his origin, how he came to earth and how his presence is first announced to the world. This would be a movie that would have no sly winks to the past or trip over itself by referencing movies many audience members would never have even seen, something that scuppered the recent Star Trek sequel Into Darkness. This would in effect be Superman Begins. This was always going to be a movie that required a director not afraid to tackle action on a huge scale, a director who could tackle character moments alongside effects heavy scenes. Nolan and Goyer looked to Zack Snyder who had proven a master at adapting comics to the big screen with his critically acclaimed takes on 300 and Watchmen.
And what a beginning it has proven to be. Opening with Superman’s mother in the throes of childbirth we are plunged straight into this new take on our heroes’ home world of Krypton. Gone are the icy structures of the old movies here we are presented with huge vistas where mountains and towers shimmer in the bright orange sunlight. This is a world where advanced technology mixes with huge beasts of burden. Some people have asked why some characters fly around on animals when they have spaceships available to them but do people on Earth not still ride horses even though cars are everywhere, this might be an alien planet but it isn’t so different from our own so as to alienate the viewer (take note James Cameron). This is a science fiction movie told with huge scope.
Krypton however is not in a good state, years of mining its natural resources have led to its imminent destruction, frustrated by ineffectual rulers’ chief scientist and father to Superman, Jor-El begs to be handed control of the DNA codex that controls the birth of children on Krypton promising he can ensure the future of their race. Before he can get an answer the films big bad comes wading in to try and seize political control.
And what a big bad he is, General Zod played by actor Michael Shannon is a seething mass of burning intensity convinced the actions he is taking are for the good of his people and anyone who disagrees with him is an enemy. This new take on Zod also shows that while he may be capable of monstrous deeds he is doing it because he feels it is what must be done. There is no kneeling to be done around this guy!
Once Superman, still known as baby Kal-El arrives on Earth he is adopted by the kindly farming couple the Kent’s. Playing the growing up part of the story as a linear narrative could have caused the film to lose all momentum and this is where Snyder and the other film makers are to be applauded as they chart the newly christened Clark’s growth from boy to man in a serious of flashbacks. The Kent’s are now played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner two actors who bring gravitas without seeming over earnest. Costner having starred in many successful westerns over the years looks totally at home among the crops of Kansas a man truly at one with his environment and doing his best to raise and nurture a son while all the time keeping secret his rapidly developing powers. Lane’s portrayal of Martha is idealistic and charming always ready and waiting with faithful dog by her side whenever her son returns home.
Make no mistake this film is about the journey Clark goes on, first to discover where he really came from and then on his way to assuming the mantle of Superman. He is leading a nomadic existence, taking jobs across the country and helping out where he can. One early sequence sees him coming to the rescue of oil rig workers then taking work in a roadside bar where he overhears Canadian service personnel talking about a mysterious object found in glacial ice. The pacing is pitch perfect we all want to see him in the suit but we know he isn’t ready yet, he needs to interact with regular people to help him decide what he is going to do with his life.
Not long after we are introduced to Lois Lane played by the stunningly beautiful Amy Adams, she is strong, determined and not afraid to go toe to toe with senior figures in the United States military. Lois believing she is here to cover the news story soon finds herself drawn into Clark’s journey.
It is here in the craft amongst the ice that Clark finally begins to find his answers and Lois gets to see some of his powers in action. She may find herself left behind on the glacier while Clark and the craft disappear but there is no way she won’t be seeing him again which gives us some great moments as she plays the detective role searching for this mystery man with the incredible powers.
Once he has departed in the craft Clark encounters Jor-El whose consciousness inhabits the ship thus allowing Russell Crowe more screen time (which is always welcome) and for his son to have someone to explain everything to him. Now with the knowledge of his past and the bequeathing of the iconic suit, Clark now Superman at last (though not yet by name) steps out in a camera shot that screams iconic. The crafts doors slowly open and our hero is silhouetted with glowing light as he makes his grand entrance to the world. So far we have only seen Clark leaping vast distances but here he finally hones his power and is able to take flight and thanks to modern technology his first flight around the world and up into the atmosphere is nothing short of glorious the pulse pounding score by Hans Zimmer matches perfectly as Superman enjoys this new found mastery of flight and we the audience are subjected to a severe case of goose bumps!
This euphoria is short lived however as first Lois Lane discovers who her mystery man is and in a key scene confronts Clark by the grave of his father Jonathan. His impassioned speech about the world not being ready to know what he really is convinces Lois to bury the story. To her the truth will have to be saved for another day. Soon though Clark will have no choice but to reveal himself as General Zod and his crew of exiled Kryptonian’s return from their exile in a black hole and arrive in Earth orbit seeking the child who was evacuated from Krypton just before its destruction. Taking over all telecommunication broadcasts Zod delivers a chilling ultimatum to the world, Kal-El must be returned or Earth will suffer the consequences. The scene is striking coming across as a science fiction take on the terror warning videos that have unfortunately become so common to us in the last decade.
Superman not knowing what to do seeks advice from a priest in a small church and in an incredibly powerful exchange they discuss what should be done. Superman has always worked as a Christ metaphor and there are several instances of this throughout the movie with a crucifix pose as he returns to Earth from orbit and the fact he is 33 years old (Christ’s supposed age when he was crucified), none of this feels implicit or blasphemous and the audience can take as much or as little from it as they want. This is surely a Nolan trick of not telling the audience what to think but letting them make up their own minds. Think of The Dark Knight Rises, where is the Joker? He is where you think he is. Will Blake become the new Batman? If you think so then yes if you think no then no. So is Superman our saviour? I will leave that for you to decide.
So having been revealed to the world and knowing it will only lead to suffering for humanity our hero gives himself up but not to Zod instead surrendering to the United States military. One of the first pictures revealed from the movie was the sight of Superman in handcuffs being marched away by Army Rangers. No story before has dealt with the first contact with an alien angle which is what we are reminded of here, Superman is an alien, the world doesn’t know anything about him and the natural reaction is fear. Showing his humility he allows himself to be cuffed and locked up even though breaking the cuffs would be like breaking a twig for us.
Over the years many people have said the problem with Superman is that he is so powerful we are unable to relate to him but this is not the case. By the time we have moved into the third act we have followed this man’s journey, his search for identity of what he is supposed to do and anyone who has asked the question of themselves “what am I meant for in life” will find this intensely personal even in such a fantastic context. Here, he is the everyman.
This is not to say the film is full of introverted moping in fact it’s a testament to Snyder’s deft skill as a director that the balance between the emotional and the spectacular is so perfect. It is in the third act that he finally lets’ rip and gives us action scenes that will be hard to top anytime soon. I have always struggled when watching large scale CGI battles, the dominance of digital effects in modern films leads to a strangely artificial feel and with everything feeling so false it can be hard to have any interest in what is happening on the screen. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble being a case in point as the climactic battle personally left me feeling bored as it had no consequences and could easily be dismissed every time Robert Downey Jr offered his next quip. As for the so called spectacle of the Star Wars prequels well let’s not even mention those!
This is a film that takes itself seriously, there are a few moments of humour but for the most part it’s all about raising the stakes and providing a threat that is tangible. Perhaps it’s the way the footage has been digitally graded (how film makers determine how bright things look) but the muted colour palette on display grounds us in a reality not far removed from our own. A few reviews have said that the action here is too much to take and that the collapsing buildings are too close to real world events. I disagree with this as if we really did have aliens with incredible powers battling each other this is what would happen. DC movies have not been afraid to show mass destruction for what it really is, witness The Dark Knight Rises where the villains (referred to as terrorists throughout) bomb the hell out of Gotham City as a case in point. The use of special effects in Man of Steel is about as to close as perfect as you can get.
This may give the impression that the movie will leave a sour taste but nothing of the sort, the showdown between Superman and Zod as they slug it out with the city crumbling around them jaw dropping and Snyder is not afraid to fill the screen with as many money shots as possible. As a film maker he has been granted every indulgence but still never feels like he is doing it just for himself this is a battle that draws its audience in and refuses to let us go. Its conclusion, which is played out in such a way as to show how far a hero must go to protect the ordinary people around him and will offer a huge surprise to anyone with preconceived notions of how they expect it to end.
Earlier on I mentioned the music of Hans Zimmer and this is definitely a point worth returning to, for the first Superman movie in 1978 John Williams wrote one of the most iconic pieces of all time. Zimmer deftly avoids any form of imitation instead opting for a hugely percussive score which is dominated by the biggest sounding drums you have ever heard. Some tracks involved twelve drummers all playing together and the effect is nothing short of incredible, this is another reason to make sure you see this movie on the big screen as the sound quality provided by modern cinemas further enriches the experience.
So far in this review I have yet to mention the new man filling the Superman costume, British actor Henry Cavill is simply astonishing. Having gained notice with his performance in BBC historical drama The Tudors and shown he could handle action in recent fantasy film Immortals he makes the role of Superman his own. A faultless American accent is married to a performance that shows vulnerability, compassion and stoic determination. An intense training regime means that physically he inhabits the suit and makes us believe that this is a man capable of acts beyond anyone else on Earth. Cavill is Superman for a whole new generation of fans and in his hands the legacy of great actors to have played the role is in very safe hands.
To sum up Man of Steel is everything you could want a modern day blockbuster to be. It tells a familiar story in a modern way that we can relate to. It offers brilliant acting alongside special effects that enrich a movie that is layered, inspiring and full of heart. This is a film that will demand repeated viewing for years to come. Superman is back and is exactly the hero we need today.