You have to give Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zach Snyder an A for effort. Man of Steel, the second attempt to drag the Superman legend into the 21st century may be a bit unfocused and reliant on too much CGI eye candy, but it really takes a shot at extracting some originality and edge from the most moral of all superheroes.
Before Bryan Singer’s 2006 misfire Superman Returns was released, the main concern among fans was how the altogether wholesome and somewhat dull concept of Superman was going to be translated into a time that’s a lot more cynical and violent.
After all, darker, post 9/11 incarnations of popular comic books, such as Nolan’s Batman Begins and Singer’s own X-Men 2, had already become the name of the game as far as comic book to film adaptations were concerned. But Singer doubled down on the more innocent Christopher Reeve style and brought a direct sequel to the Reeve films that not only felt outdated, but also was instantly forgettable to boot.
So now Warner Bros is taking a page out of Christopher Nolan’s playbook in hopes of bringing in some of that sweet Dark Knight money. And how do they do that? By hiring Nolan to produce the film and help pen the screenplay, of course.
Nolan teams up with his Batman Begins screenwriter David Goyer to bring his unique touch to comic book mythology. As in The Dark Knight trilogy, they find a way to take these either exaggerated or supernatural characters and adapt them to a contemporary, heightened reality setting.
The biggest problem with creating a compelling Superman film these days is that the character himself might be too straightforward for modern times. He’s always good, and always does the right thing. There isn’t much ground for inner conflict there. The way that Nolan and Goyer got around this problem is by treating Kal-El as an alien instead of an instant superhero.
The long yet spectacular first act entirely taking place on Planet Krypton hammers in the truth that the man of steel comes from a wholly alien planet where people are manufactured not unlike the baby plants from The Matrix. The Krypton sequences are spectacular and made me wish for a prequel that takes entirely on this grim yet fascinating planet that uses organic versions of high tech we’re used to.
This is far from the Marlon Brando sequences from The Superman Movie, which looked like the sets and costumes were covered in aluminum foil. This is a dark, gray, grim planet on the brink of destruction. It’s up to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) to continue the survival of his species by sending his only son Kal-El to Earth, so he can become the first Kryptonian who can decide his own fate in centuries.
From this point on, director Zack Snyder elects to employ a non-linear approach by jumping back and forth between Kal-El, now named Clark Kent, jumping from one location to the other with assumed identities in order to anonymously save people from various disasters. Although it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t one person who saw a man lifting an oil rig on fire by himself and his buff chest and snapped a quick picture with his camera phone.
These sequences are intercut with Clark’s struggle with focusing his powers (An ingenious sequence shows us the downside of having all of our senses severely amplified at all times) and using them to save people at the risk of becoming exposed. His adopted father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) believes that the world is not ready to face him so he should sacrifice the accidental death of a group of people for the eventual good of the many. In the first Christopher Reeve film, Jonathan died from a simple heart attack. This version brings more depth and thematic conflict to his demise.
Eventually, Clark is found out by snooping journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and before he can come clean to humanity as an alien, his thunder is stolen by the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), who will do anything to ensure the survival of Krypton, even if it means destroying all those pesky humans in order to inhabit the new planet for his people.
No, he doesn’t want everyone to "Kneel before Zod!". He wants Kal-El and the codex that contains the DNA of Kryptonians. Now it’s up to Clark to decide if he wants to expose himself in the name of the people he never really felt comfortable co-existing with in the first place.
Michael Shannon is one of the best actors of our generation. His trademark intensity and depth makes even the crappiest film bearable, The Iceman for example. His Zod is more passionate and less narcissistic than Terence Stamp’s incarnation. He was programmed to become this monster, which makes him more interesting than the previous incarnation of the character, who was simply a megalomaniac.
Amy Adams, who’s always welcome, finds a fine line between the brilliant Margot Kidder and the woefully miscast Kate Bosworth. Her Lois Lane maintains a certain level of pluckiness at times, but is a stronger character.
Which brings us to Henry Cavill, who can definitely bring on the presence and the charisma of the man of steel, at least during this origin story. The magic of Christopher Reeve was that he was equally talented in portraying the dashing Superman and the bumbling Clark Kent. Cavill is not asked to bring on the nerd, at least during this chapter, so time will tell if he will be equally as talented.
Snyder’s film relies a bit too much on action and the finale devolves into the senseless carnage and destruction that’s a staple of superhero films these days. It’s a good thing The Avengers and The Man of Steel belong to Marvel and DC respectively and therefore exist in different universes. Otherwise, I don’t think New York City can recover from such consecutive blows.
This is a fresh take on a character who’s been stuck in an old-fashioned era of storytelling for far too long. If not for anything else, it deserves a chance for its attempt to bring some freshness and unpredictability to a story we were all practically born with.