While the original 1978-1987 Superman series is very much hit and miss (Superman: The Movie and Superman II are both extremely enjoyable; Superman III has its moments and Superman IV is probably best forgotten about), one thing unites the four films: Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the DC Comics superhero and his alter-ego Clark Kent. Central to the appeal of those films, and the character generally, is the fact that Kal-El – or Superman as he is more widely known – hides his true identity behind the disguise of a mild-mannered reporter; a weedy, bumbling, spectacles-adjusting, nervous proto-geek who is initially barely acknowledged by Pulitzer-chasing fellow reporter Lois Lane. The idea that this weakling is actually capable of superhuman feats of strength and possesses powers that mere mortals can only dream of was fundamentally important to the massive appeal of the character and, arguably, contributed heavily to the original 1978 film’s success.
In Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot, Man of Steel, that idea of Clark Kent as a figure that transforms from zero to hero is, sadly, a distant memory. This change in direction has sucked much of the magic out of a tale which, otherwise, is not too dissimilar to that which has gone before. Henry Cavill is the man with the flowing cape this time round, often displaying the kind of muscular torso that simply didn’t seem necessary in 1970s cinema, when leading men were more likely to be sporting a well-developed set of man-boobs. His Clark Kent / Kal-El may well be searching for the answers regarding his identity and destiny in life, but he is looking for them while drifting along and failing to hold down a number of temporary jobs in Alaska. The traditional Clark Kent role of reporter at the Daily Planet is only paid lip service to here, making little sense within the context of this film and seemingly tacked on at the end as a traditionalist-pleasing afterthought. Somewhere along the line – presumably at the point Dean Cain was cast as Superman on TV – we have strayed from one of the most fundamental ideas at the heart of this story. Clark’s no longer a wordy doofus – he has now repeatedly been played as a brooding, troubled young man that has the physique to lift a truck regardless of any special powers he may happen to possess. (While on the subject of – er – trucks, here’s no Lex Luthor here, but there are nods to him – Lexcorp Tower makes a fleeting appearance, and the logo appears briefly on a fuel tanker, fact fans.)
I’m no fanboy, and I’m no traditionalist either, but this feels like a mis-step by Warner Bros. Also different to those earlier Reeve films, particularly with regard to Richard Donner’s original and the follow up (directed in part by Donner, of course, but also re-shot and finished off by Richard Lester after Donner was removed from the production) is the tone. Man Of Steel is much darker than previous Superman movies, straying closer to Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy with its occasionally oppresive, heavier feel. Nolan co-produced Man Of Steel and his involvement may also point towards a future episode featuring both of DC Comics’ two biggest hitters, especially in a post-Avengers landscape. But while the character of Batman suits (nay, needs) this darkness, it feels wrong here.
It’s as though everyone involved was afraid of the things that made Superman popular in the first place. Gone are those frankly ludicrous but nonetheless iconic moments like Kent getting changed into his costume in a telephone box or Superman deflecting bullets with his chest. The colours, by way of another example, are disappointingly muted: the emerald green of Kryptonite and the bright reds and blues of the costume are dispensed with. Even the word ‘Superman’ is barely there; it is nearly spoken by Lois Lane at one point, and then mentioned only once after that, suggesting that the makers of the film were collectively embarrassed by all the previous associations with the character and the 1970s and 1980s ephemera that went with it. They needn’t have been: it’s hardly as bad as wearing flares or electing Margaret Thatcher, is it?
That said, this is very much a modern superhero film. Extensive and expensive CGI sequences at the start tell of the demise of Kal-El’s home planet Krypton, which seems to be populated with those pinscreens you used to see a lot of in the 1980s. Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe, a tad too earnest perhaps but at least sufficiently committed to the role) clashes with General Zod (Michael Shannon) regarding the best way to preserve the planet following extensive mining that has made the world’s core unstable. Zod flips out, and after a brief chase kills Jor-El, infuriated that he can’t get hold of some macguffin or other (it has been hidden in the cells of Jor-El’s newborn son Kal-El, who has been dispatched earthwards). (A quick word on this, Hollywood. Please can you stop including chase scenes whereby a character leaps onto the back of some kind of giant, flying alien before being pursued for 2-3 minutes by spaceships? It is fast becoming a cliché and it’s kind of sickening to contemplate exactly how much money has been spent on these types of scene in the past 15 years. I was happy with car chases, or chases on foot, personally.) Soon enough Zod and his followers are captured, tried and banished to the mysteriously-titled Phantom Zone. Come off the M1 past Milton Keynes and take the A508 in the direction of Ashton. It’s on your left by the Little Chef.
Thus Kal-El is raised on Earth by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) in the permanently sunlit farm belt town of Smallville. Man Of Steel portrays this upbringing in a series of flashbacks, while Clark tries to conceal and understand his powers, and it’s something that Snyder gets spot on. The younger versions of Clark are played well by Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline, and both manage to capture the character’s awkwardness well. Costner, as the do-right dad trying to show his son the right way to deal with his powers, is very good, oozing calmness as he delivers his homespun philosophies but with real presence on screen. I’m amazed I’ve just written that: I normally find him as interesting to watch as a 10-hour documentary about the art of watching paint dry.
Eventually Clark happens upon a military discovery of an old Kryptonian scout ship (as you do), and manages to communicate with a hologram of his dead father. Jor-El reveals his son’s true identity and Superman finally gets a sense of purpose and a costume, even though it has faded considerably in the wash. The trouble is this ship has given off a distress signal, and the newly-escaped Zod and co travel to Earth upon picking it up. Zod’s aim is to ‘terraform’ our fair planet using something called a ‘world engine’ (no, me neither). Once this is done he intends to extract the macguffin from Superman and re-populate the globe with genetically-engineered Kryptonians. Superman, having sought advice from the church (sheeesh, does the analogy really need to be hammered home in this way?), takes exception to Zod’s plans and demonstrates his loyalty to Earth by smashing the fuck out of Metropolis and presumably killing millions of people in the process (they don’t show any of that though). But more on the mother of all fights later.
So. Plus points. I thought Cavill’s performance as Superman was OK. He looks heroic, anyway. It’s not particularly charismatic, but then he hasn’t really been given a memorable version of Clark Kent to portray by writer David S. Goyer. Unfortunately Clark Kent’s romance with feisty (yeah yeah) reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) isn’t developed well at all, and there is little chemistry between the two. Snyder’s film is banking on its CGI sequences, and how much unreal damage can be contained therein, rather than its love story, that’s for sure. Aside from the aforementioned Costner, Shannon also does as well as you’d expect as the perma-frowning Zod. He’s a memorable version of the villain, far more threatening than Terence Stamp’s campy earlier incarnation.
There are moments that threaten to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, most notably when Kal-El first learns to fly, and a nice (if cheesy) scene that shows the young Clark playing at being a hero, cape billowing behind him in the breeze. Also, Hans Zimmer’s score is a treat; perhaps not quite as memorable as John Williams’ famous theme, but majestic nonetheless, seemingly capturing the nobility of the character. Sadly it is best experienced in the trailer, when all it has to compete with is a speech by Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. In the film, all too often, it has to fight for space with all the crashes, smashes and explosions that ear-bugger you every seven seconds. A shame, but subtlety is the last thing I’d expect from Snyder.
Sadly this is, though, another blockbuster where certain decisions that have been made are unfathomable. The plot is slightly more convoluted and jargon-heavy than it needs to be, for starters, particularly in the early Krypton scenes. This is surely the point in the film where you would want to make younger viewers who are new to the series feel at home, comfortable and instantly attached to the story, rather than put them off with a load of wordy old bollocks. The inclusion of the ridiculous ‘world machine’ is a pointless CGI burp, and despite the fact Superman enters into a noisy five minute battle with it, it’s incredibly boring and I actually found myself nodding off throughout it.
The climactic battle between Superman and Zod was also a turn-off for me. The good thing about CGI these days is that if you want to show a ‘realistic’ fight between superhumans, you really can do. When the Kryptonians do battle the power with which they strike each other feels as immense as it should do. As Superman’s foot connects with Zod’s knackers you think “yup, these two are actually pretty tough”). Unfortunately Snyder dwells on this way too much. I lost count of the amount of buildings destroyed, the amount of windows smashed, the amount of concrete turned to dust, but I expect it’s exactly one building and one window more than the end battle scene in The Avengers. Genuine question: is this a post-9/11 thing? Too many writers seem obsessed with levelling the cities of the world. Is something being added to the water in Hollywood? As stated above … there’s no sign of any casualties shown on screen! Amazing. There’s genuine concern for the pedestrians Superman saves in the original series of films. Here they barely appear. Why should I care about this Metropolis, or this Earth?
Unfortunately, this means that by the 100th time Kryptonian fist has landed on Kryptonian nose the mind starts to wander. Did I leave the iron on? What time do I need to set the alarm tomorrow? Did I take the bacon out of the freezer? That kind of thing.
I’ll go back, briefly, to the original Donner/Lester film Superman II. I remember the thrill I got from watching Superman get knocked flying by a manhole cover to the gut. Or when Zod threw him into a Marlboro sign (especially funny given the subsequent use of the character in anti-smoking adverts fighting adversary Nick O’Teen). And I remember the joy when Superman fought back, hurling Zod into the night sky towards a giant Coca-Cola sign. Yes, special effects may have moved on considerably, but that fight is fun and memorable. The fight at the end of Man Of Steel will be lost, like much of the rest of the film, amidst a haze of memories of recent superhero movie action sequences. It’s loud, it has smashes and crashes, but so does every second film at the cinema.
Ultimately, this is the fate that will befall Man Of Steel. It just sits there with various Iron Man films and Thor films and other re-boots waiting to be forgotten. A vast amount of money has been spent yet there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. That’s unforgivable! The iconic touches have been ruthlessly stripped from the story, and while some may argue this is an admirable move on the part of the filmmaker, who has at least made an effort to create something new that is separate to what has gone before, the truth is Superman has lost much of his soul as a result. A pretty sad thing to consider, when you think about it.
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner
Running Time: 143 Minutes