The latest incarnation of Superman sees Warner Bros recruit two of their star directors in an attempt to revitalise the character after the huge success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
In a sense, this was to be to Superman what Batman Begins (2005) was to the other DC Comics superhero. The relative failure of the previous reboot, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), led the studio to the key players behind Batman’s recent success: writer-director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David Goyer.
They in turn recruited Zack Snyder to direct and assist them with bringing a fresh angle to the material and whilst some of the approach is interesting, the end result ultimately becomes an indigestible dish of CGI-fuelled set pieces.
Although Singer’s vision was criticised for being too respectful to Richard Donner’s 1978 film (it was an ‘unofficial sequel’), Man of Steel opens with the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton as his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends him to Earth.
Then it takes a slightly different take by exploring Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in flashback as he learns of his real identity and has to defend himself from a sceptical Earth and the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), whilst dealing with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
To their credit the filmmakers have tried to establish a new universe for this iconic character: Alex McDowell’s production design is a striking mix of Dune (1984) and Alien (1979), the main actors perform well in their roles (quite a feat given some of the dialogue) and there are some nice touches put in for the fans.
Perhaps the most radical and refreshing of all is Hans Zimmer’s score, which jettisons the famous John Williams one and brings a more sombre feeling to the action on-screen.
But despite the presence of Nolan as producer, this DC adaptation fails where Batman Begins (2005) largely succeeded.
With the Batman origin film Nolan managed to convey the struggles that inspired Batman, but here Snyder squeezes way too much story into the mix.
The most interesting parts of the film are when the younger Clark is struggling to cope with his powers but he (and presumably the studio) couldn’t resist the temptation to wreak digital carnage on the screen.
For the first two-thirds of the film this just about works but when the climax begins the battle between Superman’s allies and Zod’s army becomes almost incoherent. Snyder’s sickly, desaturated visuals and shaky, handheld camera work also don’t help.
The visuals of skyscrapers collapsing during the Metropolis sequence also feel like a cheap reference to 9/11 and a way to darken up the material.
At times it feels as if this film was directed by game controller, with Superman and Zod smashing through buildings and leaving a mass of destruction in their wake. Perhaps if two characters with those powers did fight then they would cause mass destruction, but the way it is done here is pure overkill.
Superman has always been a problematic character, with his almost invincibility and lack of worthy villains (Zod excepted) making him less interesting than Batman or some of the Marvel characters (Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men etc).
Although the attempt to dig in to his Krypton heritage is welcome, ultimately it isn’t enough with the film descending into a swamp of CGI when the focus shifts to Earth and specifically Metropolis.
Perhaps someone will one day do for Superman what Nolan’s films did for the Batman character.
But when Nolan himself is part of the team behind this attempt, one wonders if Hollywood is just beating a dead horse.