As a young boy, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) discovered he had extraordinary powers and was not of this Earth. Sent from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the erstwhile Kal-El was raised in Kansas by kindly Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife, Martha (Diane Lane), but now wanders the world, unsure of his destiny. When scientists unearth a centuries buried Kryptonian spaceship, Clark shares a fateful encounter with gutsy reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Together they face down an alien invasion led by fanatical Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) who has deadly plans for planet Earth.
After the original franchise crashed and burned in ignominious fashion with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the world’s most famous comic book character transferred to the small screen with a run of witty and inventive re-imaginings with shows like Smallville and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers endured two decades worth of false starts and misguided attempts to reshape the Man of Steel into an edgier superhero for a new generation before Bryan Singer’s well-intentioned but flat Superman Returns (2006) inexplicably recycled all the flawed aspects of Superman: The Movie (1978) and sent everyone scurrying back to the drawing board. Not to mention scuppering the career of poor, promising but luckless Brandon Routh before it even got started.
In the wake of the monumental, genre-redefining success of the Batman trilogy, Warner Brothers quite understandably handed production duties to he whose name shall be uttered with utmost reverence the world over, the redoubtable Christopher Nolan. Nolan in turn brought on board Zach Snyder, a director with an undeniably impressive command of the camera and a track record of visually resplendent comic book blockbusters, albeit with a troubling tendency to bludgeon viewers into submission.
For better or worse the result matches the comic book as it exists today. As a state-of-the-art science fiction adventure epic, Man of Steel packs enough crash-bang-whallop to sate any action-hungry young boy or comic book junkie by turns exciting, suspenseful and dramatic, but crucially lacks a sense of wonder. Snyder delivers an array of incredible sights yet rarely pauses for breath to take it all in or ponder the significance of orphan Kal-El confronting the holographic image of his late father. An awkward story-structure jumps back and forth between past and present events, not always in a manner that aids its attempts at emotional resonance but occasionally achieves an intriguing, lyrical mosaic akin to the films of Terrence Malick. The defining question that preoccupies almost all the lead characters is: will the world accept Superman? It is as if the filmmakers transferred their own anxieties over the fate of this big summer movie onto their characters, something vaguely reminiscent of Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989), an overhyped movie whose central theme was hype itself.
Nevertheless, Man of Steel does not fall completely into the trap of empty spectacle. The question of will the world accept Superman cleverly revives this idea of the mythos as an allegory for the American immigrant story. British actor Henry Cavill makes for an engaging hero, earnest but flawed, searching for his place in a world that at this stage is not wholly receptive to his presence. By showing what he can bring to the world, Clark Kent ultimately finds his place within it. Significantly, the closing line takes on a double-meaning when Lois Lane says “Welcome to the Planet.” Amy Adams emerges as arguably the first Lois Lane to convince as a hard-nosed, go-getting journalist, but the acting honours go to a scene-stealing Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. They provide the most affectingly human moments. Elsewhere, Michael Shannon avoids camp posturing yet delivers a curiously disengaged performance save for his last few minutes of screentime where he finally sells viewers on Zod as a conflicting villain rather than one-dimensional maniac. Also, Antje Traue makes an impression as a Kryptonian female badass who puts Clark through his paces. The bombastic third act will likely vex anyone who finds the Transformers movies overblown, climaxing with a problematic finale that glosses over the deaths of untold thousands far too cavalierly. There is something inherently wrong with a Superman movie with a significant bodycount, but as flawed as the film is, in its better moments like Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) it plants seeds from which great things could grow.