I remember coming out of the fairly woeful swords-and-sandals-meets-special-effects bonanza Immortals and thinking ‘Henry Cavill as a leading man? It’ll never work.’ I eat my hat. Many producers and directors eat their hat this month as Cavill, who has received far more knockbacks in his career thus far than roles, busts into the box office stratosphere as the titular Man of Steel.
Mind you, there’s still something frustratingly opaque about his performance: for all his good looks and easy charm, and despite an emotionally meaty script co-written by Christopher Nolan, you never feel like you’re seeing past the jaw-bone. He’s a great Superman, however: the polite, earnest young man you’d bring home to your parents; the perfect gentleman; the one-in-a-million person who, given superpowers, won’t abuse them.
This is the heart of the Superman story in all its permutations to date: the moral dilemma of a ‘God’ walking among men. Nolan & Co. are well aware of it (there’s even a scene that has the young Clark reading Plato’s Republic, one of the first texts dealing with this kind of myth; the heavy-handed Jesus comparisons tip the hat to another). Consequently, the better parts of Man of Steel are the earthly encounters between Clark and people good and bad – and the intergalactic war plot looks rather wan by comparison.
Still: the stakes have to be high for this particular drama machine to work, and what’s higher than a planet in the balance? The front end of the film careens madly from one plot point to the next, setting up the backstory, taking us from childhood to manhood – just to get us to the moment where Clark has to choose between his own ‘tribe’ of Kryptonites and his adopted home, Earth. Battle scenes ensue, shit explodes, people die – and it turns out even victory is soaked in blood.
There’s an actual simplicity to Man of Steel that’s really satisfying – even engulfed in the 3D rainbow shit-storm of spaceships, explosions and a scenery-chewing Michael Shannon (playing General Zod). If they slimmed down some of those over-long battle scenes, I’d totally probably even watch this again.
BY DEE JEFFERSON
Man of Steel is in cinemas now.