Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man Of Steel proves that Clark Kent get no satisfaction (but if he tries sometimes, he can get what he needs)…
In 2006, Superman Returns was supposed to breathe new life into the franchise but, having been lured away from X-Men 3 to tackle his favourite character, Bryan Singer failed to reproduce the superhero success of X-Men and X2. Even Kevin Spacey’s vicious Lex Luthor couldn’t help it re-establish a run of films. Seven years on, when you absolutely, positively have to reboot a franchise, who do you call? The people who saved the caped crusader from nipples on the Batsuit, of course.
Director Zack Snyder may bring his style to Man Of Steel, but scriptwriters Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s fingerprints are all over it. Batman Begins kicked off a dark and dangerous trilogy for Gotham’s vigilante and there’s plenty of that same feeling here. Parents dead, alienation, secret identities, weight of the world on his shoulders – Superman would have plenty to discuss with Batman after a Justice League meeting.
Early trailers used haunting music and childhood angst to make Man Of Steel look like an arthouse flick (as audiences tried not to think too hard about Ang Lee’s Hulk). That’s pretty much the territory the film treads early on, as young Clark Kent struggles to come to terms with his differences and to control powers none of the other kids have. All of the previous films play on the character’s humanity to some degree, but Snyder’s really digs deep.
It works to breathe new life into Clark Kent (a chiselled but restrained Henry Cavill) – AKA Kal-El – as he discovers his true origins on Krypton. Like Marvel’s Captain America, DC golden boy Superman is so goody-goody he can seem a little, well, boring. (Check out the Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe videogame, where Superman and other heroes don’t kill using fatalities, but dish out ‘heroic brutalities’ instead). These days Cap plays on his adjustment as a ‘man of out of time’, the world he knew long gone, to inject some tragedy into his life. Man Of Steel does the same with Superman, Kal-El’s place as (almost) the last Kryptonian translating into feelings of despair and disconnection, wandering and loneliness, which anyone who can recall their teenage years will recognise.
This isn’t helped by his adopted father’s attitude to his alien origins. Terrified that they will lose the son who fell from the skies, Pa Kent (an on-form Kevin Costner) teaches Clark to hide at all costs, even if that means forsaking the lives of those around him. It feels like watching Dash run the school sports race at the end of The Incredibles, his parents urging him to run fast enough to win but not so fast he gives himself away. Except in Man Of Steel, there is no winning.
If that all sounds ‘super’, there are a few downsides to this reboot. For one, Goyer and Nolan’s script contains holes large enough to drive a terraforming spacecraft through. Don’t get us started on why seemingly intelligent beings with access to so many interstellar vehicles decide to go down with the sphere. Meanwhile, plotting that fails to hold up to scrutiny (find i09’s brilliant take on it here) sees Kal-El’s journey to Earth complicated by the realisation that he carries with him the fate of his people – something General Zod (Michael Shannon, typically foreboding) wants to have power over so he can apply a Hitler-style program of eugenics to the Kryptonian race.
Once Zod comes on the scene, Snyder also ditches his arthouse fascination and hits the big, shiny CGI button – keeping his finger pushed down on it for most of the remaining scenes. If you’ve always wanted to see supermen (and superwomen) throw each other through buildings in a way Superman II just couldn’t recreate, you’ll be thrilled. If you were enjoying the furrowed brow acting, probably less so.
Amy Adams is also cruelly underused as fearless reporter Lois Lane. That’s a shame as in the brief moments she is onscreen she looks like she might be the first person to give Margo Kidder a run for her money. Her loss is Shannon’s gain, as his General Zod proves to be a real hulk of a warrior – and in that armour he’s almost got the frame of Bruce Banner’s raged out alter-ego. Yet he’s almost outshined by Russell Crowe’s scene-stealing turn as Jor-El. Fine tuning his characters from Gladiator and Master & Commander, this is a Jor-El you would follow into battle and a prequel featuring him and Shannon’s Zod standing shoulder to shoulder would be stirring stuff.
In the end, this might not be the movie the fanboys and girls wanted, but it was the one Superman needed. An opening four days that scooped $200m (£130m) worldwide and the various Easter eggs hidden throughout the film point to one thing: this franchise, finally, has a future.
Man Of Steel opens today in US and UK cinemas.