Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it's our final verdict on one of 2013's biggest blockbusters- can Man of Steel resurrect the Superman movie franchise?
As Man of Steel opens to a visually splendid rendition of Krypton with all of its traditional sci-fi courtrooms and alien vehicles intact, it's difficult not to wonder if in the end, Zack Snyder's version of Superman will feel like little more than an inadvertent parody of the Richard Donner movies rather than a worthy successor. That's not the case, though: while it has its notable imperfections, this reviewer can at least fully credit this ambitious reboot for bringing back Superman successfully and raising anticipation for future instalments more than 2006's Returns ever could.
Indeed, there's a sense for the production team here that distancing themselves from the last failed attempt at a reboot from Bryan Singer is a key aspect of their approach. Whereas Superman Returns was light on action in favour of political and resource-based themes in its narrative, Man of Steel features setpiece after spectacular setpiece. Of course, Zack Snyder's work on 300 and Watchmen makes him a prime candidate to direct such action-fuelled spectacle, and it's no lie to state that when the movie reaches its climactic battles, the director does wonders with what's on offer. Nevertheless, there is a sense too that in dealing with a licensed franchise from DC, Snyder has had to restrain the innovative nature of his direction in order to firmly place this within the Superman franchise rather than in the diversity of his own works.
Another sacrifice that seems to have been made to enable this intense action is one which does work wholly to the film's detriment. What with all the explosions, fist-cuffs and physical conflicts on offer here, particularly in the movie's second half, there's a severe lack of heart, emotion and/or humour in a variety of scenes, with the "I just think he's kinda hot" moment frequently vaunted in trailers working horrendously in attempting to regain some humour in the flick's final moments. Snyder is no stranger to placing emphasis on action over emotion, yet here that certainly can't be an excuse, as it robs Man of Steel of a strong degree of dramatic impact in this case.
On the positive side, the cast that Man of Steel boasts is a strong one on the whole. Henry Cavill looks to be providing a layered and innovative rendition of Superman (and indeed the budding mild-mannered Clark Kent) in this new franchise, imbuing an age-old character with new life based on the harsh morals of a world plagued by terrorism and difficult decisions in 2013. One decision made by Supes in the final battle will prove controversial for fans, so it should be exciting to see how the undisputed sequel will deal with its aftermath and moral ramifications. Amy Adams perhaps doesn't get quite enough chance to show off a depth to Lois Lane, but manages well with the content she has here, while Russell Crowe is consistently impressive as Clark's Kryptonian father Jor-El. The only real weak link in the roster is Michael Shannon, whose shallow war-general take on Zod only barely eclipses the atrocious Red Skull depiction in Captain America: The First Avenger, winning out simply because the script provides layers to his motivations.
There's something of an uneasy balance struck here, then, as for all its positive aspects- the brilliant special effects, the fairly strong cast roster and the time-jumping narrative included- there are a number of negative aspects both in narrative and directorial terms that work to its detriment. Whereas the Dark Knight trilogy from Christopher Nolan (who produced this entry and commandeered the direction of its storyline) had a strong sense of gritty realism blended with charming humour even in its darkest moments, Man of Steel seems to outright lack this inert humour beneath its gratuitous action sequences. This inevitably places the film closer to the ranks of Star Trek Into Darkness and Transformers, both flicks with brilliant and compelling action that fail to go beyond the 3.5*/4* region due to their lack of brains to match their brawn. Indeed, Snyder has failed to top even Iron Man 3 in this reviewer's honest opinion, which despite one or two predictable plot twists, featured an intelligent narrative that blended action, humour and psychological drama strongly enough to warrant a higher score (4.5*).
In the end, though, Man of Steel is most certainly worth your time. It's not perfect by any stretch, and anyone entering the auditorium expecting Snyder's team to replicate the same level of quality established by Nolan's Dark Knight series will be disappointed just as this reviewer was. However, the film does undoubtedly restore a great deal of Superman's appeal for a modern audience in 2013, ensuring far more than Superman Returns that Warner Brothers and viewers alike will want further sequels to follow in the years ahead. Thanks to a number of Lexcorp and Wayne Industries references, plot arcs for future Superman films and Justice League are set up too, yet what with all the troubled development of the latter ensemble film, I have a feeling we can expect standalone sequels to arrive first. It's safe to say that what Man of Steel gains from its action sequences, it loses in occassional logical lapses and emotional apathy. This at least provides a solid foundation for future instalments, coming close to the Richard Donner films in a manner that's less parody and more of a homage, albeit one that could do with a little more substance beneath its bullet-proof surface.