Review of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel

I enjoyed Man of Steel. Now it’s over I’ll argue that it suffers from weak plotting, a dodgy script and a bland leading man, but I won’t deny that I was transfixed from start to finish, and I say this as one not given over to drooling over spectacle. Sadly, while it has plenty of outstanding and brutal action, it also lacks a heart.

I’ll start with the good; Man of Steel looks amazing, with a beautiful, washed-out palette and the ethereal cinematography of a Terence Malick film. Kryptonian culture in particular is given a convincing and consistent look and feel, which we see through an extended prologue set entirely on Krypton, a solid 30 minutes of action and intrigue that’s not only a breathtaking sequence but also underlines the fact that the Superman we’re going to be meeting is alien, from a culture of beards and capes and ponderous, crumbling, God-like figures. It’s lovely, chunky, space opera stuff that we don’t see much of on the big screen these days and it was very welcome.

As for the action; Man of Steel easily tops The Avengers for the pummelling our world gets, with both Smallville and Metropolis taking a beating so severe I think I may have physically gaped more than once. While the CGI gets a bit bendy in some of the close-ups — think of that scene in The Matrix Reloaded with Neo fighting a hundred Agent Smiths and you’ll know what I mean — it’s usually all convincing and weighty.

Matching the action, Michael Shannon — cinema’s go-to actor for bug-eyed, batshit-crazy characters — gives a great, scenery-chewing performance as General Zod without going too far into pantomime and was, at times, even a little sympathetic while Russell Crowe provided a more measured counterpoint as the sage-like Jor-El. Sadly, this brings me to one of Man of Steel‘s major problems; Henry Cavill as an actor is massively outclassed by Shannon and Crowe and his Superman ends up a cipher, little more than a physical embodiment of Jor-El’s philosophy. He’s given no time at all to develop a character of his own; there’s really just not a lot going on inside that furrowed-brow.

We never get to appreciate why it is that Superman chooses humanity over his fellow Kryptonians. Instead, we’re thrown straight into the action without getting the chance to build up any emotional attachment to Smallville, Metropolis or any of the human characters — it should be devastating to us to see Metropolis so torn apart, but it never felt as if it mattered. When I said that Man of Steel lacked a heart, this is what I meant — while it’s an exciting and impressive special effects reel, it doesn’t ever break out from that.

There are other flaws. The script is unpolished with a tendency to tell rather than to show and teeters into bewildering waffle more than once; the story itself is rushed and padded with flashbacks; characterisation beyond Zod and Jor-El is pretty weak though Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Costner do their best with the material they have. The general feel of Man of Steel is that of a prequel, but with the balls-out destruction that you’d expect to see at the climax of a trilogy. The film tries to be both Iron Man and The Avengers, both origin story and end game, and it doesn’t manage it.

So, it’s a mixed bag. Man of Steel demonstrates what we already knew, that the talents of Snyder, Goyer and Nolan can come together to make some awe-inspiring cinema. What the film doesn’t demonstrate is that Henry Cavill has what it will take to convincingly headline a new Superman series, it doesn’t demonstrate that there’s potential for a Justice League series off the back of this and in the end, it doesn’t really introduce us to Superman at all.

Those explosions though! Awesome.