In 2006, director Bryan Singer was given the reigns to reboot the DC Comics Superman franchise which, at the time, seemed long overdue. A new Clark Kent was found to replace the iconic Christopher Reeve interpretation from Richard Donner’s original film (and its woeful sequels) and a fresh vision of probably the most well-known comic book character ever was on its way. Singer was a big fan of Superman – a very big fan. His approach was to not make a new origin story and ended up producing what felt like a follow on from the 1978 film. Such was his love and respect for Donner’s movie, everything about Superman Returns felt like homage, right down to the title cards and the original score left untouched. A new love-triangle story was evolved but ultimately it felt like a re-tread. Many didn’t find much to like in Singer’s film, but I actually quite enjoyed it. I felt it had a classic feel, an old-fashioned approach to its direction and a subtle, story-driven plot. Not to mention a great lead in Brandon Routh.
Whatever critics or fans felt about it however, the movie (and re-boot) was deemed a failure. The success of DC’s other big gun, the Batman revamp, has proven gigantically successful. Encompassing a trilogy of films, it pleased critics, fans and the tent-pole crowd. But as that series has come to end, DC have had to shift their focus. Trying to re-capture his magic touch, DC & Warner Bros enlisted the man responsible , Christopher Nolan, almost immediately to try to revive Supes. They wanted him to direct, to deliver the exact same package, but for Kal-El instead of Bruce Wayne. He eventually declined directing, stepped in as story consultant and producer, leaving Watchmen and 300 director, Zack Snyder, to helm the big re-boot, one that came not ten years after Singer’s attempt. A lot has changed in the last 6-7 years at the box office and Marvel has redefined the blockbuster, making “comic-book movies” the biggest cash cow of them all. They have a formula that works incredibly well too; plenty of humour, big action and big names in the cast. With Man of Steel, DC seemed to have tried to use Marvel’s winning blueprint whilst still trying to keep Nolan’s gritty and realistic take on their universe intact. The result is a film that seems to have muddled intentions, few moments of wit but a bombardment of action sequences.
Kal-El (his real name) or Clark Kent (the name given by his human parents) is an alien, from the planet Krypton. The film consistently tries hard and does well to establish this fact throughout. An opening 20 minute sequence set upon his decaying home world is as surprising as it is refreshing, a welcome set-up for the story that follows. With production design reminiscent of Dune and the action of Avatar, the plot foundations are laid as Kal is born to scientist father Jor-El (Russell Crowe in excellent, if effortless form) whilst an attempted coup is under way lead by the maniacal General Zod (a forceful and perfectly cast Michael Shannon) and his brutal Sub-Commander Faora-Ul (the gorgeous Antje Traue). But Krypton is already doomed. Kal-El is sent to Earth before it’s destruction and Snyder proceeds to use flashback to show Kent’s childhood whilst beginning the movie with him as an adult. This is a narrative that works well, even if it is merely there to be able to showcase CG heavy set pieces to break up some solid, quiet scenes between a young Kent and his human father; played convincingly by Kevin Costner. Diane Lane compliments him nicely as Martha Kent.
Like Marvel, DC has insisted on some solid names to populate the cast, so while finding an relative unknown to play Supes was almost necessary, a variety of familiar faces (even if their name will escape you) from TV are present and add some weight. The likes of Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni make up the minor players as well as Laurence Fishburne doing a nice – if indeed brief – version of Perry White. Amy Adams takes on the infamous Lois Lane, and refreshingly, she is drawn less annoying and even likeable compared to previous incarnations. Shannon, Crowe and Costner are given most of the meaningful meat of the script however and all three stand out more than the rest surrounding Henry Cavill; the main man. The UK actor is best known for the TV show The Tudors, and here he steps up well enough to give us both a convincing American accent and an every man as he jumps from location to location early on before establishing himself as the man of steel full time. The film does well to achieve the actual weight of what Clark/Kal is; a super being that cannot be killed or seriously harmed in any way. Whether it is through lifting an oil rig tower to a guy simply trying push off of him, the strength and almost immortal elements of our hero are nicely, subtly realised.
Snyder isn’t shy about using this established forte of his main character and showing just how far his CGI toolkit can go when it comes to the action. The kryptonians, led by Zod, are, fortunately for the audience, virtually as powerful as Supes and when they land on earth, its game on, place your bets and let the destruction begin. But we know the odds already. We know Superman will overcome no matter how far he is pushed to the edge. This is a given the film-makers are not willing to change (and so they shouldn’t). What it means however, is that whatever precedes our hero’s inevitable triumph needs to be unique and satisfying in its delivery of all the OTT set pieces we paid to see. In that sense, Snyder succeeds but perhaps also goes too far trying to please all those people who complained Singer’s earlier vision was weak and lacking action. Snyder absolutely overwhelms us with destruction here. Plus almost twelve years on, forging September 11 imagery still seems to be a pointless agenda of some directors. Nothing does feel overly heavy handed however. We will walk out satisfied for sure, but what is the point of it all and has Superman been re-re-represented the best possible way here? It will come down to personal taste, but at the very least this movie is certainly like no other Superman efforts to date. It is green screen, 21st century film-making and instantly gratifying to anyone that can enjoy a blockbuster. What it achieves as a “Superman” film may be almost irrelevant.
A new identity has been forged for the iconic character with this film, complete with new theme (amongst a fairly excellent Hans Zimmer score) ready to spawn at least two sequels of that I’m sure. I welcome them providing Zack Snyder and co. are willing to perhaps tone down the perceived notion that everyone has a fourteen year boy inside craving to be satisfied, demanding one set piece too many. We actually crave a decent amount of substance to go with our eye candy. I’ll give MOS the credit of definitely having some substance, just not enough to reach (some) expectations. Superman’s motives and agenda need to be explored in better detail. The film suffers from hypocrisy due to the lack of this. Unfortunately, Nolan hasn’t been able to help Snyder weave an origin story on par with his own one for Batman, but what we do have is an instantly satisfying sci-fi actioner that may benefit from some improvements, but is hardly asking for or requiring them to soar occasionally.