As producer, Christopher Nolan has left his mark on the new Superman but there was never much chance of him bringing the man who could fly back to earth in the same way as he did with Batman. Zack Snyder has a tougher job to make alien Kal-El and his antagonist General Zod anywhere near as convincing as what Nolan did with another caped crusader in his Dark Knight trilogy. But Snyder does try and he is occasionally successful.
In Man of Steel, Superman's roots as the last son of Krypton are explored and his early years on Earth also get frequent flashbacks that are frequently some of the best scenes in the film. The Krypton set spectacle at the start does not convey the emotion of what is intended and the CG effects are more over whelming than incredible. Snyder over does the style and loses some of the heart despite Russell Crowe as Jor-El acting his socks off like its theatre and Michael Shannon bringing the menace with ease.
What works better are the flashbacks to Clark's childhood down on Planet Earth. Here Snyder matches style with substance; the young Clark struggling to accept his difference from the other children and over whelmed by the extent of his powers. It makes you wish for more from the young Clark; a real Superman Begins that delves deeper into the Smallville years.
For all Man of Steel's epic clashes including a barn storming (and smashing) Smallville set piece, the action can never maintain its hold on the heart or the head where so much special effects are thrown on screen. It's not that there is any problem with the special effects themselves but when the action ramps up and two (or three or more) super beings start going at it, it all loses any sense of believability that has been built up before.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect the same level of grounded realism that made the Dark Knight such a convincing part of the modern world but Man of Steel does try. Metropolis has many recognisable elements and the destruction of the climactic scenes all has that familiar 9/11 feeling with dust covered survivors, buildings falling and a city turned to ash. Unfortunately there is very little sense of the extraordinary amount of death Zod's plan has caused and Superman saves far too few people in his city to warrant the happy ending that is undoubtedly on the cards. Again, the CG effects over whelm rather than immerse.
So the Nolan influence is present as even in the midst of all the spaceships and super beings pounding seven shades out of each other, there is some sense that Superman is a believable creation and the world of characters (most notably the military) reacts accordingly. However occasionally there are just too many CG filled shots with one Superman vs giant space machine fight being particularly far out and therefore hard to engage with. It is all very well to believe a man can fly but when you have a hero fighting giant CG tentacles, it quickly loses interest... unless of course that is exactly what you came to a Superman movie for.
Better but still occasionally over loaded are the scenes of combat between Superman and Zod. While Shannon gets lumped with numerous clichés for threatening lines, the clashes are occasionally spectacular and drawn out only a little too long. At least their faces are not computer generated and their acting convinces.
It is a shame that Shannon gets so many heard-it-all-before lines as there is a good strong character in Zod and it is easy to quickly put Terence Stamp's version out of mind. The script is filled with solid characters, making this the most convincingly constructed Superman movie ever. The Kents are concerned, noble foster parents to Kal-El with Kevin Costner giving a fairly brief but powerful performance, there is an overly obvious but welcome attempt to make Lois Lane a strong and smart journalist (but who still needs frequent rescue) and Clark himself is a man with a secret and a real desire to keep it.
As Kent/Kal-El Henry Cavill has more than just the incredible physique and the handsome face. While he might make the ladies swoon, he also completely convinces as both the other worldly outcast and in a brilliant final scene the Clark Kent we are all so familiar with. Cavill is excellent, as is Hans Zimmer's wonderful score even if there is nothing quite matching the original Superman theme.
While Snyder frequently gets carried away with the spectacle and special effects, the story and particularly Kal-El's characterization is strong enough to make Man of Steel take off. Though it may not convince as much as Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, Superman is a tougher caped crusader to sell in the real world. Man of Steel does however make Clark Kent fascinating and ends the film with the potential for a sequel that will take him onto much more familiar ground. With hints that Lex Luthor might be the next villain in Man of Steel 2, let’s hope Snyder tones down the CGI in favour of more practical and believable effects and makes a Man of Steel 2 that really flies.
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