His action sequences are faster than a speeding bullet. His use of incredible CGI more powerful than a locomotive. He is able to break box-office records in a single bound (that one I'm just speculating on). He is Zack Snyder, and no he didn't f**k up Superman.
Okay, granted that may seem like an odd first choice to phrase a compliment for a director, but given Superman's live-action theatrical track record over the years it's probably the compliment that carries the most weight. Pair that with Snyder's less-than-stellar previous film (Sucker Punch) and there was much skepticism surrounding this film. I'll save the 'Superman in Cinema' history lesson for another time, but for those who remember Richard Pryor skiing down a skyscraper (III) or Nuclear Man with his yellow 80s disco suit (IV), you know what I'm talking about. It's been a long time coming, but we finally have the quintessential Superman film to honour him being the quintessential superhero, here in Snyder's Man of Steel. Not to say the film isn't without its problems, yet audiences will still enjoy themselves, fans will exhale in a sigh of relief, and I'll get on with this damn review.
Even though he has been around for 75 years and practically everyone on the planet knows this character's origin story, director Zack Snyder takes the Superman lore and gives a fresh take on the hero's beginnings. Man of Steel opens with the similar premise of Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, on the planet of Krypton during its final hours. From that point on the film becomes a very different approach on Superman's origins while still staying true to who the character is, what he symbolizes, and all the other fan favorite stuff in between. There is still stuff with baby Kal-El being sent to Earth, a bit of life in Smallville with Ma & Pa Kent, him growing into his abilities, and many other classic Superman staples before we get to the cape. The biggest story difference I can mention without getting into spoiler territory is Snyder alternates events between young Clark and an adult Kal-El; before and after he dons the suit. It doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but it works with the story's structure and makes it that audiences actually get to see the leading man within the first act of the film. The film takes a close encounter approach to the character, treating the revelation of an alien on Earth as it most likely would if it were real life. When Zod and his small kryptonian army arrives, strap in, because the realism goes out the window and it's non-stop action after that.
Much like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Snyder cracked the casting code in this re-envisioning of this superhero franchise. And Man of Steel hit the A-list lotto here. Credit Nolan's storytelling all you want, but without the right lead in Christian Bale there wouldn't have been a new Batman franchise -- and the same goes for Snyder's choice of Superman in Henry Cavill (Immortals). Purists might still claim Christopher Reeve as the one true Superman, but Cavill will win over a new generation with his stellar portrayal of Krypton's last son after this one. Though he spends the latter portion of the film in his red & blue, Snyder takes a page out of WB/CW's Smallville and goes 'no flights, no tights' during the film's first hour. Doing so allows Cavill to show off Clark's humanity in a truly beautiful way. Going that route might make audiences wait a little longer than they would like to see him going all super, yet that time shows that Cavill is able to do more than just physically fill the suit -- he is able to embody all the hope and good the character stands for before becoming a symbol for them.
Cavill will no doubt become a household name before this summer is over, but it couldn't happen without the amazing cast and crew Snyder assembled around him. Key roles like Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as his adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan Kent are incredible here, even if their screen time is short, all the way down to the smaller parts like Richard Schiff as Dr. Hamilton and Laurence Fishburne as the Dailey Planet's Perry White. Russell Crowe's role was one of the biggest surprises in the film as he was given much more to do as Clark/Kal-El's biological father Jor-El, more than the character has ever been given in any of the previous adaptions. Amy Adams' Lois Lane was also refreshingly great given all the initial skepticism after her casting. Lois gets written into some scenes she doesn't really need to be in, yet Adams does a fantastic job making the character her own without overwhelming audiences with her in-your-face attitude like Margot Kidder sometimes did.
The remaining two stars I haven't touched on yet both steal the show throughout the film, the first being Michael Shannon's portrayal of General Zod. Shannon takes on the role Terence Stamp helped make the character famous for and added to it tenfold. He brings a dichotomy to the character that truly makes him a great and memorable onscreen villain. Shannon doesn't quite get Zod up to Ledger's Joker status, but through his mass destruction there are moments of humanity never seen in any other onscreen adaption of the character that makes him stand apart. The final notable star of the film is one most movie goers rarely pay attention to: the music man, Hans Zimmer. Just as he did for the Bat, film composer Zimmer creates a musical theme and tone throughout for the character that is nothing like the John Williams Superman theme of the past. I'd even go as far as saying Zimmer is today's John Williams -- his track record (pun not intended) lately is that impressive.
I may be praising Man of Steel to be a masterpiece but as I previously mentioned it is not without some issues -- nothing comic book-related (at least not from this fanboy), but just some things from a film standpoint. The biggest issue is the film's pacing. Just simply because of the size and scope of the film, there is practically two movies' worth of story in this one film, so things move fast just so Snyder can fit everything in. Snyder could have gone the Donner route and saved all the stuff with Zod and the rest of the Kryptonians for a second film. There was that much there. Cramming everything in might sound like the film would have to sacrifice some action sequences, however they take up a ton of time (too much it you ask me), so the pacing trade-off could have been avoided.
Oddly enough, the only other issues with the film have to do with those action sequences again. Because of the nature of Superman's super-speed fighting against fellow Kryptonians, it makes for some quick and sometimes blurry visual images during those sequences. Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing action scenes the way many comic book artists intend their visuals to look if they were live-action; Superman being depicted as fast on a page is one thing, but seeing him go supersonic on the big screen was absolutely incredible. However, near the end of the film the scenes start to get a little out of hand, too long, and as ridiculous as it sounds, a little farfetched even for a superhero flick.
It didn't bother me that there weren't specific images ripped from the comic book source material. Snyder wouldn't be able to please all the fans by trying to include any number of iconic images from Superman's 75-year visual rolodex without pissing some off if he left something out. What I did find odd was Snyder didn't use a certain element of his own unique style when it came to some of the visuals. The slow-mo, close camera action shots that helped make Snyder's style famous when he adapted 300 and The Watchmen into film, two other major comic book-related material, aren't here in Man of Steel. It was the type of imagery that made the character exciting to watch on the small screen in Smallville and an element I wished Snyder would have included on his return to the big screen. If the character is faster than a speeding bullet, then use some bullet-time effects. Just saying.
Minor issues aside, Man of Steel is the Superman movie people have been waiting decades for. Even though I didn't really mind Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) when it came out, it's a hard movie to defend as years pass and nowhere near the calibre of film the iconic character of Superman deserved. Those red go-go boots are hard shoes to fill, but thankfully Henry Cavill was up to the task, and he didn't have to wear his red underwear on the outside to do so. The omission of Lex Luthor in Man of Steel means that Cavill, Adams, and (as of right now) Snyder will all be back for more. For once the Man of Tomorrow has a bright future in the yellow sun.
(a little Superman humour)
Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.