I work with a guy who is a fairly huge fan of Superman so I have had to contend with his excitement concerning Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel since its production was announced. With the release of every new trailer I was met with a gushing report of how it was set to be the best film ever made and, in the past few weeks, have been continually asked when the inevitable Blu-Ray release is. This is all very well and good but I found it difficult to match his excitement. As a child I loved the Christopher Reeve films and was a fan of the ‘I’m sure it was cool in the 90s’ Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. However, as a superhero, I never really responded to Kal-El in the same way I did with other forces of good. The reason for this is simple: his parents. Clark, as an alien who receives strength from the Sun, has an immense advantage over other heroes. He isn’t making the same kind of sacrifice as people like Batman, Iron Man or Spider-Man. He also never seemed as easy to engage with as a character. He’s a bit too cheesy (yes I realise talking about cheesiness in terms of any superhero is somewhat ridiculous) in an All-American hero kind of way. It’s grating and, when he’s riding around on his insanely high horse, it’s difficult to see him let alone connect with him as a character. If I had to pick an almost indestructible, God-like alien for a friend it’d be Thor no question. He seems fun in a Nordic way, has a nifty hammer and is all beardy. Plus, his human form is a doctor whilst Clark Kent runs around playing a famous journalist. It’s all a bit too narcissistic for me. So by the time I finally got round to watching this supposed masterpiece I had my expectations set to ‘not stunned’.
There was a definite sense that Superman needed a revival that would breathe new life into the man in red and blue. There was room to bring Kal-El in line with the current trend for comic-book movies and have him grow up that little bit. If that meant roughening up the edges then director Zack Snyder and producer (and script contributor) Christopher Nolan weren’t going to take the softly softly approach. Nolan and Snyder aren’t exactly your typical film partnership and there is a sense that this film is battling with its two different attitudes. On the one hand it is the dark and moody tale of a man who must fight against his Kryptonian nature and his human sensibilities: who must pick between the destiny set-out for him by his dead biological father and the careful path his adoptive human father would have him follow. On the other, it is a fast, loud and brash tale of destruction and violence that would have even Michael Bay wondering “is this a bit much?”: in other words hard-core explosion porn. It is Nolan’s style that ends up suffering and the last hour or so ends up being mainly about Kal and his Kryptonian buddies destroying everything they come across.
To be quite honest, excessive lens flare aside, I have no real problem with the visuals. I love Snyder’s muted tones and can even get behind the weirdly mechanical and very Star Trekian landscape of Krypton. Then we have the spectacular action sequences which, had there not been so many needless examples, would have got my inner twelve year old boy jumping for joy. Cinematographer Amir Mokri does of good job of ensuring that, no matter how crazy things get, it is still fairly easy to keep track of what’s going on. It’s just a shame that throughout the 2.5 hour running time there is an underlying sense that the destruction on screen is just senseless and self-indulgent. Man of Steel was intended to make an impact and, whether or not it aids the plot, it definitely introduces itself in a way you can’t ignore. It also provides a good foundation for the future as the final twenty minutes or so gives us a glimpse at a fully-fledged Superman film and suggests that, provided more depth is given to the main characters, any sequels will only boost this franchise.
Despite the reboot, the narrative isn’t too ‘out there’ and all of the key points to Superman’s origin are present and correct. The all too familiar tale begins on Krypton where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is helping his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) give birth to their first child Kal-El. Their planet is unstable and beyond redemption so Jor-El convinces his wife to send their newborn to a distant planet in the hope that he can help build a new and better Krypton. We quickly skip 33 years to find Clark taking on a series of false identities and moving on whenever he feels the need to expose his powers (whether that’s to save innocent people or just teach a bully a lesson). Through a series of flashbacks we see some of his childhood with his loving and protective Earth parents Jonathan (a sensitive and considered performance from Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane bringing as much emotion as possible to a limited role). Jonathan nervously awaits the day that the world finds out about his son and the terrible consequences that would have on his life. This has shaped the way Clark has grown up and has, as a result, shied away from making any kind of connections and resenting being unable to help people or dole out justice.
Thankfully he soon gets the chance to work out this deep-seated resentment when a worthwhile opponent enters his new life. General Zod, who we first meet attempting to stop baby Kal making his escape, has followed him to Earth in the attempt to create a new Krypton on top of the ashes of humanity. Whilst finally making his presence known to the wary Americans, Clark must decide whether his loyalties lie with his old life or his new. Although, even this conflict is fairly short-lived as, thanks to the ghostly appearances by the Hamlet Snr-esque, British Jor-El (seriously why is he British yet General Zod and co. are American?), it is very obvious that Kal isn’t going to let his new home world be destroyed before his very eyes. Even the potential fear he has about humanity’s reaction to him comes to nothing when he intimidates members of the government and the army simply by breaking apart his handcuffs. Unfortunately for Henry Cavill, all that is needed to play our hero is dashing good looks and a dimple in the middle of his square jaw. I can’t even tell is Cavill is a good actor or not because the role required him to do nothing but wear a tight-fitting, leather onsie.
With the removal of the Clark Kent/Superman divide in this reboot, there is even less of a human side to everyone’s favourite Kryptonian. With the Christopher Reeves films the Clark Kent side of his personality gave Kal-El a humble, infallible nature. It was Clark Kent who was the likeable one whilst Superman was just too good to be true. Getting rid of the split means that Kal-El is simply your better and that creates an inevitable gulf between you. Cavill is all business here and remains stiff and pretty unemotional throughout. In fact the only thing in this film that takes itself more seriously than Clark is the film itself. As is happens I counted one joke in the entire thing (where Zod throw Clark into a ‘no accidents in 106 days’ sign only for the 1 and 6 to fall off). Yes this brief visual gag made me chuckle but as statistics go it’s pretty bleak.
This wouldn’t matter so much if there was a distraction from the bleakness and suffering within the romance between Clark and confident journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams). The pair first meet in the arctic and somehow fall in love. I say somehow as I genuinely don’t know how the relationship developed: one minute Lane is tracking down Kent to expose him as the mysterious alien to them being in love. I get it on her part (he is beautiful) but I can only assume that Clark responds because Lois is the only human besides his parents that he spends more than a few minutes talking to. God knows there is no real chemistry between Cavill and Adams. Let’s face it, they’re no Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. Although, ignoring this massive oversight, I was a fan of the new independent Lois Lane. She’s become more than the easily deceived and swooning Lois to an investigative reporter who easily works out Kal’s identity. Also, this gets rid of the annoying ‘do I love Clark or do I love Superman’ conflict that Lois is always finding herself in. Gone is the sassiness we are used to but instead of smart and cynical modern interpretation. It’s exactly what the original super-wife needed and deserved to be in this modern age.
I have seen a great deal of praise for Michael Shannon’s General Zod and it is simply perplexing. I found Zod to be a rather flaccid and bland for a super villain. He doesn’t even manage to be more interesting than his second-in-command Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) who, as it turns out, is both terrifying, physically intimidating, and offered much better dialogue than her superior officer. I don’t blame Shannon for this because his part as the character of Zod is pretty much relegated to two-dimensional bad guy status. Aside from a few hints that his heart is in the right place, the General is only ever called upon to yell clichéd extracts from the super-villain handbook or reel off ridiculously archaic speeches about revenge. Although he does get more chance to create a name for himself than the rest of the supporting cast. Take Lois’ boss at the Daily Planet Perry White (played by the reliable and earring-ed Laurence Fishburne). White exists only to occasionally warn Lois about her honesty before he and two of his colleagues become trapped as Zod’s magical destruction machine starts tearing shit up. This is obviously supposed to create an emotionally tense situation but we know so little of these characters (in the context of this film at least) to give a damn whether they live or die. There is a real sense that a lot of Man of Steel relies on the pre-existing knowledge of this universe to avoid any pesky explanations littering up the narrative. That would mean less time to blow shit up after all.
Had Man of Steelcome out pre-Nolan then I have no doubt that I could perhaps understand those hailing is as the best comic book movie of all time. It’s not the worst film of its kind. Hell as a sci-fi film it has a fair few things for it: it’s huge, melodramatic and visually impressive. However, we have all come to expect a bit more from out superheroes. There isn’t the great characterisation witnessed in Iron Man, the wit and humour of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers or the gritty realism and intelligence of Nolan’s Batman-trilogy. Certainly Snyder’s film has super to spare. However, after the promises laid down by the title, I would have preferred to see a bit more of the man.