Man of Steel (2013)
Dir: Zack Snyder
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman… but as you’ve never seen him before!
1978’s ‘Superman’ is generally considered to be the film that got things rolling with the whole industry of live-action superhero movies, a business that has never been bigger than it is right now. The original 4 Superman films from the 70’s to the 80’s made a star of Christopher Reeve, and secured Superman as a household name, with his ‘S’ logo believed to be the 2nd most recognisable symbol on the planet behind the cross.
DC attempted to recreate the big screen success in 2006 with ‘Superman Returns’, where director Bryan Singer (‘X-Men’, ‘X2’) took great care to follow in the footsteps of the original films, and in my opinion created a film that had the same feel as those, but bringing the story up to date nicely, sadly though it didn’t have the financial success the studio had hoped for. That brings us to this, DC again rebooting the franchise, and rather than building on past work, this builds things up all afresh, sending the ‘Last Son of Krypton’ in a completely different direction.
Starting on his home planet of Krypton, we watch as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara welcome their son Kal-El into the world, however it’s a world that won’t last much longer as Jor-El warns the Kyrptoninan counsel that they have over exploited the planet’s core for resources and it is going to collapse. Military leader General Zod abruptly enters declaring marshal law as the diplomats have failed, and attempts a coup, but is thwarted and banished to the Phantom Zone (prison within a wormhole) along with his fellow conspirators. While that was happening Jor and Lara managed to send baby Kal towards earth in a small ship, before their planet implodes and the Kryptonian civilisation is essentially no more.
… So far quite familiar…
On Earth, Kal (Henry Cavill), now a grown man going by the alias of Joe works on a fishing boat, then in a truck stop, then an icy research facility, wandering from place to place and leaving whenever he risks his true identity being discovered. While at the research facility, being lead by the U.S. government, along comes reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who true to form investigates herself into trouble, and is rescued by Clark, who displays his superhuman powers right in front of her eyes, while on a buried Kyrptonian ship he had just discovered and restarted. He then promptly disappears again, but Lois tracks him down, working back through the stories that have popped up around him doing extraordinary things, right back to his childhood home at the Kent farm in Smallville Kansas.
… See the differences now?…
Cue General Zod, who has gotten free from his emprisonment, and now commands some Kryptoninan ships, and has been searching the universe for the son of Jor-El who slipped from his grasp. Zod displays his might to the entire world and threatens destruction if they don’t hand over Kal-El. However, even when Clark in his new suit and cape does come forward, it’s clear that Zod has other plans for Earth and it’s inhabitants, drawing the battle lines between himself with his forces, and earth’s new protector, a battle that has been a long time coming.
5 years ago I completed an Undergraduate degree in Film & Television studies by writing my dissertation, the subject was “Superman on Screen: How the Man of Steel has been adpated over the year in live-action Film & Television”. In that 10,000 word analysis, I predicted that this film would happen, that after the conclusion of the ‘Smallville’ television show, DC would try again to get Superman back on screen. I had been waiting for something, but wasn’t fully prepared for this!
I went to see ‘Man of Steel’ on opening night, watched it, but left the cinema completely unsure what I thought, finding more that annoyed me with it than that I could praise. For a few days I simply couldn’t decide how I felt about it at all and so returned to the cinema to see it again.
The second viewing really helped, possibly as I wasn’t so taken aback by how much it’s changed from the Superman I grew up with and have been personally following for nearly a quarter of a century. I also enjoyed it more just as entertainment, it really is action packed and fits the aim of being a summer blockbuster.
To start with, the casting is pretty great. There are a few moments when we get a good look at Henry Cavill and you realise he suits the part well, very muscular after working out for the role and with a friendly face that could also suit a ‘mild-mannered reporter’. Amy Adams is very good, she usually is, here well suited to the reporter who was always tenacious and often getting herself in trouble. Lawrence Fishburne is a great Perry White too, wonderfully authoritative but fatherly, he is very believable as a newspaper editor looking as much at home behind his desk as he does running away from destruction in the streets of Metropolis.
Then we have Superman’s dads, bio-dad Jor-El played by Russell Crowe, who gets a far more involved role here than Jor-El’s in the past, with a considerable amount of action, and a more solid holographic presence later on. Earth-dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) has a pretty small part, just 3 or 4 scenes in past events of Clark growing up and his ubiquitous death scene, but he is perfectly good, not saying or doing huge amounts but being the supportive father who was pivotal in Clark’s development.
The villain of the film is Zod played by Michael Shannon, who has the look and demeanour of a superb bad guy. He is well-chosen to fill the boots of Terence Stamp, though there’s no physical resemblance there, Shannon does have a strong voice and the commanding screen presence required. Though there was no key line such as ‘kneel before Zod’ that stood out to me, he demands your attention and is truly menacing.
One strange choice is casting was changing Jimmy Olsen to Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller). I’m not really sure why this was done, they made it a pointless aspect when considering that a character called Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) is in every scene with her and takes all the interesting action anyway, so she’s overshadowed by a male figure who takes much of what would usually be Jimmy’s role anyway. So much for trying to create equality by gender-switching. The strongest female role in the whole film goes to Zod’s hench-woman Faora (Antje Traue) who is known for hating men, and here she gets plenty of chances to really prove it, with loads of screen-time and some serious fighting action.
The way the story is developed is really shaken up a lot. The destruction of Krypton and sending Kal-El to Earth has been done many times on screen, yet this has got to be the most detailed and longest look at that event (except for possibly Smallville though that was small-screen and in bits over 10 seasons). This brings to the fore front the aspect of Superman being extra-terrestrial, and really links it firmly within the genre of Sci-Fi, with scenes full of alien landscapes, devices, transportation, and even creatures. Moments reminded me more of ‘Avatar’ than I would ever have been expecting, with a lot more action and effects than ever done before for this aspect of the story.
There are a few flashbacks to Clark’s youth, and we see little pieces of what it was like for him growing up, how he helped people with his powers back then, and the relationship with his adoptive parents. They are good scenes, but maybe going back to them and away doesn’t leave us sufficient time to warm to him as needed, they are clear as pieces of his past, but break up the flow of certain scenes in a way that might not work for helping the audience to get right into the story. In what aims to be the emotive key scene of the film, and was always Clark’s motivation for going off the find out his true purpose, they writers changed the way Jonathan died, though kept the point that Clark is unable to stop it.
The romance between Clark/Superman and Lois has been turned on its head. There’s often been an issue in pervious adaptations when Lois knows who he really is, often that it either puts her character in more danger, or more importantly in the TV shows that it spoils the chemistry. Here there’s no mystery at all, she knows from the start of their relationship, and that changes the whole dynamic. I get that it might be to negate the question of how she doesn’t realise that her workmate and the man she loves are the same person just in disguise, but that was always somewhat charming and played on the fact that we often see just what we want to. In subsequent films they’re going to have to work on this part a lot more, as there’s no spark and sizzle there, Lois seems more interested in him as an interesting curio, or a headlining story, rather than being attracted to a super–powered man who goes out of his way to protect her out of love.
The Sci-Fi elements are present throughout the film, with Zod’s coming to Earth being more a full-blown alien invasion story rather than just the personal vendetta against Kal-El, with the whole world fully aware of extra-terrestrial life once he has flown in with huge spacecraft. Zod’s destruction is global, with a starting point of Metropolis. I had an issue with that part of the story, in that the writers strangely choose to send Superman not to protect Metropolis, but to exactly the polar opposite side of the world to help from there, leaving the people of Metropolis to fend for themselves, including the staff of the Daily Planet, and Lois. It’s a bit stupid, as Superman has always had his eye on that city and made that his home, so to be away right when they needed him most seems a weird writing choice, and even more so when he ends up battling an automated security system that’s essentially a metallic snake with no level of interest in the fight.
I was always worried about the hiring of Zack Snyder as director, he has a history of making films that are decent enough and look visually spectacular, but lack something in the storyline and often in the emotional backbone. However, I wondered if having Christopher Nolan as producer might resolve those issues, given Nolan’s reputation as the best living director nad the way he manages to create films that are well balanced between style and substance.
Sadly, I don’t think Nolan’s influence was quite strong enough here. The lead character has been severely hardened, taking away much of what made audiences warm to him in the past. Sure we root for him somewhat, he’s Superman! What made him such an enduringly beloved character in the past, especially through the live action films with Christopher Reeve, was his humanity. Though born Kryptonian and stronger than anyone else on Earth, he was raised as a human, and as Clark Kent had to be inconspicuous, and as Superman motivated by his love of his adoptive race to help them.
The sequel has already been given the green light, I just hope that they take the time to work on these softer elements that really are integral in giving the ‘Man of Steel’ a heart of Gold.