By: Daniel Reynolds
When thinking about Superman, easily one of the most iconic characters of all time, I find I have to battle a certain cynicism. To my mind, Superman has never been about being cool; I mean, we’re talking about a guy dressed in primary colours, with his red underwear usually on the outside. Leaps of faith have to be taken. Then again, we’re talking about a character that has been around through 75 years of permutations and iterations. In that time Superman has endured as a paragon of virtue, of earnestness, of good.
Tasked with bringing a new version of Superman to screens this year, director Zack Snyder (of 300 and Watchmen fame or infamy, depending who you ask) goes to great lengths to recreate the cosmic and explain the science, as it were, of Superman. For his efforts, he largely drops the bright colour palette, amps up the busy intensity and even muddles the morality. The result is epic in scope and ambition but perhaps loses some of the charming contrast.
But first things first: we need to be reminded who Superman is, so its dutifully off to Krypton to fill in the “he came from a dying planet” side of the equation. Unlike the turgid Green Lantern, Snyder’s Krypton is a planet with a pulse. Well, alright, the pulse is falling dramatically, but Man of Steel drops the audience right into the death wails of this famous fictional planet as it collapses in on itself, much to the chagrin of Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. Crowe acquits himself well as Jor-El, despite getting stuck with some of the usual hambone exposition. I must admit, these were the portions of the film I was most worried about – loaded backstories are always tough to make interesting – but kudos to Synder (and screenwriter David Goyer) for capturing, quite elegantly, the doomed end of Krypton, the General Zod-led insurrection, and even updating some of the yellow/red sun science that forms so much of the Superman mythos. Perhaps it is damning with faint praise that I am pleased the sci-fi prologue and recurring callbacks didn’t completely destroy the flow of the film. In truth, theses scenes actually enhance the stakes for what Kal-El will mean for his dead planet and his adopted home (and probably generated a bit of the letdown feelings I would have two hours later). My cynicism abated.
Not satisfied with pure prologue however, Man of Steel also endeavours to flashback to young Clark Kent’s time in Smallville, Kansas to fill in the less galactic side of the Superman mythos. In sequences of touching memories, the themes of Kent’s rise in anonymity are established. We are made to remember that Superman, despite his boyish appearance, is still a potentially dangerous alien. The ingenious casting here of Kevin Costner as Clark’s father Jonathan hits the perfect note of wide-eyed wonder and impending destiny. Along with Diane Lane as Ma Kent, Costner applies the folksy gravitas he has spent a lifetime honing to lend the film immense heart. To say the remnants of my cynicism were completely melted away during these flashback passages in the film would be an understatement.
Now hold on, this movie isn’t all sci-fi political intrigue and gooey-eyed nostalgic reminiscence. We hit the modern day, and as a nice twist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, modestly well cast) is on the hunt for our alleged mystery man saving lives across the country. After the wild opening, and the Costner-tinged remembrances, Lois Lane’s portion of the film, at the Daily Planet and abroad, feels a bit amorphous. While the weight of worlds hangs over the early Superman scenes, the atmosphere is too thick to allow any of the human characters (a woefully underused Laurence Fishbourne as Perry White, for example) much breathing room. There is a clever subplot involving the military’s first dealings with Superman, as humanity’s first fearful alien encounter, but it eventually is pounded into submission as Zod and his merry band of Kryptonian rebels return.
As I’ve spent the past few months lamenting the dearth of great villains in the latest wave of blockbuster movies, you have to give a hand to Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who is thankfully given motivation beyond a mere thirst for power and/or revenge. His Zod is actually far more complex than his dialogue allows (“Release the world engine!”). In a summer of Khan and Mandarin, it was refreshing to see an old face given such a powerful makeover. Shannon, of course, brings his usual scary intensity to the role, appearing to tower over everyone in the frame as he exerts his will, and the presumed will of Krypton, on the people around him. For all the film’s flaws, it is a special movie that presents us with a villain whose ‘evil’ goals elicit a shred of sympathy. We don’t want Zod to succeed, but we can sort of see his tragic point.
Sadly, as we roll into the final third of the film, after building a halfway decent tone and including some stunning emotional set pieces: Snyder gets going with the action. Underneath the bombast, you can see the slivers of heart and soul that cry out for representation in a Superman movie. They are there when young Clark lifts a bus out of a river, or when Pa Kent talks to Kal-El about finding his destiny. They are definitely there when General Zod, given the sole purpose of defending Krypton, carries out his doomed plan. But then there’s that cynicism again, that voice in my ear wondering whether or not Snyder realizes the implications of having a Superman who smashes wantonly through half of Metropolis. Shouldn’t Superman care a little more about collateral damage or was the visual of him careening through multiple skyscrapers (and train stations, and satellites, etc.) just too tempting to ignore?
I realize I haven’t actually talked about Henry Cavill as Superman yet. As difficult as it should be, Cavill actually does manage to shine some personality and charm into a character thought to be too good/bland to be compelling. He is asked to carry lot of plot weight, and while the shifting of the second third of the film into the onslaught of violence for the finale does Cavill no favours, he does manage to survive relatively unscathed. He wears the cape well, but we’ll still have to see how his Clark Kent really works. Forgive my cynicism for rearing up as talk of sequels is already ongoing.
Man of Steel dive bombs into a few too many of the usual action movie cliches (seriously, why do these soldiers insist on shooting these invincible guys so much?), and it struggles mightily to stay afloat against the weight of its own portentous plot sometimes. However, it does have its merits as it dances around ideas of first contact with beings from other planets, the binding trust earned through tribulations, and even a slug of survivors guilt. Do all these themes make it out of the blur of flames and twisted metal? Are they obscured entirely by the incessant production design and blasted landscapes? … is it a bird? a plane? Well, not entirely, but it is still Superman.