During General Zod’s (Shannon) attempted coup on the dying world Krypton, chief scientist Jor-El (Crowe) rockets his son Kal-El, the planet’s first natural-born child for centuries, into space. Crashing on Earth, the child is raised by the loving Kents (Costner and Lane) to keep his immense strength and super-sensory perception secret. But when the Kal-seeking Zod appears on Earth 33 years later, it is surely time for Kal / Clark (Cavill) to reveal himself.
Superman has never seemed the easiest character to realise. Or at least, to make interesting on screen. Thick-necked, square-jawed, serious and utterly benevolent, he hardly provides an actor (or even a writer) chewy material. Not like Batman. Batman’s someone to really get your teeth into. There’s an interior to explore there, a whole murky cavern. The troubled childhood, the phobia, the anger, the guilt, the discipline. With Batman, as Christian Bale found and exploited so well, you can climb inside and get your hands dirty. He bruises, he bleeds, he breaks. He doesn’t fly, he falls with style.
Superman can literally jump over the moon. Bullets bounce off his boulder-like pectorals. It is far harder to get inside that invulnerable and morally burnished exterior. Yes, he is, like Wayne, an orphan, but one brought up by a loving couple in the heart of apple-pie country. He is also, to all intents and purposes, a god. He may look Homo sapiens, but he is not human. To misquote Shakespeare: try to prick him, he will not bleed. We’re pretty sure he isn’t even ticklish.
Christopher Reeve found his way in via Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent: in Reeve’s deft hands, the humble, stuttering, bumbling side of Kal-El. Immediately likable, somebody relatable, someone normal. But Henry Cavill doesn’t have that luxury. Writer David Goyer, under the aegis of Chris Nolan, isn’t paying tribute to, or pastiching, the Richard Donner / Richard Lester movies of old. Bryan Singer already tried that, and despite Superman Returns’ many overlooked merits, it didn’t connect with audiences. In Goyer, Nolan and director Zack Snyder’s new take on the origin story, the Clark / Kal dichotomy is not a contrast between a spectacled clown and a knight-in-primary-colour-armour, it is between a Kryptonian and an Earthling: a child of two worlds, one deceased, one floundering. It’s a tough gig for the relatively green Cavill, and while there are some interesting touches (there’s a strong sense he’s releasing long-suppressed rage when he first strikes Zod, a bully he’s allowed to hit), his Kal is a bit stiff and slow to thaw. As we said, he isn’t even ticklish. And the same is true of Goyer’s script. Don’t expect many laughs in Man Of Steel.
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was accused of humourlessness, but that was unfair; it just took itself seriously, which it needed to. Besides, Batman had Alfred, and Bale’s angst was leavened by Michael Caine’s dry wit. He also had the Joker — terrifying, but some good one-liners — then Selina Kyle, plus his own ‘Clark Kent’, that dim playboy persona. Surprisingly, Man Of Steel features less levity than the Nolan Batmans. Cavill’s Kal-El is granted no such wisecracking foils, only speechifying mentors: Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent gruffly telling him, effectively, to keep his Y-fronts under his trousers; Russell Crowe’s hirsute Jor-El imploring him to give Earth a chance. His nemesis is General Zod, played with impressive ferocity and intensity by Michael Shannon, who with his space-black body armour, spiked fringe and severe goatee could be a Roman dictator or the last survivor of David Lynch’s Dune. There is none of the snooty disinterest of Terence Stamp’s take here: Zod is all agenda and fiery commitment, whose eugenically predetermined ‘noble’ intentions remorselessly square the circle of speciescide. He is a worthy, physically matched adversary for Kal, but unlike nefarious fat cat Lex Luthor, he does not quip.
You may have expected some flippancy from Lois Lane, who appears in the smart, substantial form of Amy Adams, more redheaded even than John Byrne’s ’80s version for his Man Of Steel comic-book mini-series (which must have been one of Goyer’s key texts). But she’s less sassy than edgy; there’s no, “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” here. Still, you can’t really blame her for having less of a sense of humour than the Margot Kidder incarnation. Not only is the internet trying to close her paper, a genocidal alien’s landed in her city and decided to “terraform” (Kryptoform?) all Earth-life into oblivion.
Man Of Steel, then, takes itself very seriously. But it arguably needs to. Apart from anything else, with Superman returning to a cinematic landscape that now also has that other god-alien Thor, not to mention Iron Man, Hulk — hell, all the Avengers — it wasn’t a daft move to avoid any winks to his inherent absurdity. In its recalibration of the mythos, Man Of Steel allows a few irksome logic lapses (while the source and nature of our hero’s power is explained, it’s unclear why the identical superabilities of Zod and his mega-goons manifest themselves as they do), but you can appreciate the way Goyer considers Kal-El in a modern geopolitical context. There is dramatic tension to be wrung from this: not only is he an illegal immigrant, he’s a man-sized weapon of mass destruction. Of course the US government will distrust him. And while Man Of Steel won’t outdo Avengers in its dialogue-snappiness and sheer laughs, it certainly tops it when it comes to spectacle.
Man Of Steel is huge. It opens on Krypton, a fully realised biosphere of striated volcanic rockscapes and huge, bellowing, reptilian monsters. It’s an ecologically ravaged elder-world which, with its biomechanical baby-growing pods, recalls The Matrix’s horrifying “desert of the real”. Immense, eclipse-dark spacecraft soar through its burnt skies, as do strange, zoologically improbable creatures: when a movie features Russell Crowe riding a four-winged dragon during its opening act, you have to take that as a statement of outrageously epic intent. It is a space opera writ even larger, which slickly relocates its vast, unearthly hyper-dramatics to the streets of America, both small-town and metropolitan.
Either way, the collateral damage is immense, as Superman (which he is finally dubbed almost two hours in) trades devastating, high-velocity blows with the black-caped Zod squad, including Carrie-Anne Moss-alike Antje Traue as Zod’s slinky lieutenant, Faora. Buildings crumble and collapse and explode, with the Earthling multitudes perishing amid the dust and fire. When it comes to wide-scale urban destruction, the Chitauri and the Decepticons should take notes from the Kryptonians (Superman included).
The robust and clearly confident Zack Snyder was certainly a good choice to call action on this; it is just what you’d expect of a Superman movie from the guy who made Watchmen. A man, appropriately, whose favourite word is “awesome”... Closely followed by “super-awesome”.
It aches for more depth and warmth and humour, but this is spectacular sci-fi — huge, operatic, melodramatic, impressive. It feels the right Superman origin story for our era, and teases what would be a welcome new superfranchise.