Throwing the reins to Snyder may have seemed a risky move following the reception of 300 and Watchmen however the director is not to be underestimated and Man of Steel is evidence that his trademark visual impact can be matched with a visceral and emotional power. The early scenes set in Smallville are perfectly balanced between the discovery of a Kal-El’s powers and the emotional development which occurs there. Snyder knows the world in which he is walking and quickly he, and the film gain pace.
The Krypton-bound opening sequence sets in place the economy of the storytelling. It is loud, visually staggering and does suffer from a strange pacing issue of being at times both calm and utterly chaotic and yet we are drawn into this other world very quickly. Michael Shannon shines in these early scenes (as he does whenever he is on screen) and his anger and conviction are matched by Russell Crowe’s fatalistic and compassionate Jor-El. The differences between their philosophies become touchstones for Snyder’s Man of Steel and there is a far more nebulous morality to the film at times. Though it is a retelling of the origins of Kal-El there is a welcome economy to the characterisation while the world around them is expanded upon greatly.
Those fearing Christopher Nolan’s input as producer would drive Superman into the shadows will be happy to learn that this is a vibrant and exciting vision of the son of Krypton. What it shares with Nolan’s Batman is the unadorned telling of the story; the struggle of the stranger on an alien planet afraid of the world’s fear at his presence, the overwhelming urge to protect at any cost, at its heart this is a film about someone finding their place in the world.
At 143 minutes it never feels too long and though there are a number of expositional sequences throughout each are well told with some very interesting visual design influences (Diego Rivera, Méliès, Syd Mead amongst others) and add to the weight of the story in play. Hans Zimmer’s booming score gives a dramatic weight to the visual chaos and Snyder commands your attention at every turn.
There is an odd choice of a faux-documentary jolting to some of the camerawork which is distracting and unnecessary but Snyder knows how to create a beautiful frame and there are a number of them throughout. He’s not above a little playfulness too, not to spoil anything but eager Easter Egg hunters will be rewarded by some background details (even in outer space), and there is a shot straight out of Watchmen here. What this film has, and has in giddy abundance, is unrelenting action.
There are mile high fistfights of such force and energy buildings topple and stone walls become paper thin. The conflict between Superman and Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone inhabitants is thrilling and impressive. This epic Kryptonian battle royale is the perfect antidote to those decrying Bryan Singer’s recent iteration, the action set pieces are breath-taking and the Smallville fight sequence is the stuff of dreams for Superman fans.
Revealing the truly alien nature of the opposing forces through these unashamedly sensational fights scenes is Snyder’s trump card and works in favour of the narrative and its themes. To choose to stand up and be judged, to embrace the unstable nature of the crowd and learn to trust them, to stop running from your destiny is what Snyder asks of his hero. There is a quiet moment amidst the city-churning fighting which finds Kal-El, now fully aware of the threat and importance he poses to the planet, which takes place in a church. The scene is thankfully brief yet acts as a powerful pivot on which the film rests. It is a curiously understated moment and pitched perfectly. It is one example of how Snyder lays the foundation for the over the top action, it acts as an echo of an earlier scene and points to the film’s final moments. Launched from the ashes of a doomed Krypton, from the alienated and frightened Smallville schoolboy this is the journey of Kal-El, the saviour of the world moving out from a self-imposed shadow to become Superman.
The cast is on top form, Henry Cavill embodying the duality of the homespun Kansas boy and an alien stranger coming to terms with his destiny. Amy Adams is a great and gutsy Lois Lane who sadly gets lost the film goes on, becoming someone for Superman to save though thankfully she doesn’t have to disrobe to justify her place on screen. It is Shannon however who steals the show, imbuing the character with the menace and malice. He can’t quite escape the trappings of the superhero villain (he, like many others, enjoys the sound of his own voice a little too much) but he is a fearsome villain and immensely fun to watch.
David Goyer uses the common currency of our cultural knowledge of Superman while allowing for the moments which make up the journey to arrive fresh. Kevin Costner has a number of very effective scenes as Jonathan Kent, his quiet admiration and paternal concern are a joy to behold. The Smallville scenes give the film it’s heart while the Metropolis sequences get the blood pumping. Snyder, here too, finds the perfect balance.
In essence Man of Steel is a perfect companion piece to Nolan’s Batman Begins. It takes the well-loved, well-worn bones of the beloved source material and creates a new world around them. It is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film with its powerful action set pieces and the right amount of reverence of the character but there’s more at play here. By focusing on Kal-El rather than Superman we have a thrilling and emotionally satisfying blockbuster and perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer so far.