It’s all very well dispatching Kal-El to be a “bridge between two worlds”, to quote his birth-dad (Russell Crowe’s Jor-El). But how about fixing this summer’s mass opinion-splitting?
Rarely has a battery of big-hitters divided audiences so much. Iron Man 3 kicked Superman’s butt at the box office, but some relished the Mandarin’s makeover more than others. Plenty devoured the rush of Star Trek Into Darkness, but many mourned the loss of cerebral sci-fi. Lots of punters enjoyed the thump of Pacific Rim, but others missed the lyrical Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth.
If Man Of Steel proved equally divisive, it’s no surprise. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No and no. But it is several films in one. Its heavyweight brooding is borrowed from producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. The pumping action is of director Zack Snyder’s CV. Along the way, it flits between prog-rock fantasy, Malick-ian stranger-in-a-strange-land drama, first-contact fable, alien-invasion actioner and disaster movie.
The juggling act is ambitious, but it fits with the masterplan of reclaiming Superman from under-powered near-misses (Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns) and televised over-familiarity (Lois & Clark, Smallville). Snyder and writer David S. Goyer don’t always soar, but they tackle both issues with brio. Right off the bat, we’re plunged into a space opera featuring Crowe getting his (well-spoken) gladiator on. Head-butting the opposition? Marlon Brando missed that trick.
Saved from the dying Krypton, Kal-El is re-imagined as a boy who fell to earth in brash but effective broad strokes. Shots of wafting laundry and cooing whales put an otherworldly, Clark’s-eye slant on Earth’s beauty. His X-ray vision is played seriously. Underwear gags are pleasingly absent.
His well-known arc is refreshed via bite-sized flashbacks and slamming set-pieces (arranged in non-linear fashion, à la Batman Begins). Fiery oil rigs, sinking school buses… the action is laid on thick, but Snyder doesn’t dawdle over well-worn story beats.
The bullet-point plotting sometimes sets characters at arm’s length. But smart casting humanises scattered storytelling. As Kal-El/Clark/Supes, Henry Cavill gives good jawline and exudes the zen calm of someone holding himself in check. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make soulful work of Clark’s adoptive parents. And Amy Adams is a nicely matter-of-fact Lois Lane, ditching Margot Kidder’s dizziness for a brisk professionalism as she investigates alien artefacts.
This first-contact thread restores a little wonder to Superman. Jor-El’s animated history-of-Krypton lecture makes exposition extraordinary. Lois’ meetings with Superman range from a creepy close encounter with his heat-ray eyes to a playful interview where the ‘S’ we thought we knew gets remixed (it’s “hope” in Kryptonian).
Even in a replay of the old chestnut of Supes rushing to save Lois from a fall, the stakes shift: Lois plummets from outer space here, not a skyscraper.
The science-fiction set-up serves as a smooth segue into an alien-attack strand, where Zod’s (Michael Shannon) Avatar-in-reverse assault on Earth boosts the violence. Shannon’s full-blooded readings of Goyer’s often undercooked dialogue is priceless: his iron stare and relentless bark sell even clunkers like “Release the world engine.”
But the thunderous machismo turns top-heavy for the climax, where the spectacle of characters bashing both each other and a city senseless pulverises viewer engagement and splits the film once more. Never mind the contentious resolution of the final Superman/Zod showdown.
The big problem here is the decision to follow the decimation of Metropolis with a cheeky quip about Clark’s new job. An angsty Superman is fine, but trying to square that notion with cheery shout-outs to the big Boy Scout of old proves decidedly dicey.
That tension stretches to the disc extras, where a goofball piece on Krypton presented by Dylan Sprayberry (who plays young Clark) shares space with two solid behind-the-scenes features (commentary unavailable), in which a full haul of cast and crew wax loftily about the “responsibility” of souping-up Superman.
Crowe talks about eco concerns, Shannon mumbles about recently discovered planet Kepler-22B... DC has often provided a serious, searching flipside to Marvel’s primary-coloured playground, but please: give these guys a whoopee cushion.
A report on how the cast got in shape is equally strenuous, but Antje Traue (Zod’s right-hand woman Faora) and Cavill make light work of discussing the heavy lifting. Similarly, Man Of Steel keeps offering pluses to offset its minuses. Welcome flashes of levity include Superman’s thrilling practice flights and his revenge on a loudmouth trucker. Bluster is offset with beauty, bombast with bravura flourishes such as Superman adopting a horizontal pose to attack Zod.
The OTT destruction of the climactic dust-up aside, there are firm foundations for the sequel to build on here. True, Ben Affleck’s casting in 2015’s Batman/Superman movie has already split hasty fan votes. But at its brash, bold best, Man Of Steel serves hope that Superman might yet unite viewers.
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