It’s hard not to notice that superhero movies have been dominating our cinema screens for a decade or so now. More of them seem to be coming out each year. While the current trend was properly kicked off with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, the first real modern superhero blockbuster was Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978. And rightly so, Superman pre-dates all of the other comic-book superheroes current getting movie treatment, and while he might not have been the first comic-book superhero, he certainly was responsible for popularising the concept. Now, with the approval of superheroes in movies at an all-time high, Superman looks to have been left behind, uninvited to a party he started.
Superman’s last appearance on-screen was in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006. That film opted for a different approach than nearly all other modern reboots of established franchises. Rather than re-invent the world, it posited itself as a direct sequel to what came before, showing huge reverence and respect for the Donner films, even re-using music cues and archive footage.
In the seven years since it was released, time has not been kind to Superman Returns. It’s remembered as a flop, an example of the wrong approach to take in this day and age. Singer’s career hasn’t really recovered from it yet, and leading man Brandon Routh hasn’t had much success subsequently.
Let’s be clear, Superman Returns was not a ‘flop’, it made more money than Batman Begins did, but it just wasn’t the billion dollar mega-hit Warner Brothers wanted. It’s also not a bad film. It has its flaws, Lex Luthor’s plan is totally absurd, and Lois and the kid are fairly awful, but it’s a lot of fun. Its failure to spawn a new series is the thing that seems to count most against Superman Returns though, had it got a sequel, maybe that film would have been incredible. We’ll never know.
Although Warner’s were lacking the hit Superman film they wanted, films surrounding DC’s other top character, Batman, by Christopher Nolan were unprecedented critical and commercial hits. I’m sure many a geek worldwide was pleased to hear the news that, coming from his success with Batman, Nolan (as producer, along with his co-writer David S. Goyer) had been hired to create a new Superman film too. Warner’s not doubt hoped he could replicate the success.
Nolan’s talent as a filmmaker can’t be denied, but his approach to Batman was to bring him into the real work as a dark, tortured crime-fighter. Dark and serious works very well for Batman, but it wouldn’t for Superman. He can’t be realistic. He’s an alien from outer space.
Superman has been around, in various incarnations, for 75 years now, and many people know what they’d want from a Superman movie, but that’s not going to be the same for everyone. Personally, I much prefer Superman as an outsider, the only super-powered being on earth, having to cope with this status but also go about saving people from impossible situations they couldn’t escape without him. I’ve read and watched numerous Superman stories, and enjoyed plenty, but none ever as much as I’ve wanted to. The idea of the character has always appealed more than any of the specific stories. Superman, it seems, is hard to get right.
Now, the latest, Superman is upon us in the shape of Man of Steel, while its director (Zack Snyder) and screenwriter both have hit-and-miss back catalogues, with a great cast, and Nolan there to steer them in the right direction, things are looking good. A couple of amazing trailers are already out; I’m ready for this to be the Superman film I’ve always wanted.
And is it?
Sadly…no. My primary feeling leaving Man of Steel was one of disappointment.
Don’t give up on it yet though, it’s not bad. Indeed, comparing it to the many other superhero debuts we’ve had recently it more than holds up. It’s just that prior to seeing their films, I don’t care about Iron Man, Thor, Green Lantern etc. If their films turn out to be moderately good you end up feeling pleased. But this is Superman, more is expected from him.
The typical superhero origin story has been played out too much on screen in recent years. We all know how it works, we all know where it’s going. With Superman, this applies two-fold. Superman’s origin is common knowledge nowadays, does any new interpretation need to explain it to us once again? Grant Morrison’s highly acclaimed series All-Star Superman handled the origin with one page, consisting of four panels and eight words. That was all it needed.
Man of Steel tries to have it both ways, it wants to give us a new depiction of Superman’s beginning, but doesn’t want to simply repeat what came before. Goodness knows we don’t want another Amazing Spider-Man on our hands.
It’s initially a shame to see Man of Steel’s opening shot is of Superman being born on Krypton then, ‘here we go again’. However, Zack Snyder subsequently treats us to a spectacular opening prologue. The planet Krypton is realised tremendously in a way that we haven’t seen before. Jor-El (Superman’s Dad) is no longer a portly Marlon Brando phoning it in, Russell Crowe, on top form, gives us a radically different take as a man of science (and action), recognising his civilisation is doomed, and trying to save what remnants of it he can. General Zod (a shouty Michael Shannon) tries to stage a military coup but it’s too late for Krypton.
With this opening, Zack Snyder had shown me that I had nothing to worry about, he was re-doing a familiar story but in a brilliant and exciting fashion.
The film continues in this way for most of its first hour, though opts for a non-chronological approach. We next meet an adult Kal-El as he wanders around working menial jobs and trying to stay below everyone’s radar (though of course winds up having to save people for some imminent disaster), punctuated by flashbacks of him as a child. These flashbacks are again examples of scenes I would have beforehand, considered unnecessary but are, for the most part, highlights. The moment a young Clark Kent’s powers first begin to manifest is incredibly well-done, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do great work as his earth parents. The film knows it doesn’t need to show a load of feats Clark performed as a child too, after all, how many deadly situations does the average Kansan child end up in?
This decision to take Superman in a more ‘realistic’ direction seems to be paying off then after all. This might well be how someone like him would act in these situations. The Nolan-batman approach of respecting the canon but also questioning it is used for other aspects too. Lois Lane not realising who Clark is has always been one of the hardest points to buy in the Superman mythos, it’s just so obvious (Superman Returns really stretched this one to breaking point). Man of Steel finds a good way to re-jig the Superman/Lois relationship in a way to avoid this problem.
Other changes it makes to established Superman lore tend to work well too. Zod is now genetically engineered so that his purpose is to do everything he can to further the survival of his people, rather than him being a megalomaniac. The downside of this is the film is rather humourless, bar a couple of moments. It’s a slippery slope though, people will complain if the film isn’t serious enough (a la Superman Returns) yet will also do so if it’s too much so. A handful of lighter moments wouldn’t hurt Man of Steel.
Though its sequencing takes a little getting used to, for a good while, Man of Steel is really heading in the right direction.
However, this is a film of two halves. By its second one, General Zod and his cronies have returned to invade earth, and that means destruction.
Oh, so, so much destruction.
It’s been quite an emerging trend in action blockbusters lately that they must feature extensive scenes of cities being totally destroyed – 2012, Transformers 3, The Avengers, recently Star Trek Into Darkness etc. Maybe studios are requiring it now?
If Man of Steel’s aim was to top them all in term of urban devastation, then it certainly achieves this. Huge skyscrapers topple, super-beings are thrown around. It’s impressive for a short while but soon becomes monotonous.
There is also, like Star Trek Into Darkness, the problem of collateral damage. We do not know how many people are in these buildings facing certain death, it could be thousands. They could be empty but the film has not given us any reason to think this.
The film has some problems beyond the never-ending demolition though. Some supporting players are just not given enough time, when Perry White and Jenny are in trouble, we don’t care as we have nothing invested in them. I can think of few actresses better than Amy Adams for Lois Lane but she doesn’t get a lot to do here, and does not get anywhere near enough time with Superman to convincingly develop romantic feelings.
As for Superman himself, Henry Cavill does a solid job but doesn’t have a chance to be Clark Kent. We’ll have to wait for the next film to see if he can do both sides of the character.
One more noteworthy element would have to be the music. Like the Batman films, Hans Zimmer again gives us a rousing, unconventional score that works well with this new take. That we don’t mourn the absence of John William’s iconic Superman Theme, now so entwined to the character, is an achievement in itself.
Man of Steel is a bold reinvention of the Superman myth, it can thrill and surprise, and there are many good things about it in its retelling of his familiar story. Unfortunately, it invests such a great deal in problematic, lengthy, massive action scenes that it suffers considerably in its latter half.
Man of Steel 2 is already in production, and that excites me still. The point at which this film ends is where they could have begun it. Who knows, the troublesome elements of the film could very well be built upon in a sequel and turned into a significant plot point. The potential is most certainly there.
I know I want to see Man of Steel again, and without the weight of expectation, I may enjoy it more. For now though, Man of Steel left me, as ever, wanting to like Superman more than I could like this interpretation.