You can count me among the many who felt that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a disappointing affair. By taking someone as iconic as Superman, whose Donner movies are the very genesis of the more modern superhero genre, and turning him into a character study, the director seriously erred. Superman isn’t actually that interesting a character, outside of his origin story, and the ham-fisted attempt to give him more depth through the inclusion of a secret son was a poor choice that was a simply a smokescreen for the failed attempt to make Kal-El interesting and raised one of the most disturbing plot-holes in superhero history.
Moreover, his Returns was simply dull. At the end of the day, no matter what else you try to do with Clark Kent, he’s still a superhero, the superhero even. He needs to actually be one in a movie. Routh tried, but when the final fight of his movie was against a bunch of nameless goons, you know something is seriously amiss. Audiences thought so too, and after sinking a gigantic amount of money into Returns for what turned out to be, in all likelihood, a profit that was either minimal or non-existing, it seemed like WB was unwilling to take another risk on Superman, which was the worst sin that Singer committed. Character studies are fine and all, but he nearly killed the franchise so he could tell a mediocre story.
Perhaps only the mega-success of Marvel and their current brand of superhero movies saved the day for the titular “Man of Steel”. This is WB having another roll of the dice, trying to kick-start something the way Iron Man kick-started the success for Marvel. This time, its Zach Snyder bring brought in, to see if he can learn the lessons of Superman Returns and turn the most famous superhero of them all into something that Hollywood can make a franchise out of again.
On the doomed planet of Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spends what time he has left defeating the machinations of the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon) and shooting his newborn son Kal, the only naturally born child of his race left, across the stars to Earth, where hopefully he can make his own fate and lead humanity to a better future. Discovered and raised by a Kansas farming couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grows up struggling both to adapt to the extraordinary powers he has been given by Earth’s environment and to find his own identity. Tracked down by zealous investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Clark has some serious choices to make about his future when Zod comes to Earth seeking to create a new Krypton.
I generally enjoyed the plot of Man of Steel. It’s clearly built along blockbuster lines, but there is some depth to the whole thing, but in typical Snyder style, it’s never that deep. What we have here is something on the completely opposite end of the scale to Returns, something closer in many ways to Superman II, or even movies in the style of Michael Bay – CGI filled action fests. Man of Steel manages to avoid the pitfalls of being completely brainless though, and achieves that through a relatively ok build-up to the actual action set-pieces.
This is very much a half and half movie. The first half details the death of Krypton and the early years of Clark Kent on Earth, detailing his lonely upbringing and his vagrant-like wanderings around the world, seeking answers to some of the questions that plague him. This half is no slower paced than the rest of the movie, and is broken up significantly by some shifts in the timeline, but it is where the vast majority of the better scenes and better dialogue takes place. Snyder spends the perfect amount of time on Krypton, roughly 20-25 minutes I think, establishing the universe, the problems afflicting Kryptonian society, the characters of Jor-El and Zod, and the general premise of Kal-El being sent to Earth, the last son of his race. It’s sort of crucial to do all of that and not take too long, lest you drag down the overall pace of the movie, but truth be told I felt compelled enough by Snyder’s vision of Krypton to actually want to spend a bit longer on that section of the story. Snyder does a great job of portraying how Krypton is a planet and culture that is heading towards self-destruction by its peoples own faults and deficiencies, not just the because of the physically unstable nature of the place.
Much like how the Asgard sections of Thor were, in many ways, far more entertaining than the stuff on Earth, the Krypton sections of Man of Steel are some real stand-outs, in the way the planet is presented, the visual style in terms of costume and culture, and the introduction and expansion on the films antagonist, General Zod, who wasn’t seen again for a while. Man of Steel probably benefits from the fact that it doesn’t have to waste too much time on the origin for the villain, far less than the Donner films did for their Zod. Zod is just there, a threat from the beginning, his motivations and aims definitively stated in his first few lines of dialogue.
From there Man of Steel moves on to Nolanesque dual timelines on Earth switching between Cavill’s Kent wandering around looking for answers and people to help, and his younger self (Dylan Sprayberry/Cooper Timberline) gaining his powers, coming to terms with them and seeking the guidance of his adopted father Jonathan Kent. That period of Superman’s life, from discovery of his powers to actually donning the suit, is a ripe place to tell stories and set up some interesting sequences, which Snyder is able to do. But Snyder has nearly two and a half hours to fill, with a huge chunk of that given to the extensive finale and the opening Krypton sequence, so this is probably the part of the film that suffers the most from lack of time. There are so many big scenes and moments in this section of the movie, from the rescue at the oil rig, the discovery of the Kryptonian Scout Ship, the bus scene, the revelation to a young Clark that he is an alien and all of Lois Lane’s investigations, and Snyder just jumps from one to the other very, very fast, never really letting the audience get comfortable in their surrounds. There is some definite over-kill with the introduction of Clark’s powers, especially his super-strength, and one too many fatherly scenes with Kevin Costner, and a really bizarre and misplaced scene where young Clark is getting bullied by some local jocks, but in a film structured like this, I can’t really complain too much about their being too many scenes of set-up and dialogue.
There is definitely a sense that Snyder is just doing all of the build-up as a necessary requirement just so he can get to his finale, the thing that we all want to see (in his head anyway). Nearly the entire last half of the movie is the finale, a succession of battle between Superman and Zod’s army, with the stakes and CGI getting bigger and more overwhelming with each punch thrown. That lost hour or so is a total action explosion, a never-ending thrill ride of set-pieces, from the initial Smallville showdown, through to the Kryptonian assault on Metropolis, to Superman’s fight against the terraforming device, right through to the final confrontation between Kal-El and Zod in the ruins of the New York stand-in. That kind of extended finale seems to becoming more and more prevalent ever since Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and it’s not something that I would ever consider truly necessary. But it’s clear that Snyder, and the studio I would suspect, are just taking their cues from the critical reaction to the whiny, mostly non-action Superman of Returns and the acclaim foisted upon the Avengers, which had a very similar finale to Man of Steel (though, I don’t think any superhero movie can get away without some urban destruction nowadays).
Too much action? I would certainly say so, but films with this much investment put into them in terms of cash from studios and product placement (I’ve heard reports that Man of Steel received over $ 150 million in placement cash alone) and with such expected potential for sequels and franchises – WB are looking at the money Marvel have generated with hunger I would imagine – there simply has to be element of appealing to the lowest common denominator in entertainment terms.
That might sound insulting, but I certainly don’t mean it that way. I enjoy watching Superman actually fight people, fight equals to him, and it really is about damned time that someone made a Superman movie of this type. Donner and his era did not have the capability (they tried their best, but there is no comparison between this film and Superman II) and Singer dramatically misconstrued why most people are enamoured with Superman (hint, it’s not him complaining about being disconnected from humanity, or foiling yet another Lex Luthor land scheme).
Snyder, at the very least, has given us a Superman film for a modern era that is actually fun to watch. He could still have done that and reined in on the action, but I can’t really complain too much about the way that the action scenes were placed front and centre. I want more Superman movies, and I want more DC Comics movies, and if this is how I get them, with a mix of over the top action with actual story, dialogue and performance, then so be it.
The differing timelines thing is clearly an attempt to ape the model of Batman Begins, which deflected the typical complaints of an origin story detracting from the overall tale by cutting it up and mixing it with the more current story of superhero vs supervillain. I actually tend to enjoy origin stories more than sequels when it comes to superhero franchises (Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight might be the only exceptions I have seen so far) since there’s more stuff focused on character development and the like, so I have no desire to see an origin story treated disdainfully or with as little time as possible. I would probably have watched a whole movie set on Krypton for example. Man of Steel is no Batman Begins, and can’t create the level of interest and excitement in an origin story as that film did, at least not after we see Krypton blow up. The younger timeline stuff, while containing some memorable scenes and lines, ends with a tornado sequence that was far too over the top and Peter Parker-ish in its overall message for me to completely enjoy it. By that stage, with the finale fights well under way, I felt that the time for origin flashbacks was done.
When I say a Peter Parker-ish back-story, I really mean it. The decision to kill off Jonathans Kent in the manner that he dies, with Clark in a position to help but choosing not to, only for that decision to haunt and inspire him in his future quest, is far too reminiscent of Uncle Ben for my liking. Better I would have thought to focus on the comparison, contrast and potential conflict between the influences of the Kent’s on Clark, and the influence of Jor-El through his “shadow”. I find Superman works better when there is problems between the two viewpoints offered by his biological and adoptive parents, and focuses, for his personal arc anyway, on how he has to either consolidate the two or reject one (the Kryptonian one anyway). Snyder chooses to make the two viewpoints far more conciliatory to each other, with Jor-El being little different to Jonathan Kent in most respects, and I would consider that an opportunity lost, sacrificed to the great God of action.
Most of Superman’s key relationships – with the Kent’s, with Jor-El and even with Zod – are handled well. The glaring exception is his interactions and romance with Lois Lane. I’ll get more into the specific problems with that whole sub-plot as I go along, but for now it is enough to say that the romance, just like in Thor, is just sort of shunted in at the end with little actual depth to it, or any sort of meaningful build-up to make the pay off important. Kent and Lane is one of the comic books mediums most enduring and famous romantic connections, so it’s not good to see it treated in such a manner.
Of all the story points, Superman’s killing of Zod is probably raising the most debate and criticism from the more hardcore fans. I don’t really share that, since the very way in which Superman is forced to kill Zod is actually rather good at telling us what we need to know about him in that regard: he’s not a murderer, or some destructive maniac. Zod forces his hand, and in such a manner where it almost seemed like he was committing suicide in as spiteful a way as possible. There wasn’t really any set-up done before hand to explain Superman’s aversion to killing, which weakened that whole scene, but there will always be the sort of naysayers who are willing to come up with a thousand scenarios where Superman somehow defeats Zod without killing him, while missing the actual story points Snyder is trying to make – that Zod will never, ever stop doing what he does because it is what he believes he was created to do and, in killing Zod, Superman is actually ending the last traces of Krypton’s existence and definitively choosing Earth as his home and the place he is sworn to protect, in as dramatic and final a way as possible. When it comes to making changes to the source material, this is the kind of thing I like, and applaud.
That leads me on to the ending. This is a Superman origin story, and the totality of the movie is to do with that, of bringing Kal-El from being Krypon’s last son to being Clark Kent/Superman. It is not until the very last shot of the movie that we see the iconic glasses look of the now journalist Kent. That’s something I’m completely happy with, though the nature of the ending seems to have brought the ire of some fans. As stated last Friday, I’m happy to see adaptations deviate from the source material as long as such deviations improve the adaptation and whatever new medium it is using to tell the original story, and this is one of those that I liked. There will be no tired grinding towards the inevitable sub-plot of “Will Lois ever find out that Clark is Superman?” and Snyder, or whoever follows him, has a different dynamic between Kent and Lane to play around with in the event of a sequel, hopefully one that can do a better job with the romance between the two.
Henry Cavill is our Superman, and I think he did a good job, with a strong, committed performance, for what he had to do anyway. In truth, the real acting ability for the character would come with the Clark Kent persona – the bumbling, weak journalist – and Cavill doesn’t get an actual chance to do that, the kind of thing that Christopher Reeve was remarkably good at.
So, his Superman is more the quiet, stern, stoic type, who doesn’t actually get to talk that much and spends a large part of the film on his own. I can’t fault Cavill too much, but certainly Superman doesn’t get to show off too much of an emotional range. He’s angry when he has to kill Zod, sad when he watches Jonathan Kent die, happy when he kisses Lane. Cavill is able to bring us all that, but overall it’s shallow enough. I still liked his Superman because I thought that, given that this is an origin story, he was able to bring the titular character to life in the way that he is traditionally portrayed in the source material. He has his good moments, like his discussions with Lane at his father’s grave for example, but some stilted ones as well, like his dream discussion with General Zod. At least Cavill has the presence required to carry off the Superman look. He’s big, broad shouldered, and exudes that strength, confidence and sense of hidden power that you need to make a believable Superman, which takes more than just a ripped body (which Cavuill, of course, has in abundance, and that does help).
I suppose the key thing with Superman is his concern for humanity – everything he does is to try and save them. His attachment to humanity is a key aspect of the character, and I didn’t really feel that too much with Cavill, or with Sprayberry/Timberline, though the latter are just kids, I can’t expect too much from them. The connection with humanity is supposed to get a very specific focus in the form of Lois Lane but as stated that sub-plot fell flat for me. I hope that, in the event of a sequel, Cavill will get more of a chance to actually shine, emote and be more of a character than the strong, silent type that his Superman from Man of Steel seems to be. For this film, his best moment is probably the look on his face as he learns to fly, pushing his boundaries and loving every second of it.
Then there is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. I’m not going to belabour this point too much, but I felt she was a real weak point in the story. Adams is a good actor, so I feel this might have been more of a script issue, which I’ll get to in a moment. I don’t think Snyder has a very good record with female characters anyway, and that continues in Man of Steel. Lois Lane just isn’t that likeable. She’s needlessly “in your face” in her opening scenes, displays idiocy in her investigation and her professional life and just seems to be “there” during the finale without much of a purpose other than “Superman needs a love interest”. Adams never made me feel very concerned for Lane over the other characters whom Zod’s attack put in danger, and she struggled to make the character seem, at times, anything other than shoed in. She’s outdone in acting ability by Fishburne’s much smaller role, and seems out of her depth in scenes with people like Shannon and Crowe. In a sequel she may, perhaps, get the chance to show off a bit more now that Kent is a reporter at the Planet, but in this movie she’s suffers from a sense that she’s just there because she’s an established Superman character, with nothing to really make her stand-out.
Michael Shannon is Zod, and I really liked his approach to the character, which was far superior to the rather dull monotone that Terence Stamp brought to his, still iconic, portrayal of the Kryptonian general. Shannon is one of those guys who deserves more attention than he gets, and I’ve liked him ever since I saw his excellent turn as the antagonist in last year’s Premium Rush. He’s a very different kind of villain here, but still one that I liked. His Zod is conniving, calculating and violent, but he’s also something that every villain really has to be: sure of himself as the hero. Everything Zod does is, in his mind, for the greater good of Krypton, and Shannon makes sure that we believe that sentiment coming out of Zod’s mouth.
From his opening scenes with Crowe, a relationship that has the best inter-play in the movie probably (I especially liked their final conversation, and the line “I’m arguing its merits (genocide) with a ghost”), to his final showdown with Kal-El, Shannon is just consistently strong as Zod, the man who is totally committed to saving his people, to the point where, in a way, he almost becomes sympathetic.
Russell Crowe is also spectacularly successful in his portrayal of Jor-El, from his actual physical presence in the Kryptonian opening, to his “shadow” role as an advanced hologram later in the movie. His Jor-El is a caring, explorative character, willing to do whatever it takes, like Zod, to save his peoples legacy, something he accomplishes in a very different way to the General. Crowe really is one of the highlights of the whole experience, his compassion for his son, his desire to save his people, the intermingling of his scientific background with his principles, and his urging later on for Clark to be the man he knows he can become. As I said before, perhaps something was missed in the absence of conflict between Jor-El and Jonathan Kent in some form, but I can dismiss that due to the excellence of Crowe’s performance. Crowe is the kind of actor that needs no building up to know that he is a fine actor, but I really do think this is one of the stand-out roles of his career.
Crowe isn’t quite matched by Kevin Costner, but he also pulls off a fine performance as Jonathan Kent, in several brilliant scenes where he interacts with a younger Clark. You get feeling throughout his showing of a man deeply concerned for his son, and what the world might do to him when the truth comes out, but still uncomfortable with dealing with such emotions, as you could imagine from the background that the character has. When he proclaims that it might have been better for Clark to let his schoolmates drown rather than risk discovery, we know he means it, while at the same time acknowledging that such a choice is an impossible one to lay on the shoulders of his son. I suppose the key thing to portray with the male Kent is his genuine love for the baby he happened to find at the side of the road, and Costner accomplishes that. Diane Lane gets a little less time as Martha Kent, but still has some good scenes to mark her out towards the conclusion and during the sequences focusing on Kent’s childhood.
Most of the other cast members have limited time, but I have no major complaints about anyone. I rather liked Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White, he has a certain charm and gravitas that I found appealing, and it was a good idea to spend a little time in the vast finale on him and his attempts to get his news staff out of Metropolis alive. Antje Traue is Zod’s right hand woman who has a few good lines but is rather too unemotionless for my taste. Ayelet Zurer is a little disappointing as Lora, with a rather wooden delivery for her few scenes. Harry Lennix and Christoper Meloni are the military honcho’s who aid Superman towards the conclusion, and both do an acceptable job. Richard Schiff has the surprisingly underused role of Emil Hamilton, a well established character in the comics continuity, and I was a little disappointed to see that he was, like Lane, basically just “there”, with the exception that he gets killed off at the conclusion.
Visually, the very first thing I want to note, because it came up over and over again, is the abundance of lens flare in this movie, to the extent that I began to wonder if my memory was wrong that that it was J.J. Abrams who had directed. Throughout, that bright sheen was repeated over and over again. I think J.J. Abrams can get away with that when shooting things against a backdrop of total darkness, but here it’s just immensely distracting.
Moving on to the actual visuals, I liked the way that Man of Steel was shot. The Krypton section is an absolute delight to behold. It’s a very distinct, living world that has been created. Since Kryptonians are basically just human, making them an alien race has to be done entirely through sets, costumes and CGI, and Man of Steel succeeds in doing that. The robots look cool, the ships look unique and Krypton itself looks wonderful, a harsh desert landscape that is a million miles away from the crystal-obsessed backgrounds of yesteryear. The strange flying animal that Jor-El rids looks like it came starlight out of Avatar, but it still adds to the atmosphere and makes it clear that Krypton is very much an alien world. The costumes on Krypton are wonderfully intricate and detailed, especially the apparent power armour that Jor-El wears into battle, and sets up the later suit that Clark wears very well. I think it’s easy to go overboard when you are designing something like Krypton, but thankfully Snyder has avoided that.
Elsewhere in the movie there are ups and downs. I think it’s shot very well for the most part and I liked the simple colour palette. But then, you see the dreaded shaky cam make an appearance during the finale, and all I can do is roll my eyes as I wait for the visuals to just settle down. Snyder has a tendency to shoot up close to an unnecessary and jarring extent during some action sequences, and this does detract, especially during the final fight with Zod.
The action sequences are all created well enough. The first half stuff is generally non-violent, but still quite good to watch. The oil rig scene is a nice, simple set-piece to illustrate how Clark is operating in the world before his turn as Superman, the Kryptonian security robot is a cool little moment, the bus crash wears out the welcome of the origin story a little but is still somewhat nerve-wracking and the CGI for the scout ship is impressive.
The second half stuff is a different kettle of fish really. Looking at each individually, they’re all fine and different levels of impressive, but they all lose something when they are smashed together. There are four main sequences to discuss after all, spread out over an hour or more. The first fight with the two Kryptonians is great, and allows for a superhero battle to take place in a less-traditional location, very much like the battle between Thor and the Destroyer in Thor. There is some excellent use of CGI and destruction physics throughout.
Then we move on to the destruction of Metropolis and things start wearing a little thin. The overall debate about how Superman can allow such destruction and the presumed casualties means nothing to me, since fights of this nature are part and parcel of the Superman character and the stories that surround him – I didn’t hear any nerd rage about this for example, and that was a popular show – and if there is no risk involved because Superman is saving everyone, the experience would lose something. I suppose it might have helped if there was any sort of reflection scene from Kent about the casualties that must have occurred as downtown Metropolis gets smashed up, but it doesn’t bother me unduly. After all, if he didn’t destroy the terraformer, it would have destroyed all of humanity right?
What does bother me is something else, more related to storytelling and enrapturing an audience: a “Carnage Threshold”. There is only so many buildings you can see demolished, skyscrapers toppling, debris and rubble being swept around, before you just switch it off. Man of Steel breaches the Carnage Threshold very fast, both in terms of overuse of some special effects, like collapsing buildings and the way that it basically ignores all but a handful of civilians (the Planet staff). With so much destruction and people dying, you just stop caring, and the threat to what should be the key link for the audience, Lois, is non-existent. By the time we get to the final Zod fight, I had completely stopped wondering if there were actually any people in the buildings Superman and his enemy were smashing through. It didn’t matter anymore, I had seen too much of it to be anything but desensitised to it.
The fight between Superman and the terraformer was a bit of a change in pace, but went overly long, with its placement just sapping away at my attention levels. That last battle with Zod was interesting, and I think Snyder did enough to make it compelling, but only as a contest between two titans, and not because of the damage they were inflicting all around them.
I really do think that Man of Steel has blown its load in terms of action set-pieces. There is an awful lot of Superman and other Kryptonians being flung through walls, ground into pavements or grabbing people in mid-air, along with some other over-used CGI effects, like Kryptonian ships landing and taking off, attack runs by Air Force planes or the terraformer in action. I wonder how a sequel can keep things fresh, seeing as how so much of what we envision Superman doing when he fights people has just been flung on screen? Will a fight against Darkseid or Doomsday be any different to that against Zod, or will a fight against Braniac be much different to that against the terraformer?
A few other visual/production things to take note of. The skull motif that dominates anything to do with Krypton was very odd, almost Warhammer-ish, especially the “codex” that seems to have been kept in a half decayed skull. That was never explained or elaborated on in any way, and I did find it a little jarring. The decision to put Henry Cavill in Jonathan Kent’s death scene as an older teenager, done through just giving him curly hair and a looser t-shirt, was laughably dumb, and one wonders why they didn’t just stick with Sprayberry. I really liked everything to do with the Kryptonian ships, and would call special attention to the black hole CGI as something that was a visual treat.
In the end, less is more, and Snyder would have been better served, for seeking the creation of a really good Superman story, if he had cut out a bit of the finale.
I liked the script, generally. There are better interactions for dialogue than others – between Crowe and Shannon for example, and between Costner and Sprayberry/Timberline. The script does a good job of showing the inherent decency of men like Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, while also showing some drawbacks, like El’s perhaps over-obsession on destiny or Kent’s typically reserved mid-western nature. Shannon gets speech that shows him off as Machiavellian to an extent but also somewhat sympathetic for his overall goal, though he just about breaks into monologing territory at a few points.
Clark doesn’t, as previously stated, get much to actual say throughout the course of this movie, though when he does I found it entertaining, like his initial meeting with Lois Lane at the graveyard, his first meeting with Zod, or his last words with Martha Kent. The interactions between him and Lois are generally mediocre though.
Lane’s written very poorly in my eyes, as if the screenwriters saw Jessica Chastain’s appalling allowance of script in Zero Dark Thirty and decided it would be a good idea to ape that. As such, Lane’s opening scene see’s her get argumentative with military officers for no good reason other than to create the impression that she is “strong-willed” (or “irritating” as I saw it), we catch sight of her downing a whiskey at one point for…some reason, she gets brought up onto Zod’s ship just so she can be there apparently and the romance angle is horribly underwritten. When I hear Adam’s talk about getting into a “dick measuring contest” with people, I got flashbacks to the worst line in Zero Dark Thirty and was wondering if we’d get a paraphrase: “I’m the motherfucker who found Superman”.
The script does do one of my most favourite things ever in Superman media, which is to call attention to how stupid the name “Superman” actually is. The only time this title is uttered is by a somewhat sheepish soldier, who gets given a look by his commanding officer that is the perfect visual of “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. Plenty of fanboys bitching that the name doesn’t get used that much, but it’s an origin story: do they want Kal-El to introduce himself to people as “Superman”?
The script is nothing to really write home about too much. It does its job, with successes and failures along the way, but Snyder maybe saw the dialogue heavy Superman Returns as something to run screaming away from. I think, for the moment, that he’s right.
Hans Zimmer is the composer, and I loved his score. One of the things that irritated me the most heading into Man of Steel was reading a constant whine about the absence of John Williams signature theme, to the extent that I was tempted to start telling people to bring an MPC player and headphones into the theatre if it meant that much to them. It was worse because it wasn’t like the chosen composer for Man of Steel was some nobody: It’s Hans “Academy, Grammy and Golden Globe winner” Zimmer, one of the most active and accomplished composers actually working right now.
I’m sure there will be plenty who disagree, but I think Zimmer’s score has lived up to Williams. The main theme for Superman is a swelling, epic piece, the kind of thing that really embodies the titular character and what he strives for. It’s matched by a much simpler, gentle piano theme for smaller moments, the kind of memorable composing that sticks in the head for a long time. Krypton has a wonderful theme too, and Zimmer is well known as a composer who is able to combine music with action to create a great synergy of expression. In a year where it has been rare that I’ve actually been impressed by a score/soundtrack – Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Great Gatsby, out of 17 films overall – the pitch perfect tone, scope and execution of Zimmer’s effort is truly special.
Onto themes then. The main one, as it seems to be for all of Superman media, is hope. Superman is the very essence of hope in the DC Comics world, and has become a symbol of that idea ever since his first publication. He’s the all-powerful superstar of the comic book realm, the guy who always saves the day, catches the falling damsel, defeats the villain and ensures the continuation of truth, justice and the American way.
Here, the idea of hope is seen in many ways, and is also intrinsically tied to the theme of fear and the rejection of fear, represented by Zod. Jor-El sends his son off into the stars as a symbol of hope and a continuation of his species, rejecting Zod and his fear-induced rampage of violence. Jor-El hopes that Kal-El can become a leader of Earth, someone for humanity to aspire towards, to “race behind”. Clark struggles to fit into that role.
He only does so upon the arrival of Zod, again spreading of message of fear. His TV broadcast is the very essence of that, of trying to scare the population of Earth into giving Superman up, playing into a fear of the unknown, of destruction and of the stranger in their midst.
Clark has to make a choice, one that relates to another key theme: faith. He wants to follow what his biological father wanted, have faith in the goodness of mankind and their ability to accept him as one of their own, and fight back against the essence of fear on their behalf. But he’s had too many bad experiences with humanity to be completely sure that, like his adoptive father feared, humanity won’t simply reject him and sell him out the moment that he reveals himself.
In the end, Clark chooses to embrace his faith in mankind and leave the decision in their hands. The US military hands him over, but when it becomes clear that Zod has no intention of leaving their planet in peace, they fall in line behind Superman, as an ideal of hope, as someone to follow, as they fight back against the fear and destruction that Zod is generating. The thing switches then, as we go from Clark struggling to put faith in humanity, to humanity putting all of their faith, belief and hope into the idea that only Superman can save them from Zod and the rise of a New Krypton, one based on his perverted ideals of purity and fear.
This ties into another theme: Roles and how we play them. The Kryptonian society that Zod is trying to save and preserve, as it makes clear near the conclusion, is one with very strict and unbreakable roles for all of its people to play from birth. Zod was created for the very purpose of protecting Krypton, and that is all that he is going to do with his life, until he has nothing left. Jor-El rebels against this idea, and lives out his dreams through his son.
Clark Kent has another role. For all of Jor-El’s talk about his son being free to choose his own destiny, he still sets his son down an inevitable path, albeit through very forced circumstances. Clark’s destiny is to be protector, guider and role-model of mankind, and Jor-El lucks out in the manner of the people who actually wind up raising Clark.
By the conclusion, Zod and Clark have actually switched roles to an extent. Zod is the one making a choice, one to be as destructive and vengeful as possible, having lost his original imperative. Clark is taking on the role of protector of the species, the one that he has chosen outright over the possibility of a New Krypton.
All of this talk of being a symbol of hope, the rejection of fear, protecting humanity and being someone to put their faith into brings me neatly onto the next theme: the Jesus Parable. Now, I find it surprising that this aspect of the character has drawn as much attention as it has, since Superman has always been somewhat of a Jesus stand-in. Maybe it reflects the times we live in.
But certainly Snyder runs with this idea to a large degree. Apart from the general concept of a super powered individual descending from heaven, living amongst us for a time before revealing himself, being rejected, but then sacrificing himself for our well-being, there are others, from the several visual representation of Cavill in a crucifix-like pose to a key conversation with a priest against the backdrop of a Gethsemane representation to the stupidly dumb insertion of a line referencing his age: 33.
Superman, as a character and especially in Man of Steel, is very much a partial representation of Jesus, and the role that Jesus played in society. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, and it feeds back into the other themes that I’ve been discussing in a very effective way. In this universe, Superman is a later-day Messiah, the kind of rallying figure like Jesus, come again in a very different form, but with a very similar message.
Lastly, there is the theme of identity, the very heart and soul of the Superman story. It is far more than being Clark Kent at one moment and Superman the next. The conflict in Man of Steel for Kent comes down to the choice that he has to make, between the world he was born on and the world he grew up in, between the disembodied teachings of Jor-El or the more real advice of Jonathan Kent, between the possibility of resurrecting his race with Zod, or defending humanity with Lois Lane. Kal-El is a child of two worlds, and being forced to stand on either side of this schism is the main point of the entire movie: through the upbringing he receives from the Kent’s, his interactions with Lane and Zod, and with the tacit approval of Jor-El, who has seen Kryptonian society for the failure that it is, Kal-El decisively becomes Clark Kent, deciding to stay on Earth, defend humanity, and hopefully lead us into a brighter tomorrow. Krypton is decisively rejected and is, for all intents and purposes, completely destroyed in the process. Superman isn’t big enough for two worlds.
Moving towards a conclusion then, I can only saw that I enjoyed Man of Steel. I think that it is an improvement on visual adaptations of the titular character, over the likes of what Bryan Singer was trying to do with Superman Returns. I think Snyder has done a better job with the source material this time around than he did for Watchmen, something more on a par with 300. This is enjoyable, has good performances, good CGI, good action sequences and sets things up in the required way for a sequel. This is the kind of movie that will hopefully be used as a spring board for far more daring and difficult things, like movies for Wonder Woman and Flash, resurrections for Green Lantern, and hopefully a culminating point for some sort of Justice League project. Lois Lane needs some serious improvement, Snyder needs to realise that CGI isn’t the be all and end all and the whole thing could do with some effort to slow things down just a tad on occasion, but these faults are easily outweighed by the positives.
While much of it comes down to differences in technology making something like Superman easier to portray on the big screen, I would consider this film the equal, and even the better, of any Superman film in the previous continuity. Fully recommended, for Superman fans and others.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).