For the first hour and a half, I thought this was going to be a real triumph. Superman’s origin story is one of the most famous in pop culture, but despite (or perhaps because of) this few adaptations have tried to read between the lines or looked at its implications. Like they did with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer (with director Zack Snyder) go right back to the beginning and comb through details, filling the gaps with logic that has relevance to our real world. The biggest takeaway from their approach in Man of Steel is that Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman is, first and foremost, an alien: as Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent says to his adopted son, he is ‘the answer to “Are we alone in the universe?”’. The otherworldliness of the character and his background is explored from the start of the movie. Things kick off on planet Krypton itself, flush with strange flying creatures, insectoid warships and esoteric technology, and while you have to try to overlook the fact that everyone there speaks English of varying accents, this emphasis on Superman’s extraterrestrial origin lays the right groundwork for the events that later transpire on Earth.
Using flashbacks, Snyder captures Kal-El’s development with appropriate amounts of introspection and intelligence. Scenes showing Clark’s growing pains – his initial bewilderment at the extra-sensory perception, the bullying he receives at the hands of school jocks, the struggles to make sense of his powers and the dilemma over their application – are short and punchy, none overstay their welcome, and nothing gets too angsty or cloying. They are interspersed with the adult Clark searching for his identity, figuratively and literally, his drifting punctuated by isolated acts of heroism and forbearance. When he finally finds the Fortress of Solitude – in the classic Nolan style, it’s not some random crystal castle but has a reasonable explanation for being there – and dons the cape we have had almost an hour of very involving, enjoyable backstory. Even when the stakes are raised, as General Zod and his Kryptonian renegades arrive and Kal-El is forced to reveal himself to the world as Superman, Man of Steel still manages to be a quite compelling proposition thanks to the restrained escalation which preceded it. No wild leaps are made in logic, no internal rule is broken, and the film makes it easy for us to accept a character, indestructible and without shades of grey, often thought to have lost his meaning in the modern world.
Unfortunately, the movie is tipped over the edge during the climactic battle. It starts well: General Zod’s appearance on Earth is heralded by his faithful subordinate Faora who, as played by German actress Antje Traue and aided by excellent costume design, is an especially formidable character (much more so than Michael Shannon’s Zod himself). Utterly inscrutable and relentless, her first contact with the humans carries a nice element of alien menace. The fight between Faora and Kal-El is terrific, full of power and impact, and the scene where she disposes of US Forces soldiers one by one reminded me of the kinetic frisson of the combat in Batman: Arkham City. It is at this point onwards that Snyder, hitherto so commendably restrained, starts to let loose with violence to an almost ruinous effect. Once General Zod starts to get his hands dirty and the whole ‘end of the world’ scenario inevitably rears its head, Snyder is unable – or unwilling – to rein in the destruction. Zod and Kal-El engage in a city-wide fight that destroys whole buildings and entire blocks, and they even go mano-a-mano in space. The wreckage they leave behind just gets bigger and bigger, and the punches land harder and harder, but the scene goes on for what feels like an eternity. There’s no rhythm to the brawl, no dramatic tension or purpose to it, and the special effects that earlier looked impressive completely lose their impact after the umpteenth office block is ploughed through, glass shards flying, by our tussling duo. Just when you think it must end, Snyder launches another clash, and by the time it did finally finish I was genuinely bored, which is not something that happens often to this most generous of moviegoers. Usually with films that have this kind of problem with the climax I’m minded to say that the ending doesn’t quite detract from the rest of the movie, but Man of Steel’s last half an hour was so tediously effects-driven and pointlessly violent that I think it substantively lessens the film’s achievements. It’s a real shame as well, because the build-up was handled so patiently and thoughtfully.
After the disastrous Superman Returns (2006), any decent stab at the franchise would have been an improvement, but given the talent involved – both behind and in front of the camera – Man of Steel is only half a success. All the hard work establishing Kal-El as a convincing, compelling Superman for today’s uncertain times goes to waste in a vortex of CG destruction. The Dark Knight-inspired idea of casting significant actors for virtually all major roles works wonders again here, the standouts being Costner and a surprisingly sprightly Russell Crowe as Jor-El. Critics have lamented the lack of chemistry between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams’s Lois Lane, but I appreciated the restrained approach to their relationship. But as the film hurtles towards the denouement, characters’ dialogue gets more and more stupid (“What’s… terraforming?”) and the fine ensemble of actors are marginalised by all the mayhem into doing little more than stare dolefully into the sky. Its sequel-friendly ending (was there ever any doubt?) hints at a more traditional scenario for Superman’s everyday heroics, so here’s hoping that the filmmakers don’t feel compelled to obliterate so many bloody buildings the second time around.