It’s a cliché followed by a yawn when the makers of comic-book movies boast about how ‘real’ and ‘psychological’ their stories are. Yes, we know, Spider-Man and Batman were just troubled sons with daddy issues. But it’s harder to make those claims for a Superman tale, even when the producer is Batman regenerator Christopher Nolan – a man with more backstories than an osteopath. Just how ‘real’ can the story of a genetically-modified baby launched to Earth from a planet called Krypton ever feel?
And so it’s no surprise that Man of Steel feels both modern and traditional – a halfway house between the broodier Nolan way of shaking things up and the louder, bone-crunching style that director Zack Snyder established with films such as 300 and Sucker Punch. Man of Steel is punchy, engaging and fun, even if it slips into a final 45 minutes of explosions and fights during which reason starts to vanish and the science gets muddy.
It opens with a lengthy preamble explaining how Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launched his son Kal to Earth just as his planet was falling apart, and how failed coup leader General Zod (Michael Shannon, a muted villain) was banished at the same time. It’s here, and at the end, that Snyder is at his most baroque: first, he indulges the weird science of Krypton and, later, he enjoys giving America a vicious pounding when Zod tracks down Superman.
It’s in the middle section, post-Krypton, pre-showdown, that the film hits its stride. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, a good choice for Superman: solid, sturdy, fairly anonymous) is a twentysomething wanderer uneasy with his powers. Rather than leading us through his whole life so far, Snyder tells the tale of Kent reconnecting with his past, finding the super-suit (unshiny, like the movie) and testing his powers, while often flashing back to his childhood. Soon, journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) knows what’s up. Adams’s character is different to the Margot Kidder version: she’s a tough-cookie investigator and not the sort to be hoodwinked by a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a comb-over.
Mostly, this Superman is more action than angst. But those daddy issues are still in play. Crowe – never an actor to show his ticklish side – plays Jor-El like he’s Hamlet’s father. Kevin Costner is Superman’s Earth dad in pastoral scenes full of cornfields, clothes on the line and snapshots of an easier time which look like they were conceived soon after a screening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
At times, you wish for a quick dash into a phone box and a cat that needs rescuing from a tree. Snyder is no party pooper, though. He might not resurrect Superman’s old theme tune, nor does he allow the word ‘Superman’ to be spoken (it’s all Clark and Kal). But by the end, he’s teased in some of the more amusing elements of the old story we thought were missing, leaving the way open for a sequel that will surely be more Earthbound.