Emmet O’Brien takes on Superman.
DIR: Zack Snyder • WRI: David S. Goyer • PRO: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Emma Thomas • DOP: Amir Mokri • ED: David Brenner • DES: Alex McDowell • Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe
With 75 years of stories and countless versions of the character the essence of Superman can be a very hard thing to capture. It can’t be bottled like a shrunken Kryptonian city. The essential beats will always remain, doomed planet, last son, the hope and the blue streak careening across the sky. There is an old complaint about the character that he is too hard to write for, too unrelatable. This has always felt off to me. Within the Superman myth you have so much scope for how to approach it. You could play up a poignant sense of alienation or ramp up the sci- fi elements, play the sparky Daily Planet set up or instead go global with him solving problems all over the world. Love triangles technically between just two people, alien prison dimensions, mad scientists, giant robots, a colourful rogues gallery and if so inclined you can go for biblical allusions and an earned uncynical sentimentality. The world of the Man of Steel is a blessing for imagination and we’ve only barely scratched the surface of that S-Shield.
In 1978 an indelible version of the story was crafted, featuring a generation defining slant on the character. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of a nerdy bumbling Clark Kent contrasted by the cool and assured Superman characterisation casts a shadow as big as Krypton’s destruction on Kal-El. While I adore the performance in the Donner films, I’m not as beholden to them as full films as other people seem to be. They were of their time. Parts have badly dated and certain plot elements for me seem utterly out of place in retrospect but what you can’t fault those films on was the amount of charm they had. Superman was dryly funny and had a calming confidence to himself that radiated the inherent virtue of the character. The arc of his life, if paced a bit too slowly, was brilliantly conveyed over the first half of that film.
Following the Bryan Singer Donner-aping Superman Returns which I would label an interesting misfire, too slavishly indebted to an older sensibility but still thoughtful enough to at least demand respect rather than love, it was clear the slate needed to be swept clean. The architects of this new take is a triumvirate of fluctuating talent. Christopher Nolan, the dry and serious creative force behind the Dark Knight Trilogy, a riveting and mature if occasionally ponderous exercise in grounding the fantastical elements of Superhero films, Zack Snyder a hyperactive man child whose filmography is a flashy but very often hollow example of style over substance, of effect over empathy and finally the hit and miss scripting duties of David Goyer. For every hit Batman Begins, we have something risible in Blade Trinity. Fans were aghast at Snyder’s choosing initially but believed that these three, working in unison, could cancel out any weaknesses and instead unite and create something truly special. For all of Snyder’s weaknesses he has an eye for action sequence, Nolan could ground the excess and Goyer could provide a solid foundation marrying the outlandish with the ordinary.
They come so close to succeeding. Man of Steel is a vibrant re-imagining, the opening Krypton prologue may be heavily indebted to Avatar and the Star Wars prequels but no matter. It is a bracing introduction and for someone who loves the crazier sci-fi elements of the property, seeing an alien world so teeming with strangeness proved a refreshing opening. How the tone of this could ever fit in with the world of the Dark Knight films is beyond me but it isn’t soon before literally and figuratively the film crashes down to Earth and gives us a more recognisable world. The film is sly with its chronology giving us Man of Steel action much faster than I assumed it would, the inevitable scenes of young Clark being flashbacks elegantly woven across the films narrative. I was very happy it eschewed a straight ahead progression in favour of a more interesting approach. Spectacle wise the film has some dazzling sequences and the last hour or so of straight ahead Kryptonian action is a bruising set piece, blurring figures barreling through more buildings and landmarks than you can count. I’ll admit a certain fan boy glee in finally getting an intense action scene in a Superman film. Cinematically Superman has always struggled in this area, the threat never seeming big enough, the action never that important. There is an energy to the fight scenes that can go along way to making this a distinct entry for the character but alas it’s just not enough.
For me, the best Superman story would mix such high-octane thrills with something a bit more thoughtful. The potential to do that was here. All the talk of ideals and inspiration, which I think is the single most important aspect of the character are present but oddly muted in the actual film. It feels more like characters are telling us that rather than we are seeing something inspiring on screen. It might have to do with how they approach Superman as a character here. Obviously this is his first adventure and they seed in certain doubts and insecurities but despite extensive flashbacks it amounts to very little character wise. We see events and lessons learned but Superman is still essentially half sketched. It’s hard to know why exactly but we never get to see him in his moral fortitude before those morals are challenged by the films villain, General Zod.
Throughout the whole film, relationships are barely defined, scenes are more exposition join up points than characters talking. After two brief scenes between Lois and Clark a dynamic is set up that I don’t think the film has earned. Within the story it is clear why a certain level of trust has been established but it’s happened off screen, in between more disjointed scenes. Snyder can handle the big moments but it’s the basic moments that strengthen a narrative that seems to be lacking. The producers make a big point that they had to pretend no other Superman film had ever been made before this. Now I’m well aware the tropes of the material are embedded in pop culture but if this was a fresh take on new characters I’d never feel like I’d gotten to know these people to care enough.
This is felt with various characters, the Kents are underused, in particular Jonathan Kent as played by Kevin Costner. His scenes are important for the arc but he feels more like a mouthpiece for a view point rather than as a real people. Despite being a similar presence Jonathan was always more of a character than say, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. But we don’t get that here.
Oddly enough the most explored character throughout the film is Jor-El, Superman’s birth father. While Kal remains a little aloof Jor-El gets meatier moments than what we should expect and provides the film with a clear through-line. Russell Crowe does seem an awkward fit at times but he largely succeeds.
And that’s how I’d view the film overall. Making Zod more morally complex gives Michael Shannon stuff to work with and Cavill as the Man of Steel has a quiet dignity. I can easily imagine him growing into the role over time and becoming the wiser Superman of various stories. Amy Adams’ Lois is a fine version of the character, nothing too different there. Although an early scene where lazy shorthand is used to make her a tough cookie in the face of arrogant male characters felt very easy and half hearted. In the end there are flaws and missteps but nothing that is Kryptonite to a big blockbuster film. Most are forgivable in the service of a brand new take and some may even be necessary for modern audiences to embrace the character but it still seems like another draft away from being the truly great Superman film I was hoping for. A dark moment in the third act is troubling too and seems to be setting us on an angst ridden road that I think has been well trod by the citizens of Gotham these last few years. I don’t want my Superman moping around, I want him to soar majestically.
By no means a failure and nothing to be cast into the Phantom Zone any time soon, I still think that for it to have truly worked it needed to be that bit more thoughtful and fully rounded from a character perspective. Superman is my favourite superhero and he is all about heart and hope, not just whizz bang pyrotechnics. Kent we have it all next time around?