Making a Superman film is no easy task. Throughout time this iconic character has developed into a near indestructible god of a man, lacking any of the characters flaws that add humanity into the seemingly endless supply of caped crusaders entering the box office as of late. Who better to take on the challenge of creating the “Man of Steel” than Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and David S. Goyer? The group is no stranger to adapting comic books for the big screen with producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer having worked together on the ultra-successful Dark Knight trilogy and Director Zach Snyder directing graphic novel adaptations of “300” and “Watchmen.” So it should come as no surprise that audience expectations are at an all-time high for a Superman reboot, especially following the colossal train wreck that was “Superman Returns.”
Audiences are looking for the Dark Knight duo of Nolan and Goyer to inject the same intricacy, conflict, and dark tone that resonated through the Batman reboot into the latest Superman feature… and the they somewhat deliver. “Man of Steel” never quite reaches the same level of poignant heaviness as the Dark Knight trilogy and for good reason. Superman and Batman are distinctively different and as such should be approached from different angles. Where Batman is hurt, human, and scarred from the loss of his parents causing him to seek vengeance against the criminal underbelly of Gotham, Superman is inhuman and near-perfect. Although Superman also lost his parents, he was taken in by a loving family who infused him with the values of honor, courage and self-sacrifice. He is in essence a symbol of hope. Zach Snyder honors this version of Superman, paying homage to the Golden Age of comic books while injecting it with a sense of modernism.
“Man of Steel” opens with a tiresomely long preamble illuminating the all-too-familiar origin story of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launching his newborn son Kal-El across the stars to Kansas as his home planet of Krypton is on the brink of destruction and how military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone after an unsuccessful coup. Despite the intro feeling a bit lengthy, it does offer Snyder the opportunity to indulge his love for flashy, effects-driven scenes by creating a world full of otherworldly creatures and Krypton’s elaborate science before the planet implodes in a bombardment of fire and brimstone, courtesy of production designer Alex McDowell and an army of computer effects artists. The introduction is bold and exudes a sense of confidence as if Snyder is daring the audience to question the plausibility of Krypton’s lead scientist racing ahead of biomechanical flying machines on the back of a giant dragonfly-like creature….. but you won’t.
Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) first appears in uncharacteristic fashion as a brooding loner in his mid-twenties (complete with a full beard) wandering across America, leaving behind a trail of good deeds, in an attempt to find his place in the world. A series of flashbacks show Clark’s childhood where his parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane), help him to cope with his new-found powers while encouraging him to keep his abilities hidden from a world that is not ready to accept him. It is here that you feel the Nolan touch as Clark must deal with the inner conflict of keeping himself concealed from the world or using his powers to help those in need. Eventually Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) tracks down the man behind these good deeds and agrees to keep his secret after realizing the implications of life on other planets being discovered.
Things finally get rolling as General Zod and his followers escape the Phantom Zone and arrive at Earth, demanding the return of one of their own, Kal-El. Of course the vast majority of Earth is unaware of the presence of superhuman beings from distant planets and the United States military is all too willing to turn him over. Inevitably, the two clash in a series of over-sized, action-packed battles that stretch the limits of CGl. Some of the action sequences seem to borrow from the directing styles of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay with large portions of Smallville and Metropolis lying in the wake of the two evenly-matched titans. Vehicles are thrown about like rag dolls and giant skyscrapers shatter to the ground in a menagerie of warped glass to the beat of Hans Zimmer‘s thumping score, but the scenes mostly avoid the sour aftertaste associated with Bay-esque pyrotechnics. The only downfall of these eye-popping action scenes, which dominate at least the last third of the film, is that they overshadow any real attempt at character development.
The all-star cast does their best to even out the at times too-serious tone of the movie. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe play Clark’s two fathers, adding a level of heaviness to the film, especially Costner who in a scene exemplifies the meaning of self-sacrifice to save his adopted son from revealing his secret. Henry Cavill does a solid job of donning the role of the most well-known superhero of all time by choosing to underplay the part, opting for a sense of humility rather than Christopher Reeves’ charisma. Amy Adams fills the role of Lois Lane well, but wouldn’t suffer from a bit more humor. Clark and Lois’ romance is only teased and I expect it will play more into a sequel. The always-reliable Michael Shannon really steals the show as Zod, adding over-the-top charisma and a greater depth to the character than that of Terrance Stamp.
Finally at the close of the film, those light-hearted, signature Superman moments that were seemingly missing from the film, rear their head in a shared glance between two reporters at the Daily Planet; hinting at a more-than-likely sequel. Although “Man of Steel” suffers from a lack of wit and charm, this visually brilliant film has laid a solid foundation for a legacy of sequels that could really soar.