Man of Steel    
Directed by Zack Snyder    
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane     
143 minutes

When their home world Krypton is compromised irrevocably by the self-serving geo-harvesting of its power-hungry elders, an esteemed scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife decide to place their hope for a better future on the shoulders of their new born son Kal-El (Henry Cavill), sending him to a distant planet (Earth) in the hope that he will be a model of virtue and inner strength for its people, and to help to “accomplish wonders”.

 Landing in a small town in Kansas, the baby Kal-El is adopted by farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Diane Lane) who raise him as their own. As the young Clark Kent matures he has a need to find out why he never fits in with the other kids in Smallville and what his path in life is to be. With his father’s advice ringing in his ears — “You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s going to change the world” — Clark sets out alone, an anonymous do-gooder performing sporadic acts of miraculous kindness for strangers, biding his time and remaining an outcast until the world, though roving reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), is eager to discover his super secret.

When it comes to cinema, you take away from a movie what you bring to it. So, for example, the stinging critique of the recent history of the super-hero genre which appeared in the Guardian’s film blog days before the release of Man of Steel (arguably the most feverishly anticipated franchise reboot since 2005’s Batman Begins) appeared to bring to the latest Superman movie leftist, chip-shouldering politics and new-age nitpicking.

Complaining that what used to make the art of the superhero movie truly entertaining has all but evaporated, draining the fun out of what was once “cheap, populist entertainment”, the article went on to bemoan the perversion of the purity of contemporary comic book inspired popcorn cinema by an “endless parade of sexist, semi-fascist bores”, asserting at one point that, when it boils down to it, blue spandex and red capes permitting, “at heart all superheroes are Republicans”. Now we don’t know for sure what George W. Bush would think of this comparison, but it’s probably safe to say he’d be OK with it.

As opposed to exasperated lethargy induced by the recent swathe of so-called “tent-pole” comic-book blockbusters, you’ll probably go into the Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) directed, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) produced Man of Steel with, at best, lukewarm expectations — understandable off the back of 2006’s drearily disappointing Superman Returns — but with optimism, hoping, even if it’s not quite up there with Batman Begins (a near perfect distillation of the super-hero ), that it’ll be a half decent start for Superman. And if you do, you won’t be disappointed. Probably.

The film has the usual plot holes, to be inevitably picked at with customary delight by the comic book faithful. At times the pacing is off kilter with the plot, the audience isn’t given enough time to digest the back story alluded to in flashback or to get to know the characters properly, excusable given a certain degree of assumed knowledge and cultural awareness of the Superman mythology. Henry Cavill brings about as much depth to Clark Kent as a saucer of tepid tea, also forgivable given that there really isn’t much to the Superman role, aside from the uncanny ability to look magnanimous in spandex, as well as the humility that naturally comes from being completely unrecognizable and ignore-able as soon as you put your glasses on.

Dodgy disguises notwithstanding, with a twinkle in his eye Cavill does Christopher Reeve’s vulnerable naivety and self-effacing strength proud while Amy Adams is spunky to a fault as Lois Lane. The de rigueur flashbacks — standard operating procedure for the comic-book genre, where the snappy summation of a character’s background is required for the uninitiated — are enjoyable and keep the audience in touch with Clarke’s emotional bio, reminding us that he’s just as human as the rest of us, despite his god-like powers.  

There’s a bit of “chicken or egg” philosophy involved in getting to the nub of who Superman is, who the young Clark Kent must choose to be. The idea of journeying inward, “know thyself”, features strongly in Man of Steel, seeded by the nagging feeling that little Clark Kent just doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids at school. What came first, Clark Kent or Superman? Did the child from beyond the stars have to learn how to be human, to actually be human, before he could discover his true identity? Before he could realise his potential? Before he could save the world?

In an interview with Empire magazine, Star Trek director J.J. Abrams, initially attached to direct Man of Steel himself (since given responsibility for rebooting Star Wars) suggested that his own interpretation of the Superman myth runs in pretty much the same direction as Snyder and Nolan’s and is equally philosophical. Abrams sees Superman as a “fascinating psychological profile of someone who was not pretending to be Clark Kent, but who was Clark Kent – who had become that kind of character who is not able or willing to accept who he was and what his destiny was.”

David S. Goyer’s screenplay digs into the personal struggle of Clark Kent deciding to be Superman, a decision which essentially comes down to trust. Can he trust humanity with his power, with his true identity? In stewing things over, a contemplative Clark, in one scene, wanders into an empty church and ends up asking a priest for advice. Confessing that he just doesn’t know if he should trust mankind, he’s told, “you must take a leap of faith. Trust will follow”.

Snyder and Nolan undoubtedly took a leap of faith with a Superman movie similar and at the same time completely alien to anything that’s come before, with the emotional core of the series and its universal themes intact but a much broader narrative that won’t please plot purists. It’ll obviously be criticised mercilessly by the Marvel faithful and does require a leap of faith if you’re a fan of the franchise but, in the end, Snyder & Co might earn your trust.  

Verdict. Not quite a five-star effort but well on its way and a drastic improvement on anything since the original  (the turning back time sequence silliness of Richard Donner’s beloved 1978 film aside). Snyder’s Man of Steel doesn’t quite accomplish wonders but it does aim confidently at the stars, securing a solid four out of five. Excellent but not quite unmissable. Unless of course you’re a comic book fan, in which case critics are for you what kryptonite is to Superman.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...