(This article is first impressions only. For a more detailed review click here.)
Yesterday saw the release of the new Superman film, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. Since Richard Donner's legendary Superman: The Movie came out in 1978 we've had four live action Superman films, three live action Superman TV series' (one of which ran for ten years) and a whole bunch of animated adventures. The story of Superman is well trodden ground in film and TV, and it's not as if other superheroes have been under-represented on the silver screen lately either. I think it's fair to say that if Man of Steel was going to stand out and grab people's attention it was going to have to give us something different, something pretty bloody spectacular.
And I'm pleased to say that it succeeded! And here's why....
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!
Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are superb! While Cavill's fantastic in the fight scenes and the sad bits, he impressed me most in the scenes where he interacts with Lois and the U.S. Army. He radiates honesty and calm. You can totally believe that these people would trust him and feel safe with him, even though he's their first contact with alien life and they've seen first hand exactly how powerful he is. Cavill and Adams' interaction as Lois and Clark is a lot more dialled down and subtle than in previous versions of their story, but Cavill and Adams are so good that a few flirty looks across the table of an interrogation room speak volumes. Towards the end they share a kiss in a crater and this was where the subtlety they'd displayed in their interaction up until then paid off. I could honestly feel the passion that had been pent up for the whole film. They were practically trembling as they kissed.
The rest of the cast aren't too shabby either. Michael Shannon's General Zod looks and acts like a Jack Kirby character come to life. He's just a huge, immovable wall of power all the way through the film. A truly terrifying bad guy. Most of the film's emotional wallop comes from Russell Crowe's Jor-El and Kevin Costner's Pa Kent. They're properly fleshed out characters and their deaths are genuinely moving, Pa Kent's in particular. Never mind a Justice League film, they should spin off El & Kent: Super Dads, where they both fight crime and hang around riding dragons and being awesome.
The special effects are brilliant. There's a bit where Zod's spaceship looms over Metropolis that completely overwhelmed me. It's one of the few films where IMAX and 3D genuinely add to the experience. The fights were just as amazing as I'd heard. I felt every single punch and the devastation left in the wake of the fighting is like nothing I've ever seen in a super-hero film before, not even in Avengers. But it's not just a shallow, empty spectacle. As Superman and Zod battle above them, we see Perry White and Steve Lombard heroically risk their life to rescue Jenny Olsen, reminding us exactly what Superman is fighting for.
I'm a massive super-hero fan (you might have noticed) and when I watch super-hero films I usually find that if they're any good there's always at least one scene that grabs my soul by the balls and fills me with an intense feeling of child-like joy. Whenever I get this feeling it usually causes me to grin like a twat and punch the air. In Superman Returns it was the scene where Superman lands the plane in the baseball stadium. In Avengers it was the moment where I realised that Thor and Hulk were about to fight. For the first half of Man of Steel I was enjoying myself immensely but I hadn't had that feeling yet. I began to worry that it wasn't going to happen, but then a random soldier guy said his one line of the film. "Superman, um, that's what everyone's calling him sir." That was the first time anyone had said the word Superman in the film, and as it turned out it was the only time. And when I heard it, just popping up like that and making me so intensely happy, I realised how powerful that name can be and why the film makers were right to limit it's use. I'd been enjoying the film before but from that line onwards I was completely hooked and on board and didn't stop smiling until the end credits.
THE CONTROVERSIAL BIT!
There's a scene at the end that's caused a lot of controversy among fans. Superman has been battling Zod and they've completely destroyed the city. Superman has Zod in a head lock and Zod is aiming his heat vision towards some innocent bystanders. Superman could have presumably taken off and flew Zod away, continuing their devastating combat, but in that moment Superman realises that Zod isn't ever going to stop trying to kill the people of Earth. And so he snaps Zod's neck, killing him, an action that is shown to cause Superman some considerable anguish. I can understand why a lot of fans have a problem with this. Superman is supposed to be the one guy who can always find an alternative to killing, because he's Superman! But, personally I had no problem with the scene. The important thing for me is that it wasn't presented as a case of the hero taking the easy way out, it was a case of the hero being forced to do the one thing he never wanted to do in order to save lives. It wasn't about anger, or punishment, or vengeance, it was about saving lives. And that made all the difference to me.
THE INEVITABLE COMPARISON WITH SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE!
So far I've deliberately avoided comparing the film to Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. Superman is my favourite film of all time and I thought it was only fair to judge Man of Steel on its own merits. But to be honest they are such radically different films it would be very difficult to compare them. Superman is almost everything that's great about Superman from 1938 to 1978 packed into one amazing film. Bryan Singer's 2006 film, Superman Returns (while enjoyable enough and much better than its reputation would suggest) carries on with this version of the character and as a result fails to be the truly great film it should have been. Why on Earth did Singer rehash something that had been done so well already when there were 28 years worth of stories to take inspiration from that didn't exist when Donner made Superman?
Thankfully Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan do not make the same mistake as Singer. Except for one wonderful moment in the final few seconds of the film, Man of Steel seems free of the influence of Donner's Superman. Instead, Man of Steel takes it's inspiration from such relatively recent comic stories as John Byrne's Man of Steel (1986), Mark Waid's Birthright, (2003) and Geoff Johns' Secret Origin (2008). At the same time it offers us some elements that have never been seen anywhere before, even in the comic. For example, Pa Kent doesn't die of a heart attack, or while delivering an inspirational speech from his death bed. He dies while protecting his son and teaching him one final lesson. If Superman, and to a lesser extent it's sequels, embodies almost everything that's great about Superman from 1938 to the early '80s, then Man of Steel embodies almost everything great about Superman from 1986 to 2013. The two films are both utterly true to Superman and yet utterly different, and they can sit beside each other quite comfortably.
So far Man of Steel has been receiving a lot of average ratings from critics, and one or two comics pros have expressed their disappointment with it, (particularly with the way Zod dies). But it's doing very well at the box office and if the Man of Steel hash tag on Twitter and Tumblr are anything to go by then it's being very well received by a hell of a lot of fans. Warner Bros. have already commissioned a sequel and hopefully we should be closer than ever before to getting a Justice League film. So I think it's fair to say that despite covering well trodden ground, this film really has stood out and grabbed people's attention. Which makes me happy, because I absolutely loved this film and I think it deserves to be very successful indeed.
***** FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE!
(My opinion of the "disaster porn" criticism of Man of Steel can be found here.)