Film review: Man of Steel - Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a bit of a fudge

A Superman movie can be a touching drama of alienation, or an action epic. But it can't be both

Nicholas Barber
Monday 17 June 2013 08:59
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Krypton factor: Henry Cavill is the latest Brit actor to nab a big American superhero role
Krypton factor: Henry Cavill is the latest Brit actor to nab a big American superhero role

Superman, as we all know, is faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but he's not always strong enough to keep a film franchise in the air. The Christopher Reeve series soared for a while in the 1970s and 1980s before nose-diving, and Bryan Singer's 2006 relaunch, Superman Returns, didn't get off the ground.

Man of Steel should fare better. It's produced by Christopher Nolan and scripted by David S Goyer, who collaborated with Nolan on his mean and moody Batman films. And it's directed by Zack Snyder, who made 300. So, if nothing else, he has plenty of experience at showing gym-toned men attacking each other. The snag is that Man of Steel seems to be two films, rather than one, and while the first of them can be quite marvellous, the second crashes and burns.

Film One has Superbaby being born on the dying planet of Krypton, and then being packed into a spacepod by his father (Russell Crowe) and sent off to Earth. Once he touches down, the film slips back and forth in time, like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life but with added oil-rig explosions. We see Superboy being raised on a Kansas farm by the good-hearted Kent family (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and being confused and upset by his burgeoning powers. And we see him as a troubled, bearded drifter played by Henry Cavill, who joins Christian Bale and Andrew Garfield in the gang of British actors who have nabbed the roles of iconic American superheroes (the campaign for Helen Mirren as Wonder Woman starts here). Always looking slightly peeved with the human race, he has to ponder whether he should let the world know how super he really is, and whether he'll become an outcast or a god in the process.

It's a bravely ruminative, sensitive drama (explosions notwithstanding), and at times, I admit, it reduced me to a Man of Jelly.

So much for Film One. Film Two gets going halfway through Man of Steel with the arrival of a renegade Kryptonian (Michael Shannon) called General Zod. (Zod was last seen in Superman II, making this the second of this year's blockbusters, after Star Trek into Darkness, to pinch its villain from an early 1980s sci-fi sequel.)

Before Superman has had the chance to foil a single bank robbery, the General launches an alien invasion with a sizeable crew and a space station chock-full of weaponry, which means that Man of Steel is no longer a fable about a unique, Christ-like individual with survivor's guilt. Suddenly, he's just one of many Kryptonians flying around the place, thus undermining everything Film One had achieved.

All enquiries into humanity and responsibility are drowned out by long, noisy, computer-generated fight scenes which marry Nolan's taste for doom and gloom with Snyder's taste for over-the-top action. The result is a depressingly apocalyptic spectacle. It's all very well to include the time-honoured image of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) falling from a great height and being caught by Superman, but when we've just witnessed city-wide devastation that would have killed thousands of innocent civilians, it doesn't seem like such a victory.

Another superhero specialist, Joss Whedon, broke off from directing Avengers Assemble in 2011 to spend 12 days shooting a modern-dress version of Much Ado About Nothing (109 mins, 12A ***), in black and white, in and around his Los Angeles mansion. It doesn't quite make the jump from likeable home movie to fully realised film, and the play's misogynistic contrivances are particularly wince-worthy in a contemporary setting, but it's still an admirable project. And, for the first time in 400 years, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) is actually funny.

Critic's Choice

Michael Douglas vamps pianistically as the bling-laden Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s witty Behind the Candelabra. Meanwhile screen goddess Rita Hayworth vamps it up in many a Hollywood classic in her month-long retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank.

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