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FILM REVIEW: Man of Steel

Categories: Movies

How do you humanize a Superman? That's the question that's made this hero one of the most difficult characters to write. But what makes Kal-El, as he's known on Krypton, truly super is Clark Kent. He's both the meek farm boy and alien saviour. That unique duality is what first defined him some 75 years ago. But in Man of Steel, Clark, for the most part, is missing in action.

Man of Steel is the story of how Clark first found his way and how the world met Superman. It's a tale of shock and awe, with bouts of breathtaking beauty and destruction. It's also director Zack Snyder's most ambitious movie to date. He's moved beyond his Michael Bay-like fetish for slow motion, replacing it with a speeded-up blur of heroic deeds and more property damage than a Godzilla double bill.

Before we get to Superman, Man of Steel begins with a long segment set on planet Krypton (Clark's true homeworld.) We begin with a birth while the planet is in its death throes. A civil war led by the fanatical General Zod (Michael Shannon at full throttle) is tearing it apart while the planet core implodes.

 Russell Crowe as the upstanding Jor-El, who sends his newborn into space to escape disaster on Krypton. (Warner Bros.)

With his high-tech coat of armour, a silver speckled beard and regal tones, Russell Crowe has an almost Arthurian bearing to him as Jor-El, father of Superman. At his side is striking Israeli actor Ayelet Zurer as mother Lara Lor-Van. Jor-El is a man of science but a traditionalist who prefers flying beasts to battleships. In a world of eugenics gone mad, the couple opt for a home birth. With Zod hammering at the door, they send their only hope to the heavens.

Then it's off to Earth and a flash-forward to meet Clark Kent as a young man, a drifter who moves from job to job to keep his true nature a secret. This is the bearded hipster from the trailers who has been so roundly mocked. But the follicles are just setting the stage for the big reveal. The evil Zod and his followers arrive on Earth looking for Kal-El to build a New Krypton on the husk of humanity's home. With a furrowed brow and some heavy flashbacks, Superman decides to reveal himself. Then Snyder shifts into high gear with a series of extended combat scenes between Superman and his evil Kryptonian counterparts.

With a quarter century of collective history to draw on, it can be difficult to separate the Superman we grew up with, from the one before us. But with this Man of Steel, every whiff of nostalgia has been eradicated in a blaze of heat vision. This is Superman seen through executive producer Chris Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer's version of reality. As with their Dark Knight trilogy, Goyer/Nolan have done a lot of hard thinking about the conditions that would create a Super Man. Krypton itself is a tragic decaying dynasty, blind to its own downfall. Even Superman's costume comes with an back story. It's a battle suit of sorts, built to withstand punishment and project his heritage.

 Kevin Costner counsels the young Clark Kent (Dylan Sprayberry). (Warner Bros.)

For all its sophistication, Superman sags under the solemn and ponderous tone director Zack Snyder strikes. Looking back at his other films, from the chiseled Spartans of 300 to the lurid girl warrior fantasies of Sucker Punch, his preference has always been more to the Super than the Man. No surprise this saviour is more alien than approachable.

If every generation gets the hero it deserves, this one made me pine for Christopher Reeve. He was Superman when we could still see the stitching on his suit. The imperfections, that easy smile, gave him his humanity with or without Clark's goofy glasses. Quite different from Henry Cavill, hovering above us, the cape fluttering majestically to offset his perfectly chiseled features.

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Man of Steel has its share of heroes and villains. Art directors and costume designers rose to the occasion with a look that's both ancient and otherworldly. The score by Hans Zimmer soars, as an army of visual effects wizards reduce the shining city of Metropolis to rubble.

As the parents, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner fill the boots of Ma and Pa Kent just fine. Jonathan Kent's final farewell is a heartbreaker that resonates long after the dust settles. Surprisingly the true heart of this adventure turns out to be Russell Crowe as Jor-El. He may be alien but he has the warmth that so much of this film lacks. Where as the relationship between Lois (Amy Adams) and Clark seems like a thumbnail sketch where we fill in the blanks, the father-son dynamic is where the true strength of Man of Steel lies.

In the end, Man of Steel is a violent break with the past by filmmakers presenting the "dark knight" of another world. In the film, Superman himself tells us the "S" is a symbol for hope. Here's hoping the inevitable next instalment will reintroduce the man inside.

Rating:3 out of 5

 Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. (Warner Bros.)
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