After Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Batman trilogy, it’s safe to say that superhero reboots are all the rage, with The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man and now Man of Steel following in its wake. The interesting thing here is that DC and Marvel reboots seem to be doing slightly different things (although that’s something to touch on in more detail in another piece), and Man of Steel, even compared to another DC character reboot (Batman Begins), does different things to that, which makes it one of the more interesting (and if other critical reception is anything to go by more polarising) superhero reboots of the last few years.
Before going into anything else about the film though, I feel like special mention needs to be given to the visual effects. While Snyder is known for his… Extravagant visual style, here it’s at its best, and perhaps least detrimental to the story. From the planet of Krypton, to watching its chosen son fly and fight among the stars, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years, and it genuinely took my breath away.
We all know the story of Man of Steel, it’s a Superman origin story, although by not discussing the story at all, that does lead me to mention where it succeeds and fails as a reboot. All reboots are origin stories to an extent, whether it’s simply the first act of the film (as it is in The Amazing Spider-Man) or the entire film is an origin story (as it is with Batman Begins), but what Man of Steel does differently is by ingraining the origin elements – Clark’s discoveries of his powers – into the story via flashbacks. Now, we still see young Kal-El being sent to Earth courtesy of an excellent prologue sequence on a dying Krypton, one of the highlights of the film, both for its stunning design and visual effects, and the deliciously villainous Michael Shannon as General Zod, squaring of against Russell Crowe’s Jor-El (although the gratuitous overuse of Superman’s iconography does begin to grate). Now, these flashbacks are something of a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re prompted by a line of dialogue, so they can be jarring, which almost creates the illusion that they’re bad for the pace (although the film feels faster than it’s two hour plus running time, in spite of an overly extended and problematic third act) of the film, although it’s certainly an interesting attempt to avoid the structure of most reboots/origin stories, and it mostly succeeds.
David S. Goyer, the scribe for Nolan’s Batman films, does a solid job here, particularly in terms of world-building and making this characterisation of the eponymous hero a little edgier and more interesting. In flashbacks we see him conflicted about revealing himself, and the consequences of both his actions, and what happens if he were to do nothing. However, that contrast between explosive grandeur in the fighting set-pieces and the angst-y introspection of some of the films quieter moments, doesn’t always work, and it feels tonally uneven, less cohesive than Goyer’s other reboot script. And the screenplay as a whole isn’t without problems however, given some of the characters are weak (disappointingly, Lois Lane, played well by Amy Adams is among that number. In spite of some strong scenes, in the final act, a character who’s been set up to be strong and independent has all of her attempts to help become blunders that the men around her need to fix), and the third act is riddled with the same problems that superhero films tend to be (The Avengers was particularly guilty of this too), and became a rather indulgent (although in the case of Man of Steel, visually breathtaking) sequence in which the city in which the story takes place is left in the dust in the wake of the protagonist and antagonist finally going toe-to-toe.
It’s a well cast film, Henry Cavil is excellent as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, giving him presence and an edge that allows for the angst-ridden flashbacks to have had a noticeable effect on a fully grown Clark. Small appearances from stalwart actors like Richard Schiff and Laurence Fishburne help to round out the cast. But as I said before, it’s Shannon’s General Zod that runs away with the film, whether it’s through the screaming villainy shown in the prologue or the grand, almost Shakespearian speech he delivers before the climactic battle (this kind of extreme and theatrical villain is what was missing from Thor), he may well have given my favourite performance as a comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s already iconic Joker.
A little uneven and scrappy, perhaps even unsure of itself, at the worst of times, Man of Steel is a noble failure. Ambitious, visually exceptional filmmaking that manages to shake up the reboot/origin story and structure that we’ve all seen ad nauseum by now. But at it’s best, in those moments of synergy between introspection and explosive pomposity, it’s breathtaking, well acted, and with the help of a wonderfully cast villain, stands above the crowd in terms of recent comic book adaptations.