Man Of Steel (2013)
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer and Russell Crowe
Legendary Studios/Syncopy/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros
One of the most interesting things about Superman to me, and part of what makes the character so great, is how much he has grown and changed over the years, and how elastic the concept of the character is. The Superman that first appeared in 1938 is very different from the one in 1958, is very different from the one in 1978, is hugely different from the one in 1988, and so on and so on. Hell, the Superman we have in the comics now in 2013 has changed a lot since only 2008! Then you take into account the various media adaptations of Superman. The Radio Serial, the Fleischer cartoons, the 1950s Television series, the 1970s Christopher Reeve movies, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, Smallville. All of these takes were not at all like what was going on in the comics, but they were all Superman.
In their amazing 12-issue All-Star Superman series, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely sum up Superman in 4 panels and 1 splash page. Many fans believe that this is the definitive Superman origin, not Secret Origin, not Birthright or John Byrne’s Man Of Steel, but 1 single page. It goes as follows:
For me, any story that has these elements, fits into the framework of Superman, any changes or adjustments within that are just minutiae. There’s a reason so many of the best Superman stories are out-of-continuity Elseworlds. If Superman in Soviet Russia is still Superman, then Superman can be anything. So, does the new big-budget action movie take that is Man Of Steel have these elements? Yes it does, and therefore it’s just another in a long line of new interpretations of Superman, each as valid or as non-canon as you want. I’m not sure where I stand on how valid this film is for me yet, but at this point, the day after I saw it, I liked it and it worked.
It’s obvious from the very first frames of Man Of Steel that this is Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s personal vision for Superman. This is a darker and more action-focused Superman, with a Planet Krypton that is not a gleaming white Utopia, but a barren desert that is already falling apart. This is a Superman that throws a punch, that is more serious. This is a darker Superman that fits in with the darker 21st Century. Some may find this antithetical to what Superman should be, but to others it’s a perfect fit.
To me, it’s like, whatever, it all still fits within that broad definition of Superman.
The casting of this film is uniformly excellent. Henry Cavill is perfect as Superman. I initially had my doubts about him due to my belief that Superman should be played by an American, not a Brit (it’s not xenophobic, I’m a Brit myself!), but when watching the film, I forgot all about Henry Cavill, he just embodied Superman. He looks exactly like Superman should, his lantern-jaw is the most lanterny I’ve ever seen, it’s astonishing. My only complaint would be that we don’t get to see Cavill play the dual sides of Superman in this film. The Clark Kent of this movie is basically the same person as Superman, there is no ‘mild-mannered persona’ here. It is teased at the end, and if/when we get a sequel, I will be very interested to see if the improbably hunky and handsome Cavill can pull off being a nerdy milquetoast as well as he does being a bad-ass superhero. I do feel that this film did an excellent job at exploring the human/alien conflict that is inherent within Superman. The actual plot itself here is directly about Superman having to choose between Earth and Krypton and it was interesting to see what is normally subtext played out on a huge epic scale.
Amy Adams acquits herself well as Lois Lane, with the right amount of chutzpah, but also a vulnerable side too. It was good to see Lois get in on the action in some scenes, she’s not just there to be saved by Superman, she gets to use a laser-gun and kick some ass. I will say I was surprised by how small Lois’ role was here, she and the rest of the Daily Planet were more peripheral than I expected, but that makes sense when you consider that Clark Kent does not join the paper until the very end of the film.
Michael Shannon as General Zod however was just as I expected, bringing the same bat-shit level of intensity to this role as he does to others such as Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire or the corrupt cop in Premium Rush. Shannon just makes for a brilliant bad guy. I did feel that the movie kind of mishandled an idea it introduced at the very end, that Zod was genetically designed to protect Krypton, that he had no choice. If that was explored in greater detail, it would have been fascinating. The film also mentions that Kal-El is the first Kryptonian born with free will in centuries, so there’s something brilliant just under the surface here that the film doesn’t quite reach. Instead, it’s just a throwaway line in a (albeit brilliantly-delivered) villainous rant.
I think the two best performances in the film came from Superman’s two dads, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. Crowe had a lot to live up to in filling the shoes of Marlon Brando, but he did very well, giving us a Jor-El who engaged in action as well as talk. Kevin Costner is a perfect choice to play Pa Kent, as he brings with him memories of his Baseball and Western movies and how that means he embodies some nebulous kind of innate American goodness. There isn’t enough of both him and Diane Lane as Martha Kent, but they bring that essential Kindly Couple to life.
The way this film is structured is also note-worthy and it’s non-linear nature is the clearest indication to me of Christopher Nolan’s involvement in the story. We all know Superman’s origins already, and I don’t think I could have sat through 30 minutes of young Clark growing up in Smallville again, so the decision to parcel this stuff out in flashbacks really works. It allows Snyder to get to the action quicker, and it means each small moment in Clark’s past has a greater connection to the story and feels more important. The final flashback to young Clark playing with his dog was a particular highlight for me, as incongruous as it may seem.
With a Zack Snyder movie, you know you’re going to get a whole lot of special-effects heavy action, and boy, does Man Of Steel deliver. The scenes where Clark Kent really starts discovering his powers and realises he can fly are truly breathtaking. Superman flying across the African Plains and past the White Cliffs of Dover and all over the world really gave me those same giddy feelings I get when I see Spider-Man swinging around in the films or Hulk jumping around smashing stuff. It made me truly believe a man could fly again, it made me feel like a kid again.
What did not make me feel like a kid again were the fight sequences between Superman and the various evil Kryptonians. These were hardcore knock-down slug-fests, and they were brutal, but awesome to watch. That final fight between Superman and Zod was one of the most exhilarating action-movie sequences I have ever seen, and it really showed how much power and devastation superheroes can cause. It was even better than the final battle in The Avengers which is really saying something.
The way the fight between Superman and Zod ended is the part of Man Of Steel that has caused the most controversy. In order to stop Zod’s rampage, Superman is forced to kill him, to snap his neck. Some people are fine with this, others are furious. Me? I’m not too bothered about it. It was clear to me that Superman did not want to kill Zod and that he had no choice. Not that Superman should be like Raylan Givens, but it was justified. Arguments about whether or not it was in character for Superman to kill Zod are pointless in my view. Yes, there are many stories in the comics where Superman has a strict code against killing, but there are also numerous stories where he does kill in extreme cases and even one where he kills the very same character in Zod. Some versions of Superman I can’t accept killing from, some versions I can. Man Of Steel’s Superman? I can see him killing.
For me, Man Of Steel is an interesting new interpretation of Superman, one with a lot of exciting moments and cool new takes on classic elements of the Superman mythology. But even if I didn’t like it, it’s only one possible view of the character. The current DC Comics’ continuity version of Superman is not the same as this, the out-of-continuity and previous takes are not the same. The next animated series will not be the same, when the movie franchise is rebooted yet again in however many years, it will be different once more. Superman is such an elastic character who can mean all things to all people. This is Snyder, Goyer and Nolan’s meaning. It doesn’t have to change how I, or anyone else feels about this iconic character. I know this sanguine approach doesn’t fit in with the current era of online discourse, where you have to either love or hate something and there’s no room in between, but sometimes it's more complex than that. With long-lasting characters such as Superman, you can’t get too wedded to one interpretation.
In the end, to paraphrase the great Alan Moore, if you don’t like Man Of Steel, you can consider it just another ‘imaginary story’, but then again… aren’t they all?