It’s been a long old road to get to this point. Superman and Superman II were, and still are, lauded as high points in the superhero genre while Superman III and especially Superman IV: The Quest for Peace are often derided as being insults to the good Superman name.
Then, almost 20 years after Superman IV along came Superman Returns, which despite great pedigree in its director (Bryan Singer, he of The Usual Suspects and X-Men/X2 fame) was a crushing disappointment of a film that basically consisted of two and a half hours of Superman lifting stuff.
Now we finally get to Man of Steel, with Zack Snyder at the helm, David S. Goyer on writing duties and Batman trilogy maestro Christopher Nolan producing. What results is a resounding success of team effort, a Superman film Hollywood and fans can truly be proud of once more. It achieves that rare mix of grounding things in earthy, almost gritty reality while still providing healthy doses of over-the-top fun, fleshing out this most iconic of superheroes including excellently handling his backstory (some of the strongest moments are before we even see the grown-up Supes) on Krypton and his relationship with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (played very well by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively).
The foundation of what makes Man of Steel work just as well as it does is the fact that the creatives involved, particularly Snyder who has never been so mature in his filmmaking, treats the source material and the mythology with the respect it deserves while never sacrificing its sense of fun in this modern day blockbuster world. Things have obviously moved on from the late ’70s/early ’80s Christopher Reeve Superman most fans will fondly remember and the use of special effects and whizz-bang action is often astounding – it has a budget of over $200 million and every penny of that is up on the screen. However, it’s not a film that relies solely on its action to get by but rather uses it as necessary punctuation to what’s happening in the story. And anyone out there worried that Snyder will constantly employ his trademark super slow-mo effect need not worry as there’s not a sign of that (arguably) cheating wizardry.
In keeping with Superman tradition, this sees a relative unknown don the iconic red-caped costume. Although he’s previously starred in the likes of Immortals, The Count of Monte Cristo and Stardust, Henry Cavill is still not that well known as a face or a name and once again it’s a smart decision (Cavill almost played him in Returns before Brandon Routh was cast). The actor who plays him should always be someone we ultimately come to associate with the character, someone whom when we look at them our mind’s instantly jump to “Yup, that’s Superman.” Cavill is a great choice, perhaps a little more brooding than you may be expecting but he handles the dramatic scenes just as well as looking good flying around battling his foes.
Speaking of which, the real key bit of casting is arguably with General Zod, played by the ever-wonderful Michael Shannon, who is nothing short of a menacing, intimidating force of nature in the role made famous by Terrence Stamp. He’s played much more ruthless this time around, a threat more immediate and befitting of Snyder’s blockbuster aesthetic than Lex Luthor’s land schemes that may have worked well in their more comedic styling in the ’70s but bogged Returns down to a “So what?” plot. There’s also great supporting work from the likes of Russell Crowe, bringing gravitas in the same way as Marlon Brando did to the role of Superman’s real father Jor-El, Laurence Fishburne as the pensive editor of the Daily Planet and Amy Adams who gives a gutsy performance as Lois Lane.
It could be argued that the film devolves into more generic blockbuster territory in the final 45 minutes with a typically bombastic and explosion-filled showdown, giving The Avengers a run for its money in terms of city destruction. And while it’s certainly true we’re not worlds away from so many other mega-budget action films, it’s hard to argue against how good it looks (and sounds, thanks to a grand and memorable score by Hans Zimmer) doing it. Before that the film treads on some interesting thematical elements, turning the story of Superman and his outing to the world as not just a superhero alter-ego issue but as a question of how people on Earth would react if who is essentially an alien was found to be living among them. It’s an interesting angle to take and the film is substantial enough for it to feel justified.
Snyder and Co. have revamped Superman in pretty spectacular fashion, achieving the same sort of thing Nolan managed with Batman Begins in that they have brought Superman back down to Earth (pardon the pun), reached into the heart of the story and displayed it in a visually stunning, genuinely thrilling package that’s easily swallowed both as a piece of blockbuster spectacle and as a thematically strong superhero story.
[youtube id=”HstHJN8MJwo” width=”600″ height=”350″]