Once you see Man of Steel (and see it you should), you’ll have to give director Zack Snyder credit for one thing.
With the help of veteran screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) and producer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises), he’s crafted a Superman epic unlike any we’ve ever seen in the character’s 75-year existence.
It’s a grand, breathtaking spectacle, full of awe-inspiring moments worthy of Earth’s greatest superhero. In fact, everything that gets thrown at Superman during this film might prove to be too much to handle.
Just so much happens so quickly that audiences may feel certain moments are rushed or glossed over. It’s that flaw that keeps Man of Steel from being a truly great film.
It’s good, certainly, but great? Not quite.
What’s it about?
Going into this film, put aside those fond memories of the Christopher Reeve films. Forget the misguided sequel/love letter to those films that was 2006’s Superman Returns.
This film starts over from scratch. It covers some similar ground as far as Superman’s origins, but the ways that Snyder presents these story beats to us visually makes them feel new and fresh.
The film’s opening scenes on Krypton are particularly spectacular. The film’s production designers succeed in presenting a vision of Krypton and its eventual destruction unlike any previous one.
Once the story transitions to Earth, Snyder opts to show Kal-El/Clark’s childhood and adolescence with the Kents mostly through flashback. The adult Clark (Henry Cavill), meanwhile, travels the world alone. He lives on the fringes of society, hiding his abilities unless he has to save lives.
He has to earn humanity’s trust once he makes his presence known to the world. In this more paranoid and cynical world, that won’t be easy.
To make matters worse, the Man of Steel must also contend with the arrival on Earth of Jor-El’s old adversary, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod his followers in Krypton’s military attempted a coup during the planet’s final days that Jor-El foiled.
Once freed from their prison by Krypton’s destruction, Zod and his people come in search of Clark. They demand that the people of Earth surrender him or else face destruction.
Thus our hero comes face-to-face with his alien heritage, and has a chance to forge his destiny.
Faster than a speeding plotline
As stated earlier, the film moves along at a very brisk pace. The film’s third act is almost entirely one relentless action sequence after the next.
It’s here that the film earns its PG-13 rating for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence.” as Snyder throws one insurmountable obstacle after another at Superman, and he of course rises to each new challenge.
It’s also here that actor Henry Cavill shows the mettle to wear the “S.” Without a charismatic actor in place, it would be easy to get lost in all the sensory overload. Thankfully, Cavill is here to save the day.
With both his physicality and his soft-spoken yet authoritative voice, Cavill meets the challenge of bringing to life a conflicted, complex Clark Kent. He makes Superman relatable, and that’s no mean feat considering that the character has in recent decades lost popularity.
This depiction of Superman, and Cavill’s efforts at making it work, should overcome those prejudices. His is a Superman for the 21st Century: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and all that, but also struggling to figure out who he is and how to live up to who he’s supposed to be.
The rest of the principal cast does well with what they’re given. In particular, Michael Shannon stands out playing a very different, more restrained Zod than the one Terrance Stamp played in Superman II. Amy Adams (Her) finds a very believable and effective balance between plucky and vulnerable in her take on Lois Lane.
The one disappointing performance comes from Russell Crowe, who delivers a phoned-in effort as Jor-El. There’s nothing bad about the performance, per se, but it’s not memorable, either.
Where’s the fun?
If there’s any other real criticism to made in Man of Steel aside from how rushed certain plot elements feel, there’s also the relative lack of humor in the script.
Yes, it’s clear Snyder, Nolan, Goyer and everyone behind this film wanted to make a serious Superman film devoid of camp. But a little bit of laughter here and there to break up the intensity and the heaviness would have been welcome.
Maybe they’ll have more of that in the sequel, if there is one. Don’t let that stop you from seeing it.
See Man of Steel on the big screen or in IMAX. Don’t wait for this one on home video.
It’s a fine piece of entertainment that will thrill and delight you if you let it, and its a strong return to cinema for the Last Son of Krypton.
Man of Steel
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, and Russell Crowe. Directed by Zack Snyder.
Running Time: 143 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.