Man of Steel
Dir: Zack Snyder
Like the latest Star Trek rebirth, Man of Steel opens with the literal conception of its protagonist in a chaotic, life-endangering environment. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) comes kicking and screaming into an unfamiliar world – his home planet of Krypton – which is on the verge of destruction after some ill advised ‘core harvesting’. Russell Crowe’s Jal-El (the newborn’s father) and his wife quickly board their son, the first natural Krypton birth in centuries, onto a ship bound for Earth – a planet which they hope to peacefully share with its inhabitants to ensure the survival of their own dwindling race. The rest of the film deals with the issue of Kal-El’s loyalty, heritage, and the threat of destruction from the militant General Zod (Michael Shannon); a Krypton inhabitant who insists that their race’s future lies in the aggressive colonisation of Earth. Zod forms the film’s key villain, and while his presence is necessary, his story is never as interesting as the inner conflict that Kal-El faces as he is forced to choose between Zod’s ruthless, xenophobic tactics, his alliance with Earth, and his father’s wishes.
It was a wise decision to foreground Christopher Nolan’s name in the teaser trailers for this film. His name automatically leant weight to a franchise floundering after its triumphant glory years in the 70s. 40 years after its prime, the Superman brand finds itself helmed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), who, under the watchful eye of producer Nolan, manages to once again capture the essence and gravitas of the superhero to end all superheroes. The film itself largely delivers on that first, beautiful, goosebump-inducing footage from last year’s teaser, and despite some problems with length and a routine third act, this is a hugely successful cinematic venture for DC comics’ golden boy, as well as undoubtedly the best film that Snyder has made to date.
Despite the promise of the trailers and Nolan’s involvement I admit going into the film with low expectations. Superman had never sparked my interest as a character to this point – what is interesting about a man that can do anything? My concerns were worsened by Superman’s decidedly pedestrian previous outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, which even the acting chops of Kevin Spacey couldn’t save. While that film effectively extinguished the once bright spark of Brandon Routh, Man of Steel is set to light the already burgeoning blaze of super-stud Henry Cavill, whose performance is as good as anything we could have hoped for. Cavill is believably tormented by his incongruous identity within human society and manages to make the ideal figure of Kal-El seem fallible, therefore gaining our emotional investment.
Snyder uses many techniques to distance this film from previous outings, firstly by insisting that Kal-El’s story is a fundamentally non-human one. Indeed, he strays away from the ‘Superman’ label for as long as possible – we are informed that the ‘S’ on his suit doesn’t even represent that letter on his world. Even the title Man of Steel subtly diverges from audience preconceptions of an archetypal, shining blue-and-red comic book figure of subliminal patriotism.
Right from the start it is clear that this is Superman in serious mode. Bleached colours grace the screen in the film’s traumatic opening as the baby Kal-El is wrenched from his mother’s arms. Then saturated, earthly tones prevail, and this aesthetic grounding makes the clearly fantastical world seem real and plausible. Shaky-cam is ubiquitous; this is not the polished, untouchable and ultimately cold Superman of previous outings – this shit just got real.
Snyder peppers the story with messianic allusions – Kal-El is 33 years old; his father sent him ‘down’ to Earth, his only son; he must learn to live as a human before his ascension; he even assumes a prolonged crucifix position (admittedly in outer space). However, Superman’s story differs from that of Christ thanks to his penchant for aerial violence and the furious laser beams that shoot from his eyes (unless recent editions of the King James include some major revisions).
Some other themes touched upon include the mechanics of terraforming; determinism; the socio-cultural impact of extra-terrestrial ‘revelation’; and the essence of consciousness. Whoever said Hollywood was brainless? This is clearly a result of Nolan’s influence, with the producer enlisting his key screenwriter on The Dark Knight trilogy, David S. Goyer, to tighten up the script. Goyer has been quoted as saying that the main focus in this latest incarnation is ‘first contact’, and indeed the film spends a great deal of time on the impact of Kal-El’s alien origin.
For the most part, this subject matter helps make Man of Steel an intelligent, thoughtful and engaging outing; which is why it’s such a shame that the third act degenerates into invincible men hitting one another. The destruction of downtown New York is now a blockbuster standard it seems, and is becoming too familiar to be exciting (think The Avengers, think Transformers, think, with apprehension and perhaps a shudder or two, Spiderman 3). The millions of dollars thrown at these culminating sequences haven’t stopped them becoming more and more routine.
The final cut of the film is about 20 or 30 minutes too long, and the climactic fight scenes become monotonous, which is a real shame. In addition to this issue, some aspects of the narrative do not make sense. Goyer is usually an expert at straightening out necessary storyline kinks, which makes the narrative incongruities a disappointing surprise here. Richard Schiff is also sorely underused – doesn’t his role in West Wing warrant something more than bog-standard lines of ‘Go!’ or some exclamatory statements of governmental jargon?
With shots of Kevin Costner (who plays Kal-El’s step-father on Earth) leaning on a pick-up truck, with a weather-vane silhouetted behind the open American landscape of corn fields and yellow grass, it feels at times that the actor is coming dangerously close to Field of Dreams 2 territory. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to the big time for Costner, and he adds some much needed weight to a backstory that could have become a chore. Instead, it contains the film’s finest and most touching moments.
Snyder’s focus on father-son relationships provides an engaging and thoughtful triangle – between Crowe, Costner and Cavill – around which the rest of the film is allowed to pivot. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) seems superfluous, but this particular story is not about her and her presence is justified for iconographic purposes. Man of Steel is a pleasing amalgamation of modern Hollywood reincarnations of classic genre archetypes, drawing as it does from Nolan’s Batman and Abrams’ Star Trek, and provides this generation with a fantastic Superman venture; as Crowe’s Jal-El intones in his key monologue, ‘an ideal to strive towards’.