Director: Zack Snyder Writer: David S. Goyer Studio: Warner Bros. Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane Release Date (UK): 14 June 2013 Certificate: 12A Runtime: 143 min
A common criticism of “Superman Returns,” director Bryan Singer’s spiritual 2006 follow-up to Richard Donner’s triumphant 1980 comic-book sequel “Superman II,” is that at no point during the film’s sizable 154-minute length does Brandon Routh’s titular superhero get to throw a punch. Instead, he’s far too busy lifting a series of increasingly heavy objects: he starts, ambitiously, with a free falling jumbo jet and slowly but surely works his way up to an entire island made of solid Kryptonite. All impressive feats of physical strength, I’m sure you’ll agree, but viewers were left dissatisfied with the film’s disappointing lack of blood-pumping action: where’s the excitement, the summer crowd cawed, and where exactly is the punching?
It’s a complaint that cannot and will not be launched against “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder’s bombastic, $225 million blockbuster which acts as a reboot of both the three-decades-old film franchise and the iconic DC Comics character who has prevailed for three quarters of a century. In it, Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer retell Supe’s well-known origin story — an alien infant from the dying planet Krypton is sent to live on Earth, where he grows up to become the colourfully costumed protector of mankind — with the straight face of Christopher Nolan’s masterfully handled “The Dark Knight” trilogy (Nolan serves as producer here) and the grandiose, pumped-up stylisation of Snyder’s previous two comic-book adaptations: those being his blood-splattered big-screen renditions of Frank Miller’s “300” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”
“Man of Steel," of course, isn't as icky or gooey as either of those last two films — it is, after all, rated a teen-friendly 12A — but what is shares with them is a bare-knuckle brawniness and a testosterone-pumped energy the likes of which have never before been seen from the Last Son of Krypton. Here, Superman hurtles between — and often through — the skyscrapers of Metropolis with a jet trail behind him and a sonic boom at his feet, Snyder staying true to the age-old notion that Supes is faster than a speeding bullet. The result is exhilarating and redefines Superman as an absolute badass: “Superman Returns” detractors will be thrilled to hear that in 2013, Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way primarily by bashing badguys in the face.
Taking over the red cape and S symbol (but thanks to a nifty costume update, not the Y-fronts) from Routh is Henry Cavill, a Brit best known for his supporting role in historical TV drama “The Tudors.” Cavill has the look, the voice and the gravitas to pull off playing a godlike super-being, if perhaps not the authoritative, wholesome charm that Christopher Reeve brought to the role in 1978 — though to be fair, that is a tough act to follow. Following the dizzying spectacle of the opening half-hour, in which Superman/Kal-El's birth to proud parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe, a terrific replacement for Brando) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer, “Angels & Demons”) is depicted against the explosive and vividly rendered backdrop of a dying, war-torn alien planet, the film settles down, and we fast-forward thirty years or so to find that Cavill’s Clark Kent is a drifter, wandering from town to town and job to job, searching for clues to his true identity and occasionally saving endangered civilians from a burning oil rig or two.
It is in this section, which is interspersed with flashbacks to Clark’s childhood as he is raised on a rural Kansas farm by foster parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner, “The Company Men”) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, “Secretariat”), that the title becomes important, as “Man of Steel” focuses on the man behind the costume, the man who is a troubled outsider, the man who wishes to do good with his powers, the man told by Costner's Pa Kent to hide and keep his true nature a secret until both he and the world around him are ready. It is in these quieter, more grounded scenes that “Man of Steel” is at its most poignant and arguably its most effective (Clark’s classroom freak-out is a touching highlight), even if the clunky, back-and-forth flashback structure stifles some forward momentum.
It's not long before the action picks up again, as General Zod (Michael Shannon, “The Iceman”), a mutinous Kryptonian military man who has recently escaped from imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, arrives on Earth and demands over the airwaves that the fugitive known as Kal-El turn himself in... or else. As played by Shannon, whose trademark wide-eyed intensity makes for bone-chilling viewing, Zod is a terrifying nemesis, capable of acts of savage cruelty and fitted with a fierce determination to protect his people no matter the cost — even if that means wiping out an entire population (say, oh I dunno, the people of Earth?) to make way for a brand new Krypton.
He's also capable, it turns out, of kicking Superman's ass, as is proven in an epic and jaw-slackening 45-minute finale in which the two, along with Zod’s team of Kryptonian cronies, go toe-to-toe, and fist-to-face, amidst the crumbling skyscrapers of downtown Metropolis. Fuelled by Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score and Snyder’s clear love of cataclysmic destruction, it’s a chaotic and thoroughly exhausting showdown which gives the geek-tastic, New York-busting climax of Joss Whedon's "The Avengers” a run for its money (and that's quite a hefty sum).
Even when it does at points become so noisy and overblown that it teeters dangerously close to dreaded “Transformers” territory, it's difficult not to get caught up in the awesome grandeur of it all. Like the rest of the movie, it's best to just sit back and let it all wash over you, and the shining spectacle dazzle your eyes, and the colossal weight leave you breathless. This is Superman redefined for a whole new generation, Snyder, Goyer and Nolan having boldly reinvented the mythos and character for the 21st century, and in doing so making the man in the bright blue tights exciting again. Perhaps it doesn't quite soar to the towering heights of Nolan's brilliant “Batman Begins” (the balance between action and drama falls a little too heavily on the former), but if Warner Bros. are looking to kick-start their next big superhero franchise — and, if the rumours are true, a “Justice League” movie — they’re off to a solid and promising start.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56%
Metacritic Score: 55/100
IMDb Rating: 7.8/10