REVIEW: 'Man of Steel'
If I asked, “What’s Superman’s greatest weakness?”, pretty much everyone would say, “Kryptonite,” right? And that’d be correct answer – unless you’re taking the big-picture view of Superman. If you’re looking at Superman as a character, his biggest flaw isn’t some glowing piece of his homeworld. It’s that he’s such a perfect, incorruptible ideal that he’s often impossible to relate to – and difficult to care about.
As director Zack Snyder’s new Superman film Man of Steel proves, it’s not a weakness that breaks the movie. But Snyder’s film, with a script by The Dark Knight’s David S. Goyer, apparently wants you to stay interested while Superman’s busy being thrown through a skyscraper by a villain, or facing off with a giant robot. That's a major challenge when the film leaves you with only a sketchy sense of the hero's psychology. While Man of Steel does a lot of things right, sections of it will leave you colder than the Fortress of Solitude.
The film opens with one of the most expanded looks at Superman’s home planet than we’ve ever seen before. Krypton is no longer the icy wasteland that hosted Marlon Brando’s eerie performance in the Christopher Reeve films of the 70s. We get a better sense of where Superman comes from, and that ends up being important later on, as Man of Steel eventually becomes more of an alien-invasion picture than a superhero flick.
That’s all due to the film’s villains, a crew of Kryptonian soldiers led by Superman’s archenemy General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod is after a Kryptonian artifact that will let him pave over Earth and found a new Krypton. It just so happens that the artifact was sent to Earth with the baby Superman, and so along with learning to accept his destiny as Earth’s protector, Superman must grapple with whether to let his people rebuild their civilization on his adopted planet.
Like the best superhero films, Man of Steel is a film crammed with heavy themes: questions about xenophobia, identity and allegiance. And on top that, there’s an almost relentless stream of action scenes. So it’s not surprising that there’s little room for real character development. As played by British actor Henry Cavill (who’s still very likeable in the role), Superman is as inscrutable as his skin is bulletproof. We get a very good idea of the external challenges he faces, but it’s not entirely clear what he thinks about them. And as a result, we’re left with only a handful of reasons to connect with him.
The scenes that come the closest to getting inside Supes’ head are the ones with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who’s rendered here as a pretty convincing reporter, and not nearly as helpless as some might have expected. But Goyer’s script doesn’t include enough real discussion between the two characters about the events of the story, and allows very few chances at chemistry. As with many superhero series, I guess we’ll have to wait until the second film (which is already in production) for their relationship to really take off, if it does at all.
Character issues aside, Man of Steel held my interest, if only because of its willingness to break some of the conventions of the Superman mythology. Perhaps in an effort to resemble the more grounded DC superhero films of late, this Superman doesn’t immediately fall victim to the glowing Kryptonite gimmick. Instead, his vulnerability is more subtle, triggered by things like the atmosphere on Zod’s ship.
Even better, the filmmakers respect Lois Lane’s intelligence by having her figure out Superman’s identity early on – none of that pretense that she doesn’t recognize Superman behind his goofy glasses. This is definitely a Superman film for the more cynical fanboy generation – the kind of people who will obsessively over-analyze the film in videos, blog posts and so on.
Does Man of Steel improve on Superman films of the past? It’s certainly more kinetic and stylish than the 70s films, and unlike 2006’s Superman Returns, it’s not afraid to establish its own identity. But it seems that even the combined comic adaptation talents of Nolan, Goyer and Snyder have yet to truly decode Superman. And it left me wondering if the character is simply too perfect to ever understand - whether he’s depicted as the brightly-coloured hero of the comics or the haunted alien of this film. Man of Steel gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of Man of Steel? Did it live up to the hype of a Nolan-influenced Superman, or did it leave you looking for more than just sombre pronouncements and supersonic combat? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent reviews here: