The Pitch: He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman. (Like you imagined? Not so sure about that.)
The Review: Comic book superheroes are now a staple of the modern cinema diet, but only in the last ten years have the creatives of Hollywood really cracked how to engage audiences and turn the bright colours of the page into box office gold. Would any of it have been possible without the original, and some still say best, superhero movie? 1978 saw Superman become a box office juggernaut, and from the hiring of Marlon Brando to the score of John Williams it was no expense spared and an attempt to imbue a simple myth with a sense of cinematic grandeur was successful enough that the shadow of its cape still casts itself across every comic book effort since. Superman Returns proved the dangers of adhering to that template too reverentially, and many of the successes of that particular version was where it didn’t simply replicate the Christopher Reeve / Margot Kidder version. So the Superman story is ripe for reinvention, and rather than the Batmans or Spidermans we’ve had enough of with their repeated reboots every few years, enough time has elapsed to allow a truly fresh interpretation of the man in blue and red spandex. And who better to bring that interpretation to the screen than the winning team of David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and, er, Zack Snyder?
Before you start listing names – and we could be here all day – it’s fair to say that the new Super friends have at least flown sufficiently clear of what’s gone before to justify their new version. Unlike some of the other mooted adaptations of the past thirty years which didn’t get off the ground, Man Of Steel sticks fairly close to the basic origin story elements: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife have just had a child on the doomed planet of Krypton, the first in generations not born in a laboratory. When General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts an uprising, Jor-El takes the decision to send his newborn son out of harm’s way to another planet where he might stand a chance of a better life, but one where he’ll be different, different enough to attract the fear and paranoia of the inhabitants of that world if his true identity becomes known. His adoptive family (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) attempt to protect him through his difficult adolescence, but his attempts to hide from humanity may not be enough to keep him from the searching gaze of investigative journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams); her investigations prove to be as much a blessing as a curse when Zod escapes his prison and attempts to track down the young Kal-El, believing him to hold the key to the future of the Kryptonian race.
For large stretches of the first half of the film, Man Of Steel successfully reinvigorates the Kryptonian myth, both in the old world and the new. Snyder and Goyer let their imaginations run in the home of the Els, and Krypton feels both genuinely alien and sufficiently exciting to make it compelling. The casting also works splendidly across the board, with the two father figures in particular being well portrayed by Costner and Crowe. The film also takes advantage of the fact that the audience is likely to be familiar with the origin story, using a similar framework to Batman Begins to drop the backstory in via flashbacks. Man Of Steel is at its best when combining these two, from Michael Shannon’s vastly different interpretation of Zod to Russell Crowe storming around Krypton on the back of a dragon. This first half also sets up a number of interesting questions, not least as to how a superhuman would be accepted in our society – undoubtedly differently to how he’d have been viewed thirty years ago – and also to how we as people, friends and family, would react, feeling occasionally more like M. Night Shyamalan’s Untouchable than Superman The Movie, and all the better for it.
It’s the second half that then proves a crushing disappointment, where Snyder shows a Wachowski-like gift for squandering potential. If you find any of the questions asked compelling, then don’t hope for answers as Man Of Steel becomes hopelessly obsessed with spectacle. Its superpower is seeing how few of the plots and subplots set up it can ignore, or allow to meander aimlessly into dead ends. This can all be put down to the myth-making, for where other versions of Superman have sought to explore the two sides of the dichotomy of man and Superman that is Clark / Kal, Man Of Steel aims broader. But when the time comes to focus in on the heart of that myth, Snyder and Goyer haven’t invested enough in their core. Clark is a cypher (and Lois not much more) and Henry Cavill struggles to do any more than to look iconic and to carry off the blue tights – which he does manfully, although the lack of underpants on the outside certainly helps – and the Lois and Clark dynamic, around which entire versions of Superman have been built, is fatally left floundering. When Man Of Steel realises it has nowhere to go, it just takes its toys like a frustrated toddler and throws them around for half an hour to little effect while Hans Zimmer’s score bombabsts around in the background, a succession of massive set pieces having neither the wow of modern Batman or the tension of modern Spider-Man. By the end little of it makes any sense, and what does makes the wrong kinds of sense, but at least in this case we still have the original to fall back on. In terms of quality, this Man Of Steel falls a long way short.
Why see it at the cinema: Up until the mindless (and dull) destruction starts, there’s some great images and Snyder’s visual style has been corrected to make the most of them. If you actually like indestructible men and women interminably throwing each other into buildings, then frankly this should be a no-brainer.
Why see it in 2D: I can barely even begin to imagine the horror that this would have represented in 3D. It’s the one way in which Snyder dispensing the visual style of his earlier films would have been to the detriment of Man Of Steel, the previous slo-mo and cranking a fine fit for 3D, but the murky hand-held vibrations and quick cuts of Man Of Steel rendering it a visual disaster.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence. If by moderate you mean “almost constant for the last 45 minutes” then I’m happy to go with moderate.
My cinema experience: A Sunday afternoon at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and although I was parked near the front it was by no means a full audience. Oddly, for a day that was far from the hottest of the year, there was a humid atmosphere and a smell of sweat hanging heavy in the air, not something I’d normally associate with that particular cinema. Thankfully it didn’t detract from the experience, as by the end I was too wound up by the film to even notice.
The Score: 5/10
And some quick spoiler related thoughts on the ending…
So, one of the main things that this version of Superman attempts to do is to sprinkle a little Christian-type mythology over the Kryptonian, making specifc references to Superman being 33 and even showing a space flight starting in the arms-outstretched-as-if-on-the-cross pose. It’s never hugely clear why this is being done, as Clark never has to make any form of Christ-like sacrifice, and when your Jesus allegory isn’t as subtle or as effective as Robocop, you probably should have left it out. It’s also an interesting thing to do in the sense that the original Superman was written by two Jewish writers, who all but had Superman put in a Moses basket and pushed down the river.
But what the mixed religious referencing does do is shine an unfortunate light on the ending. In previous Superman imaginings, Kal-El’s morality has been inviolate and virtually imprinted from birth, not allowing harm to come to a single soul. Here, no matter what your views on the visual spectacle of the last act, someone must have been hurt – and then Kal-El kills Zod, in what Goyer has since claimed is the act that completes Clark’s self-learning session on morality. The killing on its own I have no issue with – if you rewatch Superman II, the Reeve / Kidder killing of Zod and his cronies can come across as more callous and unfeeling in a certain light, but it was done at the Fortress Of Solitude, after Superman had dragged the danger away from the public.
Here the killing is done in front of witnesses, and appears to have no consequences whatsoever. Again, that would be fine, if the reaction to it supported that, but we’re left with an almost jokey coda where Supes has been destroying significant amounts of public property in a belated attempt to retain his anonymity, despite a whole town and a newspaper full of journalists already knowing his “secret”. There’s a clear difference between the Old Testament God, who wasn’t afraid to inspire a little fear in his followers, and the New Testament Jesus who operates more on love and compassion. Based on his actions, what we should end up with is an Old Testament Superman, inspiring at least as much fear as he does love in humanity, but there’s no sense of that yet at all. When the inevitable sequel rolls around, that’s where I’ll be hoping the story heads if it is to redeem Man Of Steel in any way in my eyes.