With wall-to-wall action that moves faster than a locomotive, Man of Steel reinvigorates a wealth of Superman mythos for a new generation, but is far from an unqualified success. The pairing of producer Christopher Nolan and director Zach Snyder is a bit of an anomaly given their very different directorial styles, but if nothing else, Man of Steel certainly gives you a lot bang for your buck.
The script, scribed by Nolan's Dark Knight co-writer David Goyer, covers not only the already well known origin story of an alien baby who escapes the destruction of his home planet and is raised by a kindly Kansas couple, but also the saga of the man of steel's quest for self-enlightenment and his run-in with his Kryptonian enemy General Zod. That's an awful lot of material to cram into one movie – enough perhaps for two movies, one could argue.
In Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill), we see a tormented man of few words, forced to repress his anger as he grows up the victim of bullying and trots the globe in search of his extra-terrestrial roots. He tries to balance the lessons learned from his two fathers Jor-El and Pa Kent (Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner) whose presence his felt throughout the film via flashback or special Kryptonian technology, and questions if he can ever gain the trust of the people of Earth.
In his nemesis Zod (standout Michael Shannon) we see a tragically misguided figure whose villainy is born of honest intention warped by circumstance. Even Amy Adams' strong-willed Lois Lane and some of the supporting players are given arcs to add dimensionality, but unfortunately, a great deal of the character substance on the page is lost in execution.
The problem is not in Goyer's somewhat unorthodox structure, but in the pacing and that there's no time to properly establish the characters, the world(s) they inhabit, or the rules that govern them. Rather, we are dropped from the near outset into a collapsing (though beautifully designed) Krypton, without the opportunity to live with the characters or acclimatize to the science of their world, but forced to accept it immediately.
On the one hand, it's somewhat fitting for a film about faith and trust to invest so much of it in its audience. On the other, it's a lot to ask of an audience to invest emotionally in characters they've hardly gotten to know. The much needed moments of calm and introspection throughout the film seem to fly by much too fast to truly resonate. By the time we hit the apocalyptic final hour, it's hard to really care about our characters' fates. That final hour is a Catch-22 of its own. No one can deny the sensationalism of the literally earth-shattering action, but after a while, all that collateral damage and Mortal-Kombat-airborne fighting becomes exhausting.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Snyder has always been more successful as a craftsman than a storyteller. Even if his favouring of hand-held camera doesn't do any favours for the otherwise excellent effects, his orchestration of the film's aural and visual elements is marvelously achieved. Production designer Alex McDowell and costumers James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson lend bleak yet beautiful texture to the Kryptonian environs and trappings, for which a great deal of credit should also be paid to Joe Letteri and his army of CGI artistes. The sound is imposing throughout, exceptionally mixing Hans Zimmer's hair-raising score and the explosive sound effects.
On the whole, as Super-sized summer spectacle, there isn't much for which you can fault Man of Steel. It delivers all the eye-popping thrills that you'd expect, but a more careful execution of the screenplay's thematic texture and character arcs could have made it great.
**1/2 out of ****