A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.
What we thought:
Man of Steel feels, in some ways, like an answer to the fans who complained that 2006's Superman Returns was light on action and super-heroics. You really won't have that complaint with this film. "Superman, smash" seems to be the order of the day, and Superman does indeed smash like it's nobody's business, much to the detriment of downtown Metropolis.
The origin of Superman is one of the most recognised stories in popular culture, so much so that a retelling almost seems redundant. Man of Steel stays fairly loyal to its character's prescribed mythology, but kudos to writer David S Goyer for finding ways to look at the tale with a fresh eye.
Taking a leaf from producer Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Man of Steel takes a similar flashback approach to its story. Starting with the death of Krypton (the design here is fantastic, recalling the fantastic design of the Star Wars films), the story then moves to Earth, cutting back and forth between the adult Clark Kent, a drifter who keeps his head down and moves from job to job while performing random, super powered good deeds, and the younger Clark, beset with dealing with his burgeoning powers.
Unlike earlier incarnations, the young Clark Kent in this film doesn't revel in his budding abilities. Far from it, his quickly developing powers are often a torment to him. He dare not defend himself against school bullies for fear of what a super powered punch might do while an incident in the classroom illustrates the more distressing side of having x-ray vision. This is a Clark Kent beset by insecurities and fear for what he is and I suppose that’s a Superman for our jaded times. Man of Steel is a concerted departure from the Superman films with Christopher Reeves, but then, to be fair, today's Superman comics aren't like the ones that those films drew their inspiration from.
While deserving credit for taking a fresh approach to Superman, the earlier parts of the film do feel somewhat disjointed, with some good to very good bits that don't really mesh into a great whole, a flaw that applies to the film at large. Not helping things is a script with dialogue that often feels like homily and characters that are pretty thinly sketched.
None of this really matters once Zod shows up with a few other surviving Kryptonians in tow and Man of Steel kicks into high gear. With Superman finally suited up and ready to take on Zod, what started out as a sci-fi film with touches of a coming-of-age tale quickly morphs into a super powered face-off on the scale of a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. Quite frankly, it makes the battle at the end of The Avengers look like a scuffle at primary school during breaktime.
Whole blocks of the city are laid to waste; punches send out sonic booms. The destruction on display here would keep insurance companies busy for decades. I guess enough time has passed for people to be comfortable with blatantly 9/11-like imagery being re-purposed for superhero fisticuffs.
Still, as impressive as all the action is, it does feel overlong and as if it exists in large part to distance this film from the 2006 outing. What I missed was the perspective of the ordinary man on the street, the guy just going to work and looking up at the sky in awe to see people trading blows high above. That might have lent the film something extra and would hardly have been out of place.
So, a patchy story, thin characterisation and action that outstays its welcome. Yet, despite these flaws, Man of Steel is often engaging and the action staged in a manner that is jaw-dropping before it becomes tiresome.
If ever you wanted to see Superman going at it all out, this film is for you. Some of the imagery here seems ripped from the pages of the comics (with the glowing red eyes being my personal favourite). Credit must go to director Zack Snyder for crafting a film that dazzles the eye more than any other film so far this year. The flying sequences are also pretty impressive, with this being one of the rare occasions where I actually enjoyed the 3D (though, on the whole, the 3D doesn't get a proper workout).
Henry Cavill, if nothing else, is the most physically convincing screen Superman ever and the first to truly match the exaggerated musculature of the comic counterpart. In terms of performance, the script does not give him much, though he does sell that sense of benevolence that Superman needs.
As Zod, Shannon is all fury and blazing eyes, and does make for a formidable foe. Russell Crowe is noble and portentous as Jor-El though he does get a few chances to play at hero while Kevin Coster infuses the role of Superman's human dad with a sense of golden Americana usually seen in Norman Rockwell paintings.
As for Lois Lane, Amy Adams nails the sassy, single-minded nature of the character but the relationship between her and the leading man isn't developed well enough and its climax rings false. Given how little he has to do, I would have left Laurence Fishburne's Perry White for the sequel, as his presence here seems obligatory at best.
I'm giving Man of Steel three stars but that is a very enthusiastic three stars. It's only some pretty obvious flaws in the script that keep it from being very good. But that doesn't mean this isn't a fantastic piece of entertainment, with spectacle on a scale unlikely to be matched this year. As a fresh start for the character for a new generation, it does well to whet the appetite for future instalments.