Even if you’ve never seen the films or read the comics, you may have absorbed the specifics of this particular story through prolonged cultural osmosis. Man of Steel is about an alien boy flung to Earth by his parents moments before they, and their entire race, are consumed by a very loud apocalypse. The boy carries with him the genetic make-up of his lost people and, under the care of a kindly Kansas couple, grows up to be extremely good at punching.
What can be done to refresh this familiar old tale? Well, lots, actually, and to its credit, Man of Steel at least has ideas about what makes the big man tick. What if that famous serene half-smile isn’t the smugness of a demigod, but the result of a lifetime of zen-like mastery of powers that would melt the brain of your average Joe? What does Superman look like before he’s figured out how to be Superman? Worthy questions, but Man of Steel spends more time exploring alien politics, setting up convoluted world-ending threats and following squadrons of tertiary characters rather than developing its leading chap.
The Kryptonians have earned a decent reboot, at least. The ghostly hippies of yore have morphed into a race of brutal eugenicists. Instead of crystals, they live in giant dildos on the sexiest planet in the universe. The opening scenes are dedicated the escapades of Superman’s dad (Russell Crowe) as he faces down a coup led by primo villain Zod, shoves his son into a space pod that looks like a sex toy and steals the genetic codex for his entire race in ten minutes flat. This opening bout of procrastination can be forgiven for the pace-injection, but it’s the start of preoccupation with a race of dead space-jerks that goes ploughs way beyond setting up the Supes/Zod nature/nurture comment.
Chief among space-jerks: Zod. His failed attempt to seize power earns him and his cohorts a trip to prison dimension, The Phantom Zone. A few minute sin, team evil are lined up, frozen and fired to relative safety in tiny pods (“they look like butt plugs!” the girlfriend observed, correctly), which frees them up to chase down Supes and reclaim the genetic key to their recently-exploded race. Let the super-punching commence.
The super-punching is excellent, if you like that sort of thing. The long-awaited first fight starts with a supersonic ground-and-pound that blows away the malaise of the preceding hour of plodding plotwork. This is a vicious, unceremonious scuffle, they drag each other to the ground and throw knees and fists at every opportunity – a bar brawl among gods. The CG work here, and in Superman’s memorable first flight scene is vivid and thoughtful, developing character through the medium of punching. Over the course of a single fight, you can see Superman’s self-control improve as he improvises, learns, and finds better ways to throw space-jerks through buildings.
There are other positives. Clark’s coming-of-age is told through flashbacks, sparing us hours of introspective moralising in twee Kansas fields, thank goodness. He has access to his whole battery of powers – X-ray vision, lasery eyes, super strength, super speed, flight, hair that gels itself – from the beginning. Yes!
If only this penchant for lean, efficient storytelling had survived the first hour, viewers would be spared the lengthy holographic recap of everything that happened in the first ten minutes of the film, and the needlessly intricate explanation of Zod’s escape from the Phantom Zone, and Louis Lane’s journalism montage in which she doorsteps everyone that’s appeared in one of Clark’s flashback moments. Individually, they’re short instances of dead time, but Man of Steel is awash with them. The bloat would be easier to bear but for the tiniest glimmer of humour, but oh my glob this is serious. This is Beaker-face serious.
It might get away with that, too, if it weren’t so awkwardly written. Background characters pop up to parrot the film’s theme-of-the moment. I loved the the newspaper editor that baulks at printing proof of Superman’s existence because he feels humanity isn’t ready for it – how thoughtful! Zod delivers a villainous rant embarrasing enough to get him barred from the society of cheesy villains, screaming his entire character bio, motivations flaws and all, at his opponent. The one attempt to grab a laugh towards the end flops harder than a Kryptonian dildo tower. There’s an entire strata of military personnel who could be snipped with little consequence. And poor Louis Lane! Given a fresh start as a no-nonsense war reporter hunting down Superman’s story, she’s cursed in the end to waft in and out of peril, at one point apparently teleporting across the city to offer Superman a bit of comfort.
And to what end? Superman must become a symbol of hope, of course, and Man of Steel desperately hopes you’ll believe that if you’re explicitly hit over the head with it enough times. But the final act features some of the most protracted and disturbing images of citywide destruction I’ve seen in years. The fact that Superman saves the world feels like a technicality. Man of Steel sticks a victory flag in a pile of rubble and asks you to applaud.
That’s a shame, because in brief, abortive squirts, Man of Steel does more to humanise Superman than any big or small screen adaptation that has gone before. Clark’s moments of childhood vulnerability are lost amid torrents of irrelevant detail. When Superman prepares for his final pose he’s somehow become a blank, hovering haircut again. In these moments, he’s never seemed so alien. But boy, that alien can punch.