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It doesn’t seem a long time since Bryan Singer tried to reestablish the cinematic adventures of Clark Kent with Superman Returns. Maybe it hasn’t been, depends if you think 7 years is a long time ago. Maybe I don’t see it as that long ago because I really like Superman Returns. I’m fully aware though that a large proportion of cinema-goers, in these more not-the-70s times wanted something a little more punchy in their Superman movie.

And so we have Man of Steelthe first true reboot of Superman as a cinematic property.

Yes, Man of Steel is an origin story but one that, unlike the recent The Amazing Spider-Man, makes plenty of significant and valid deviations from its predecessor to validate its existence.

Immediately the most striking deviation from the original Superman: The Movie is its depiction of Krypton. What was a prelude in the 1978 original has a story all its own. We spend a significant amount of time on Superman’s home planet, and we fully explore the politics of the world  that were only hinted at before. 

As General Zod (Michael Shannon) is the main villain (and not one really in the public consciousness beyond Terence Stamp) it really helps establish the character and makes him someone we’re not only invested in, but fearful of due to his ruthlessness.

Krypton is presented beautifully and is one of the most interesting alien worlds we’ve seen depicted in recent years. With its insect dragons and floating terminals with fluid nanite technology it really harks back to the classic comic book representations of the planet while putting a very believable, fresh spin on it.

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The time here also fleshes out Superman’s biological father Jor-El (Russel Crowe) and his struggle with the stilted government and Zod’s attempted coup, all the while trying to save his race during the end of his world, could have been a movie itself. While its nice to see Jor-El being all heroic, and it does lend a nice sense of mythology to the El family being a noble one, our time on Krypton does overstay its welcome. As fight after insect-chase after fight, after insect-chase, we’re left wondering just when this science fiction epic will turn into a Superman movie. In fact we’re left wondering when Superman, in whatever guise, be that as the man of steel, Clark Kent, or Kal-El, will turn up at all. While the figure of Batman didn’t show up until after quite some time in producer Christopher Nolan‘s own Batman Begins, the story is still always following Bruce Wayne. Here we have to wait quite some time to meet our hero in any form, so while the acting and scenery is genuinely thrilling and cinematic on Krypton, the knowledge that Jor-El will soon be sidelined makes us wonder why we’re spending such a lengthy amount of time on an action scene with him.

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The rest of Man of Steel is informed by this tone through the rest of its time, and it works really well. While most superhero movies are science-fiction, (be it obvious like Green Lantern or less overtly like The Dark Knight trilogy) Man of Steel feels particularly science-fictiony, mashing up the subgenres of superhero and alien invasion. As such Man of Steel, tonally at least, does something new in the crowded genre and deserves applause of this. While you’re always aware that Superman will win the day, you’re not sure what kind of plot device or visuals you’re going to see next as the film dips its hand into an entirely different genre’s bag and pulls out things like spaceship fights, alien/military stand-offs, the destruction of entire cities and the brilliantly named ‘World Engine’. Its an unexpected route for a film starring the quintessential superhero.

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That quintessential superhero is also played somewhat unexpectedly by Henry Cavill. This is a super serious Superman, without the charm of Christopher Reeve or the knowingness (I’m making up all the words today) of Brandon Routh. It is, however, an altogether more serious movie, with what feels like a lot more at stake. Here Superman really does have the weight of his entire species on his shoulders, and he witnesses an awful lot of damage doled out to humanity by the alien invaders. His is also a more tragic back story and not at all the fun childhood depicted in previous iterations of the story. But while it makes sense for him to not exactly have the sunniest outlook on life, it would be nice to see him smile more. In terms of a possible future DC Cinematic Universe spawning from this, Cavill doesn’t give a new Batman much wiggle room in terms of being the stoic, grumpy one. However, Cavill does look the part possibly more than any predecessor; he could have been lifted right out of a comic book, and he’s got great control of his mannerisms and movements when it comes to the physical performance of being a superhero.

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Opposing Cavill is Michael Shannon as General Zod, the second most famous (although that’s not saying a lot given Superman’s rather limp rogues gallery) villain after Lex Luthor. Shannon is very good in the role, and verges on scary. He also looks menacing in his massive Kryptonian power armour; not so much in his black onesie.

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He ticks all the boxes and Shannon delivers a performance clearly imbued with great intensity; however that intensity never seems to manifest itself in the audience’s perception of him. Superhero films have become a proving ground for great actors to deliver weird, terrifying performances ever since Heath Ledger gave us his Joker in The Dark Knight. More recently we’ve had the brilliant intensity and casual atrocities of Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and more recently still Sir Ben Kingsley’s mysterious, philosophical, international enigma, the Mandarin in Iron Man Three. Shannon’s Zod just doesn’t do anything interesting enough when his competitors are delivering such knockout performances.

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The same is even more true of Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Despite her relatively limited screen time, she’s given an awful lot to do with with it by the script. However Adams fails to compel. While she’s watchable enough, she just doesn’t suck us in the same way that her forebearers have, lacking the fiery, impetuous qualities that the script really calls for, instead seemingly playing Lois as a bit forlorn and hard done by. It is however a very good move by writer David S. Goyer to resist temptation to shoehorn a significant love story between Lois and Superman in. In a film that emphasizes Superman’s alien nature this wouldn’t fit and would be too much for an already crowded screenplay.

The story’s emphasis on Superman’s relationship with his two fathers Jor-El and Johnathan Kent (Kevin Kostner, who is brilliant here) is a far more interesting thing to explore, especially in light of both his previous cinematic outings and his cinematic superhero contemporaries. Great move that comes off brilliantly.

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Visually the film also reflects Cavill’s seriousness; gone are the bright primary colours, replaced with a more sleek, darkened, metallic and alien colours. As such the action is satisfyingly powerful, representing combat between epically powered adversaries for the first time on screen; nothing like this has been witnessed on screen before. Continually punching each other into building and stomping one another’s heads into concrete, the fights are surprisingly brutal and catch the viewer off hand given what one expects from a Superman movie.

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The aerial combat is equally bombastic and over the top; Superman and Zod’s dogfight as skyscrapers topple around them really is something to behold. Its this kind of scene which brings to mind the dull and oddly static finale of The Matrix Revolutions, but as the action kicks off director Zack Snyder demonstrates his mastery of kinetic cinema and banishes such memories with a wonderfully complex, violent, turbulant and destructive set piece. It is undoubtedly demanding cinema, and maybe difficult to follow for viewers not used to seeing cinema move at such speed in so many directions, but if your eye is keen enough then you’ll be richly rewarded. The action, at times, might seem a little too colossal and fantastic as the climax to a movie with a tone that’s clearly aping The Dark Knight trilogy, but once that you’re over that hump, it really is some of the most intense fantasy-action cinema you’re likely to see in a cinema for a long time.

Man of Steel does have some flaws, and its this lack of consistancy that stops it being in the same league as The Dark Knight trilogy Warner Brothers so clearly wanted it to be. However it is a hugely enjoyable movie with moments of genuine emotion sandwiched between some of the most colossal action seen in the cinema in quite some time and a welcome fresh twist on the Superman mythos. Once again the summer seems to belong to the superheroes; make sure you check this one out on the big screen.

 

By RJ Bayley

 

Loved Man of Steel? Hated it? Waiting for your ears to stop ringing before you decide? Let me know in the comments below!
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Follow RJ Bayley on Twitter: @RJBayley
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