In Man of Steel, the new Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder and produced and co-written by Christopher Nolan, the letter on our hero’s chest doesn’t mean what we all thought it meant. This is no Roman “S” but a Kryptonian symbol denoting hope. The word “Superman” is stutteringly or suspiciously pronounced, like “the Bat Man” in the Dark Knight movies. He is referred to by his earthling name, Clark, or his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, or even as the “alien” by the frowning Pentagon brass. This is a 21st-century superhero who must steel himself against the agonies of being misunderstood by the people he is trying to help.
The origin myth is perhaps the most interesting part of any superhero story; for some, the only interesting part. Snyder has created a colossal, grandiose genesis for the Man of Steel, a titanic Moses-out-of-Nietzsche tale, a planet-clashing spectacle that is seen perpetually through a glowing, lens-flaring light. It’s the opposite of the twilight of the gods — it’s the daybreak of the Titans. We go way, way back before Clark Kent coolly makes his career leap into journalism, joining the Daily Planet as a “stringer”, a move that incidentally shows that CV-faking must be one of his superpowers.
There are some striking ideas and images, and interesting casting for the chief role. To go with his gym-built, digitally assisted pecs, abs and thighs, Britain’s Henry Cavill has a thin, intriguingly pale and sensitive face, with a buttock cleft on his chin. Cavill’s Clark has a fraught relationship with his tough foster mom and troubled foster dad: nice performances from Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. He faces off satisfyingly with his terrifying Kryptonian enemy, General Zod, of whom more in a moment. But this story doesn’t quite have the wit of Joss Whedon’s assembly of Avengers, nor the gothic seriousness of Nolan’s Dark Knight, and the all-important romantic spark with Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, sadly isn’t there. There’s naturally a lot of swooping and flying — compulsory for 3D films.
Snyder and Nolan have modified the beginning of the story so that a primal clash has been designed into the narrative from the get-go.
(There is, as yet, no sign of the famous adversary Lex Luthor, although keen-eyed observers will later note trucks on the streets of the Metropolis belonging to “Lexcorp”.)
The planet Krypton is dying for environmental reasons. Dignified soldier-statesman Jor-El rails against mismanagement of the planet’s resources; he is played by Russell Crowe with a well-spoken British accent, presumably hailing from a part of the planet far distant from that of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon with an American accent. Zod uses the crisis to launch a failed mutiny against the planet’s revered leaders.
At the same time, Jor-El and his grieving wife launch baby Kal-El in a tiny escape capsule as the planet is consumed by fire. The child finally arrives on Earth, to be named Clark Kent, and the rest is history — remembered and effectively narrated in flashback glimpses by traumatised, grown-up Clark. But it isn’t long before Zod makes his way to Earth with intergalactic dominion on his mind.
Lois Lane is a pretty supercilious star journalist, on the trail of the Man of Steel ever since rumours of his adolescent feats of strength started to leak out, and prone to temper tantrums with her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). “I’m a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter!” she yelps. “Then act like it!” booms Perry. That, of course, is what Adams thinks she’s doing, but her role is sketchily conceived in this fanboy creation.
This is a great, big, meaty, chewy superhero adventure, which broadly does what it sets out to do, though at excessive length. What I missed were the gentle, innocent pleasures of Superman’s day-to-day crime-fighting existence, depicted in ordinary sunlight and in primary colours: the bullets exploding harmlessly on the chest, the casually lifted automobile, the look of horror on the faces of low-level bad guys, the awestruck Rockwell kid’s gratitude.
A result of the cataclysmic battle in this film may be that much of the Man of Steel’s mystery and novelty have been used up. Subsequent adventures may lose altitude.