A quivering butterfly. A panting dog. Clothes pegs bobbing in a bucket. All lensed in contemplative close-up. At moments like these, those post-trailer ‘Malick Of Steel’ comments seem on the money. But Zack Snyder hasn’t disappeared up his own Phantom Zone and given us a companion piece to Ang Lee’s arthouse Hulk (2003). Chins are here to be punched as often as stroked in this super-budget reboot.
Still, that big, iconic ‘S’ would seem to stand for ‘serious’ as much as anything else here. With dynamic The Dark Knight duo Christopher Nolan (producer) and David S. Goyer (scripter) behind him, Snyder’s mounted an intelligent, earnest attempt to modernise and mature the original superhero. It’s hello, existential woes, goodbye, red over-pants.
Longstanding elements of Superman mythology are given a darker spin: the Fortress Of Solitude is no longer the gleaming Swarovski-crystal haystack of the earlier movies but a shadowy labyrinth that doesn’t take kindly to visitors. Meanwhile, every schoolboy’s (wet) dream superpower, x-ray vision, here becomes the stuff of waking nightmares for a young Clark Kent.
He’s still the kid shot across the stars from Krypton to Kansas, a secret alien adopted by salt-of-the-earth couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane). But the adult Clark (Henry Cavill) is something new to the movies: not a bumbler (a la Christopher Reeve) but a brooder, rocking a big fisherman’s beard and trying to figure out his place in the world. Man Of Steel hinges on this itchy identity crisis, setting the portentous mood that pervades the first two-thirds as Snyder unfurls Kal-El’s origin story (non-chronologically, Batman Begins-style).
It’s an action-stacked road to the petrol-blue suit, kicking off with three crises in a row (in short: planet, oil rig, school bus). There’s also a generous number of father figures. Unfortunately, this means a lot of samey-sounding scenes of Clark being lectured on history, humanity, destiny, morality…
Repetition hampers the climactic smackdown(s), too. The great news is that Snyder has stowed his fetish for slow down/speed up/slow down motion-meddling (300, Sucker Punch, that owl movie). The less-great news is that he doesn’t quite know when to quit, or how to vary the violence. There are some truly titanic clashes here between super-beings, going at it like flesh-and-blood Transformers (skyscrapers haven’t been this abused since Roland Emmerich’s 2012).
But as with the Bay-‘bots, the fun starts to numb when it’s stretched this far. Just when you think it’s all over… it isn’t. At least it makes up for the set-piece shortage in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.
The overall arc, meanwhile, plays like a mash-up of Superman: The Movie and Superman II: we don’t have to wait for the sequel for General Zod (Michael Shannon, reliably intense) and his soldiers to escape space-jail and start hounding our hero. Armoured-up and steaming with righteous fury (he’s on a misguided mission to restore his fallen race), this Zod is all business; none of Terence Stamp’s droll asides. In fact, humour’s at a low premium throughout. Bright, brave, beautiful, Amy Adams is everything you want Lois Lane to be – except funny. Laurence Fishburne plays Daily Planet boss Perry White like Morpheus: Office Manager.
Costner and Russell Crowe (a more athletic Jor-El than Marlon Brando) give good gravitas, but you wonder at times if the filmmakers have confused dark with dour. The lack of levity bemuses more in a high-flying fantasy like this (where people still shoot flame from their eyes and shout things like “Release the world engine!”) than in Batman’s noir-edged world.
Happily, Henry Cavill doesn’t make heavy work of one of the biggest, toughest roles in comic-book cinema. True, he’s more solid than spectacular; Christopher Reeve’s wholesome authority safely remains the performance benchmark. Yet Cavill nails many of the key beats, whether howling in grief or grinning like a loon as he climbs the clouds for the first time.
For a good while the Lois/Clark relationship is cat/mouse, but without generating much sizzle. Although one late development (harking back to Richards Donner and Lester) teases that things will be friskier next time out.
Man Of Steel seduces most on the visual front, boldly sacking off primary colours in favour of 50 shades of grey-blue. The desaturated palette underscores the seriousness, though there’s joy in the design-details. Krypton is convincingly otherworldly (and alluringly swirly), its denizens utilising some eye-catching computer software that looks like the next level of those desk toys where you make a mask of your face by sticking it in loads of pins.
Elsewhere, there’s the loveliest bout of animated exposition since the story of the Deathly Hallows, while the Zod squad are dressed to kill (kill! kill!) in some of the finest mo-capped couture yet seen. And alongside all those Malicky moments (did we mention the jar of pencils?) are grace notes of purest popcorn. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll also believe he can look super-cool skidding across tarmac in the heat of battle.
A bracing attempt to bring the legend back into contention that successfully separates itself from other Super-movies but misses some of their warmth and charm. But given the craft and class, this could be the start of something special.