Man of Steel, leaden film

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's yet another bloody superhero movie winging its way to an Odeon near you.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

With the highly anticipated release of Zach Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, the more-than decade-long flurry of blockbuster superhero movies shows no sign of stopping.

It’s almost hard to imagine, given that a summer outing for another caped hero is now as inevitable as a rainy London in June, that until the turn of the century only a handful of superhero series had made it to the big screen. Now, as you read this, someone in Hollywood is poring over headshots looking for the perfect person to play the title role in Ant-Man.

But despite having already inspired a string of iconic movies and being among the most iconic characters of the superhero stable, Superman hasn’t fared as well in this bustling new market. While Spider-Man, Batman and the X-men have enjoyed a string of successes, Clark Kent has never quite made it off the ground: Bryan Singer’s lacklustre Superman Returns (2006) was a deserved flop and, after a subsequent shelved sequel, there has been a ‘S’-shaped hole in the landscape ever since.

From the moment its tantalising, murky-hued teaser hit the internet, Man of Steel looked primed to overturn this slight with gusto. Superman (played here by the chiselled Henry Cavill) has, admittedly, always been painfully vanilla: a Herculean, all-American boy scout with a haircut his mum would approve of and pearly whites so luminous they mean he needn’t bother wearing a mask to hide his identity. But by enlisting Dark Knight trilogy masterminds Christopher Nolan and Davis S Goyer to craft the story, Snyder tries to stick some grit between those flawless chompers.

It all begins with our hero’s birth on the distant planet of Krypton. He’s the first natural-born child for centuries in a creepy authoritarian society where GM babies are grown en masse and engineered to fulfil the role society requires of them. To make matters worse, the planet is dying, and the military are rising up under the despotic General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants to take the apocalypse as an opportunity to weed-out the degenerate bloodlines. Jur-El (Russell Crowe) decides to dispatch his progeny to a faraway planet, sending with him the genetic Kryptonian imprint in the hope his son might one day revive the race.

His cot-cum-spaceship lands on a farm belonging to the Kents, a Kansas couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) who name him Clark and raise him as they own. After the CGI-laden fluff of the opening act – Crowe at one point rides on the back of a giant winged insect – this is where the film sets its feet on solid ground.

The styling is rugged and evocative, framing a simple human drama about the trials of growing up different… and, well, with superpowers. Clark heads out into the world looking for answers, drifting from place to place, saving the day now and then, and carving out his own legend. But while Man of Steel tosses up a few quietly poignant moments, they are all but drowned out by the noisy procession of Snyderian set-pieces that follow.

Zod follows Clark to Earth and makes nefarious designs on his adopted world. So begins a relentless string of superhuman fracas: cars are thrown, heat vision is shot back and forth and buildings topple. The pace is relentless. Purely, one suspects, to rush viewers past the glaring plot holes and hackneyed one-liners served-up by a balsa-wood Cavill and a visibly bored Shannon.

Soon, any shred of drama is left twisting in the wind. Lois Lane, Superman’s paramour and Daily Planet journo, makes her expected appearance, but with barely enough time for flirtations between beat-downs, their inevitable kiss feels like just a matter of course. Caught somewhere between Dark Knight Nolan noir and unabashed Avengers Assemble japery, this is a strange and tiresome beast; po-faced and yet shallow.

With Man of Steel chalking up the biggest opening weekend of the year, it seems Superman has reclaimed his box-office throne. A sequel is already in the works and sources are saying it may arrive as early as 2014.

Personally, I’m more excited for Ant-Man.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Man of Steel here:

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