Despite an over-long, four-act structure, disjointed flashbacks and an over-reliance on vast swathes of CGI carnage, Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) delivers a surprisingly super-heroic epic on a grand scale. Boy, do you get a lot of movie for your money.
Choosing homage to Christopher Reeve’s Superman I and II over the DC Comics source material, it stays the course thanks to throroughbred writing from David S. Goyer (Batman, Blade trilogy) and the firm guiding hand of producer Christopher Nolan (Batman, Inception).
While Henry Cavill and Amy Adams prove a well-matched Lois and Clark, Russell Crowe deadens every scene, and none of them can match Michael Shannon’s righteous fanatic, General Zod.
Act One (much more than a prologue) is the decline and fall of Krypton, a huge sci-fi space opera with Big Russ as tragic last-stand hero, Jor-El; fighting Zod’s army, stealing the gene bank and sending his son to Earth, right before the planet explodes in a fireball. Phew!
Sadly our Russ is still in Robin Hood mode; lumbering through the action sequences, underplaying everything with a fixed expression of mild indigestion; leaping from towers, flying a giant lizard, fighting to the death; dying. Irritatingly, somewhere in Star Trek territory, Russ keeps coming back as a hologram throughout the movie, still with that same dead expression.
Contrast with Shannon’s (The Iceman, Boardwalk Empire) Zod, a driven, Nietzschean superman, whose dark malice enlivens every scene whilst never chewing the extensive CGI scenery.
Act Two: Skip on thirty years and we’re not even introduced to a purposeless, anonymous Clark Kent (Cavill, Immortals, Cold Light of Day), hopping from one dead-end job to the next, but still compelled to help humanity; which includes leaping onto the massive inferno of a burning oil platform to rescue the crew.
Cue flashbacks to his tortured childhood as a bullied outcast, raised by earnest Kansas farmers the Kents (Kevin Costner – Untouchables, Hatfields and McCoys, Diane Lane – Under the Tuscan Sun) and the guilt at the death of his step-father.
Soon we’re chasing down UFO’s under the arctic ice, where gutsy Lois Lane (Amy Adams, Enchanted, American Hustle) makes the discovery of all time and is rescued by Clark – who coincidentally discovers his Kryptonian heritage, the Superman suit and his dead father’s ghost.
With the arrival of Zod, newly escaped from the Phantom Zone with a Kryptonian crew and a stolen prison ship, Superman must reveal his existence to the world and try to save the human race.
This is my issue with the Superman character, however. He has so many superpowers that his sheer invincibility means the movie has to draw on Superman II’s villains to provide a threat big enough to be a challenge.
There is a awful lot of grown-up plot in this Wagnerian opera of a comic-book tale.
Snyder cranks the CGI mayhem up to 12, as Zod’s henchmen, led by Antje Traue in the Sarah Douglas role, smash everything in sight. And we mean everything. Planes, trains, trucks, helicopters, buildings. Not two sticks left unburnt or two bricks cemented together.
Back on the ship, Big (dead) Russ-hologram-Jor-El saves the day so that Superman can rescue Lois from a broken escape pod at terminal velocity.
Act Three: Zod brings the big toys to town; cue extreme demolition of Metropolis by alien spaceship and the limited chance for the puny humans to shine, including an underused Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as Perry White.
With a frantic smashing of Zod’s metal-tentacled terraforming machine in a race against time, it’s the end of Zod’s plan to remodel the Earth as New Krypton. It should be the huge finale. But it’s not.
Which leaves us Act Four; the one-on-one Superman versus Zod battle for the title, in which the remaining parts of Metropolis still standing are demolished by two super beings smashing the life out of every skyscraper, crane, and train station.
Cavill is excellent as Clark Kent / Kal-El / Superman; a proper actor oozing integrity from every pore; delivering a Hamlet-tinged performance that is strong yet vulnerable, insecure yet purposeful and ultimately angry enough to kill. And he fills the butch, armoured Superman suit far better than the camp Brandon Ruth (Superman Returns) ever could. I’m sure it’s Chris Nolan that banished any trace of camp and kept Snyder’s adolescent story-telling on the rails.
Man of Steel is the grand sci-fi comic book tale of our time, and for sheer ambition, grit and focus, beats the Avengers hands down. It’s the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still wanted to be.
And as a footnote, credits go ultimately to Amy Adams, who shines through all the boys-toys, big machines and CGI devastation with all the heart to inspire Superman to go against insurmountable odds.
Man of Steel (2013)
Director: Zack SNyder
Writers: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan
Running time: 2 hr. 23 min.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue,
Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer Laurence Fishburne