Every generation has its own take on the Superman story. Our parents had the serials starring Kirk Alyn in the famous tights, while I grew up watching reruns of George Reeves on the classic TV series The Adventures of Superman. Then, in 1978, came the much-loved first movie proper, starring Christopher Reeve in a performance that would become iconic. Bryan Singer tried to revive the character in 2006 with his reverential Superman Returns, but it never quite took off. Now, producer Chris Nolan, writer Goyer and director Snyder get it totally right with Man of Steel.
If you want to know what to expect from this film. the clue is in the title: MAN of Steel. This is a very human story, a story of Clark Kent's search for identity. He's grown up feeling as though he doesn't belong; he finds that he is able to do things that others can't, but has to keep that side of himself hidden. Eventually, he is forced to make a decision; he must choose to be a human or a Kryptonian.
But let's back up a bit, back to the beginning. Everyone knows the Superman origin story, and this film gives us more of what happened on Krypton. Scientist Jor-El (Crowe) is trying to convince the ruling council that their planet is dying. Military leader General Zod (Shannon) stages a coup, but it's too late. Zod and his minions are caught and sent to the Phantom Zone (a strange thing to do when the planet is falling apart), while Jor-El and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) pop their son into a spaceship and send him off to Earth. But where the 1978 film then spent time watching Clark grow up, Man of Steel cuts straight to an adult Clark (Cavill) working on a fishing boat and saving the crew of a collapsing oil rig at sea. We get glimpses of his childhood told in flashback – how he deals with his differences, discovering his abilities, and trying to keep his powers hidden from others while still saving lives and doing good.
We don't see Cavill don the Superman suit until almost an hour into the film, in a twist on the classic Fortress of Solitude from the earlier films. In the Arctic, a Kryptonian ship has been buried in the ice for almost 20,000 years, and inside Clark finds his father's memories – and a hologram projection of the man himself that he interacts with. There's a wonderful scene of Clark learning how to fly, crashing back to earth until he gets it right. In the meantime, though, a nosy reporter from the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Adams), is looking into the background of this mystery man, and traces his good deeds back to Smallville in Kansas. Then Zod and his minions turn up, demanding that Earth hand Kal-El/Clark over to them. Because unknown to him, Kal-El holds the secret to rebuilding the Kryptonian race.
Nolan's influence can be seen throughout Man of Steel. As with the Batman trilogy, Nolan and Goyer have set the film firmly in the real world. This is not a superhero film, but a drama that just happens to be about a man with super powers. The Jesus/God allusions are there too – Clark is 33 years old when he "becomes" Superman, and Jor-El tells him that the people of Earth will see him as a god. Cavill, all chiselled jaw and bulging pecs, is perfectly cast in the role. He's very charismatic, and calm when he needs to be. He perfectly converys the internal struggle that Clark has had to deal with for his whole life. There will be more Superman films to come, and Cavill is certainly the right man for the job.
The rest of the casting is also spot on. Adams is a strong and feisty Lois Lane, something that was lacking in Kate Bosworth's limp portrayal of the character in Superman Returns. Lois has always been a ballsy, no-nonsense woman – just look at Margot Kidder in the Reeve films, or Erica Durance in Smallville, or even Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark. Adams does a fine job of bringing Lois into the 21st century, and redefining her relationship with Superman. Shannon is superb as the "villain" of the piece – a man who is not really evil as such, simply trying to save his race from extinction, just going about it the wrong way. Costner is also wonderful as Jonathan Kent, although he doesn't get an awful lot of screen time and is only seen in flashback.
Man of Steel has a slightly darker, more sombre tone than previous Superman films (although there are some terrific moments of humour). It also cuts its ties with the Christopher Reeve era – most people feel that Singer's Superman Returns was much too reverential to the past. None of that going on here. Cavill makes the character his own, the suit is completely redesigned and Hans Zimmer bring a brand new score to the film (although, to be honest, it's nowhere near as memorable as the one by John Williams). There's plenty of action too. When Kryptonians fight, they REALLY fight – they bash each other with trucks and girders, and punch each other through buildings. There is a lot of destruction in this film.
In Superman Returns, the question was asked: does the world still need Superman? The character is now 75 years old, but in a world where there's a new superhero film or TV show coming along, it seems, almost every month, is the "big blue boy scout" still relevant? Man of Steel answers that question with a resounding yes. It gives us a grounded, very human story. A lot of the iconic mythology is there, but there are also some terrific twists. All the changes make sense to bring the character into the modern era, and give Superman a new lease of life. There's a lot here for long-time fans of the character to like (although one change is going to cause a LOT of debate), and a great fresh take to introduce him to a new audience. Man of Steel is a brilliant, spectacular Superman film – a Superman film for today.