It’s safe to say we live in a Golden Age of superhero films, and, as with all renaissances, there comes with this a certain pressure, a certain set of standards.
Nowadays a superhero film has to be about more than simply believing a man can fly: we need to believe in them as human beings.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, arguably the series that kicked off the current geek revolution (along with, perhaps, LOST), were also the first Batman films to make us invest in Bruce Wayne as a character. Michael Keaton’s take on the character in the Tim Burton movies might have been quirky and obsessed – the less said about Kilmer and Clooney the better.
It was Christian Bale, though, who made us really understand the tragedy of the man who, in theory, has everything, but has charged himself with the Sisyphean task of cleaning up the streets of Gotham in revenge/penance for his parents’ death. Superman is a more difficult proposition in terms of psychological realism in that, simply put, he lacks the same motivation.
Man of Steel in many ways feels like the most “real” DC film we’ve had yet. Zack Snyder’s surprisingly unmannered, almost naturalistic style of direction (a genuine revelation) and the efforts of David S. Goyer’s screenplay to ground the more outlandish elements mean that this often feels less like an exercise in genre, e.g. the Heat-inspired The Dark Knight, and more like a work of drama that just happens to contain aliens and explosions.
While the set-up is pretty much canonical – doomed planet, father sends son into space to survive – Man of Steel truly commits to its vision of Krypton as a society. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El is not some silver-haired, intractable sage, but a flesh-and-blood person who stands opposed to the philosophy of eugenics by which the Kryptonian population’s vocations are determined before they are even born.
The role he plays in the film is, similar to the original Superman, largely expositional and plot-convenient, but Jor-El nevertheless has a real presence. Crowe gives a quietly impassioned performance that typifies the across-the-board solidity of the supporting cast. But the real question is, of course, how does Henry Cavill fare as the big S himself?
Christopher Reeve’s and Brandon Routh’s interpretations of Superman were cut from the same cloth (the latter was, in some aspects, pretty much a tribute to the former), but with a reboot must come a new take on the iconic hero, or at least one with something new to say about him.
In Man of Steel, the focus on Superman’s origins, appropriate given it represents the series’ first true origin story, set up the theme that defines the film’s trajectory and with it Cavill’s take on the eponymous figure.
The first thing you realize about Cavill in the role is his rawness: raw cheekbones, raw emotion in his eyes. This is a man who is still very much being molded into who he is destined to be. Ironically, he is also the first of his kind not to be destined to be any one thing: he’s not a scientist or a warrior, but can choose his own destiny. It’s only as Superman that he finds himself.
In-keeping with the film’s “naturalism”, Cavill underplays Clark: far from the bumbling semi-caricature of Superman Returns, Cavill’s Clark is a shy, ordinary guy shouldering an extraordinary burden. His Superman, however, while possessing the same saintly aura as previous incarnations, also has a more statesmanlike quality, though in Man of Steel Superman is very much Clark and visa versa.
As well as its quiet, more pensive moments – Clark taking refuge in a school cupboard following a powers-related classroom freakout, for instance – Snyder’s film is certainly no slouch on the action front.
Krypton explodes in a series of catastrophic, ever-approaching surface explosions (set to the lament of a single violin), alien spaceships descend on Metropolis, and super-humans tackle each other through buildings. These sequences are more frenetic, more “full-on” than anything I’ve previously seen in a superhero film, relying not so much on scale as immediacy and physicality, and, amazingly, with no loss of coherence.
The film’s threat takes the form of General Zod and his Kryptonian lackeys. Zod, a zealot and probable fascist, comes to Earth seeking Kal-El and stays in order to carry out a desperate dream. A military man whose martial discipline is literally in his blood, Zod, despite his fairly one-note motivation, is completely sold by Michael Shannon.
The character’s incandescent rage is one of the actor’s hallmarks and Shannon’s teeth-gritted, eyes-bulging portrayal truly makes you appreciate what drives the erstwhile General; if never sympathize. Antje Traue, meanwhile, is mocking and deadly as Zod’s lieutenant Faora. Their sheer, uncompromising dedication to preserving the memory of their dead world carries through; though you never truly believe they could defeat Superman, this is a far cry from Terrence Stamp’s “Kneel before…” Zod.
On a side note, while Superman Returns placed a premium on continuity, Man of Steel is very much a clean break, a fresh start for the franchise. Even so, seeing it generated unexpected comparisons with various other films: a winged steed Jor-El rides on Krypton brought back memories of Avatar while the Kryptonian technology is reminiscent of Prometheus (albeit notably less phallic). More than “just” a Superman film, Man of Steel feels like real sci-fi.
Indeed, while the plot may hinge on sci-fi elements, the film feels very human. Kevin Costner is pitch perfect as Superman’s adopted father, Jonathan Kent, as is Diane Lane as mother Martha. Jonathan’s determination to protect not just his son but mankind by keeping Clark’s abilities secret never feels as convincing as it might; as such, a vital moment of sacrifice in the new canon of the Superman series would fall flat were it not for both Cavill and Costner’s folksy, matter-of-fact performance. His caution provides a counterpoint to Jor-El’s hope and Zod’s tyranny.
Filling out the ranks, we also have Christopher Meloni’s smirking, no-nonsense Colonel Hardy, Harry Lennix’s suitably commanding but eminently reasonable General Swanwick, and Richard Schiff’s wry, stoop-shouldered Dr. Emil Hamilton. A coterie of hugely talented TV actors follows in supporting roles, each of them makes the roles their own in a way that the assorted cops and soldiers in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises were never permitted to do.
Tahmoh Penikett and other Battlestar Galactica/Dollhouse alumni make blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances (what is this a Joss Whedon film now? *wink*). Lawrence Fishburne‘s Perry White doesn’t have much of a part to play, except from bossing around Lois and providing the film’s civilian POV when shit goes down, but he nevertheless makes it into the plus column simply on force of personality.
Last but not least on the character front comes Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Unlike Margot Kidder’s kooky, klutzy interpretation or Kate Bosworth‘s forgettable one, Adams really feels like an intrepid reporter, someone capable of chasing down a story.
One of the primary complaints about Man of Steel thus far has been it’s characterization of the romance between Lois and Superman, but, while it’s by no means a huge feature of the film, I thought it worked. Lois here is a strong human being capable of independent action and who mostly gets herself out of jeopardy as opposed to into it. Her relationship with the alien stranger feels authentic, less a love-at-first-sight deal than a genuine case of two people slipping into love.
The film’s climax, which I won’t describe save to say it feels like a mix between Matrix Revolutions and 2008’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (mostly in a good way), feels sufficiently epic and intimate and even manages to throw a major curveball in terms of conflict resolution – about this I’ll merely say that Superman is not Batman.
If the set-up of this final instant of character-altering jeopardy is a tad corny and the film’s not-quite epilogue more than a little cute, this doesn’t reflect on Man of Steel as a whole. The film manages, for the most part, to be pensive without navel-gazing, eventful without being incidental, and, amazingly, without pacing issues.
Hans Zimmer’s complex, strongly thematic score, while perhaps not as memorable as his work on Nolan’s trilogy and unlikely to ever replace John Williams’ iconic theme in the public consciousness, is an ideal accompaniment.
Perhaps the most telling point in Snyder’s film is when the director, showing a shirtless Clark rescuing workers from a flaming oil rig, chooses, instead of remaining resolutely focused on the action, to pull back to show our hero as a tiny figure holding up the platform’s tower as a mass of molten metal. In this sequence, Clark/Superman seems vulnerable, mortal, more so certainly than he’s ever seemed on the big screen. We see him strain under the weight of the tower; he may have super strength, but this still takes effort.
The film confirms you don’t need kryptonite to introduce artificial jeopardy to a Superman film: what you need is an antagonist and a reason to care. Man of Steel has both those things – it’s an artistic, ambitious work that, though flawed, finally succeeds in bringing the Man of Tomorrow into the present and in fantastic style.
Man of Steel should hopefully provide a sturdy foundation for the body of DC films presumably to come (their very own Phase Two); indeed, a sequel has already been confirmed. Dark but not gritty, allegorical but not preachy – Clark may be 33 years old here, but he’s no longer as much of a Christ figure – Man of Steel is ultimately about choices and, despite a lukewarm response from critics in general, I think it deserves some applause.