In the first act of Man of Steel, the actors wear the elaborate costumes of a Greek tragedy and enact a plot from a Shakespearean one. There is a military uprising, talk of treason, a blasphemous act and a Brutal slaying. (yes, there is a reason the ‘B’ is in caps). The actors delivering the stoic lines are certainly well chosen for it – Russell Crowe appears very stately as Jor-El and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (who had quite a good role in the 2008 thriller Vantage Point) who plays his wife Lara lives through the loss of child, husband and world with an impressive degree of forbearance. The actors who play the misguided Krypton council have been cast for their strong facial bone structure. And of course, there is the star of the show – Michael Shannon, playing General Zod, manages to impress as a villain in spite of his strong American accent (all the best villains usually have British or European accents, don’t they?). First of all, kudos to screenwriter David Goyer and producer Chris Nolan for having the smarts to take one of the most iconic villainous roles in the DC movie universe and insert it into the retelling of the origin story (I could not have put up with another helping of a cinematic Lex Luthor, after Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey). Second, kudos to whoever picked Oscar-nominated character actor Michael Shannon to play Zod; I had never imagined that anyone could top Terrence Stamp’s performance in Superman II (1980). But Shannon is the real deal. The man has played some disturbing characters in the past 4 years including his breakout performance in Revolutionary Road in 2008. Michael Shannon brings a level of physicality and menace to the character of Zod that is truly frightening, all the more so because unlike Gen. Zod from Superman II who was just a megalomaniac, this Zod actually believes he is the true Son of Krypton and Superman is the traitor to the cause.
And ultimately, this movie is about each man (oh that’s right, they’re aliens) having to decide where his moral center lies.
But before we get to that point, there’s a whole lot of story to cover.
We get to see a beautifully visualized Krypton (with an interesting insectoid design sensibility), falling to its inevitable apocalypse while the spacecraft carrying Kal-El wormholes its way towards Earth. We then cut to the present day where a grown-up Clark Kent playing a strong/ silent worker on a fishing trawler finds himself part of a spectacular set-piece where he puts some of his powers into play.
Director Zack Snyder plays liberally with flashbacks and that’s where we are introduced to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent respectively. I am a fan of both actors and very much enjoyed their grounded interpretation of these important roles. Costner has relatively little to play with, but there is a very memorable and poignant moment at the end of the tornado scene that will stay flash-frozen in my memory. Some of Clark Kent’s most ‘human’ moments came – not surprisingly – with his mother Martha Kent and these moments interspersed across the runtime of the film give it some much-needed breathing space. I think Russell Crowe, inclusive of his post-corporeal existence, eventually gets more screen time than Kevin Costner, but I don’t think there was really much chemistry in those scenes with his son (and why should there be, you may ask, when the son is talking to an image, projected by an Artificial Intelligence filtered through the consciousness of the father he never knew!).
Amy Adams is a pleasant surprise as Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was absolutely irritating in the Christopher Reeve films and Kate Bosworth didn’t even register in Superman Returns (2006). I was worried that Amy Adams would go the Margot Kidder way, as she eminently is capable of playing irritating and neurotic characters. But she was surprisingly ‘normal’ and sensible in this movie and I’m not sure if the credit for that goes to director Snyder or screenwriter David Goyer (neither of whom I would credit that degree of sensitivity) or to Amy Adams herself.
And so of course, we get to the 2nd half of the movie which features some seriously impressive action on a scale that we have perhaps never seen in a superhero movie – and by that, I include even Marvel’s The Avengers from last year. At some point, I found myself wondering how Superman could really claim to be protecting the Earth when he was partly responsible for all that destruction. Because of the almost total absence of humor, this will never be as beloved a superhero film as the Iron Man films or The Avengers. But, it is certainly an entertaining and suitably contemporary reincarnation of one of the most often-told stories in comic book lore. It won’t take long before Warner Bros. greenlights the sequel and while Henry Cavill will never be the equal of Christopher Reeve in this role, I think he will grow into it quite well if given the chance over the course of a sequel or three.