One of the earliest memories that I have of going to the movies was a trip with my father and sister to see Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Now before you all roll your eyes and shake your heads with shame, I would like to remind you all that I was 7 years of age and therefore my choice of movie was understandable. Yes, the Superman movies were certainly questionable in terms of quality, but after nearly 2 hours of eco-posturing, dodgy visual FX and Nuclear Man's incredible Super mullet, I truly believed in the Man of Steel. And I will never forget the very end of the film, as Christopher Reeve flies around the Earth and smiles, knowing the world was safe once again - the entire cinema erupted with cheers and applause, the likes of which I have never experienced since (I cannot defend the grown ups in the audience for their taste in movies).
For many people, myself included, Superman will always be the greatest superhero of all time. The movies shaped my imagination and I truly believed that a man could fly. No amount of web-shooters or Batmobiles could ever sway me on this opinion. However, it is very easy to argue that perhaps the Son of Krypton has never been properly serviced by the big screen, or at least not for a long time. The first two movies created a Superman for the big screen, but the work was undone by two poor follow ups and a reboot that paid reverence to the series but lot some of its magic and charm along the way.
Man Of Steel arrives at a time when every 3rd movie produced from a big
Hollywood studio seems to be a comic book adaptation. However Warner Brothers and DC Comics have a couple of major trump cards in their hands - producer Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer, both big hitters in the superhero genre thanks to their superlative Dark Knight trilogy and this team's approach for this new interpretation is to completely disregard the previous movies and start afresh.
As the planet Krypton starts to implode due to depletion of its natural resources, the wise Jor-El tries in vain to save his planet through diplomacy with the Council, just as the planet's military leader General Zod tries to save it through a failed coup d'etat. Zod's banishment to the Phantom Zone and the first flight of the baby Kal-El are followed by the travails of a grown up Clark Kent, as he tries to find his place on this planet - he is full of internal conflict and an engrained sense of isolation. His adoptive Earth parents have tried hard to protect him from a world that is simply not ready for him. His evolving powers to be more a curse than a gift. They are disruptive, even painful as he grows up - X-ray and heat vision were never supposed to be a part of hitting puberty. As an adult, his heroic actions force him to move on from anything deemed a stable life, for fear of attracting unwanted attention. As intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane closes in on Clark's identity, darkness all on the horizon as General Zod, free from the Phantom Zone, threatens the Earth into
handing over its secret intergalactic immigrant.
With fully realized alien worlds and some of the biggest action set-pieces to hit the big screen, Director Zach Snyder and crew have managed to shake our own image of Superman. There are no knowing smiles and cat-out-of-tree rescues for Kal-El this time, and the film is all the stronger for it. The fate of Krypton is a rather obvious warning for our own planet, but the motivations of Zod are understandable and even noble. Clark's journey of discovery allows us to sympathize with him in ways that we may not have done before. We feel his conflict and confusion as he searches to understand his place in the world. And when he steps forward to save the Earth from his fellow Kryptonians, there is no need for a heroic John Williams anthem to tell us, as one character finally realizes, that this man is not our enemy.
The A-list cast are largely successful in stamping their own marks on each of the characters they portray. Amy Adams banishes all memories of Margot Kidder in her portrayal of Lois Lane. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are both superb as Clark's adoptive parents that instill in him his humanity and humility. Russell Crowe successfully wrestles the role of Jor-El from Brando's grasp and Michael Shannon is just wonderful as General Zod.
Then there is Henry Cavill. His Superman is suitably stoic and courageous, and yet there is something missing. It would seem that the long, dark shadow of Christopher Reeve still lingers on, even after Brandon Routh manfully grappled with the Son of Jor-El in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. Reeve's impact in the role was so strong that comparisons, no matter how unfair, are inevitable. In time, Cavill will have a greater opportunity to create the role for himself, in particular the dual-identity aspect that is largely omitted here. But for now, he is merely suitable as opposed to successful in the role.
Snyder's own success is of a similar vein. While his portrayal of Krypton's demise is triumphant and the flashbacks to Clark's youth present a believable sense of true Americana (despite a few too many close-ups of long grass and washing on the line), he loses his grip a little when the final battle arrives. The action set-pieces are bigger than most other blockbusters, but they do go on a bit. As Superman and Zod fight it out in an almighty Kryptonian smackdown over the streets of Metropolis, the sheer loss of life caused by falling skyscrapers and flying fuel tankers seems lost on Snyder. The almost non-stop violence in the last half of the film also suffocates the film of any real character development or emotion.
Ultimately, these prove to be minor quibbles. Man Of Steel provides us a new Superman for our time, full of emotion, danger and excitement. Thanks to its success at the box office, a sequel is guaranteed and with it comes the hope for further development of the character as more than a cypher. But in the meantime, there is enough action and adventure on display to make one wish he was 7 years old again. It certainly banishes all memory of Richard Prior, Nuclear Man and that guy out of Two and a Half Men from the world of Kal-El.
This "Superman Begins" returns the greatest superhero to our screens and will convince a whole new generation that a man can fly.