With the release of 2013′s Man Of Steel Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) re-imagines the origin of America’s and indeed Western societies most iconic, indeed first ever Super-Hero; Superman – the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created ‘Man Of Steel’ who came to life over 70 years ago in 1938′s Action Comics #1.
And in line with this radical reboot Snyder’s Christopher (The Dark Knight) Nolan produced film seems to be doing it’s utmost to distance itself from it’s central hero’s characters former incarnations in order to bring Superman, a title the Clark/Kal is tellingly barely referred to as during the film, into the 21st century.
The question is; does the latest attempt to reinvent an icon succeed, or is this ‘try hard’ effort one step too far in distancing the fans from a Superman they know and love in a gamble to hook the next generation?
We look at the Good and Bad of the biggest Superhero film of 2013 below. Needless to say SPOILERS:
8. The Characters
From the get go Man Of Steel was sporting a very attractive cast spearheaded by Henry Cavill. And on watching him in action, Cavill is for all intents and purposes this generations Superman. He has that quintessential look that we can instantly identify, not far off the most iconic Supes so far Christopher Reeve, but with a new age handsome and youth that sets him apart. The fact that he can act like hell and is built like a brick sh*t house doesn’t hurt either.
Amy Adam’s is a suitably stoic/imperiled Lois Lane and it’s nice to see Larry Fishburne making Perry White come off ‘cool’ with his designer stubble and diamond stud earring. But the real acting chops and superior casting in this movie goes to the elder statesmen. Russell Crowe is a scene stealer as Clarks Kryptonian dad Jor-El, and Crowe authenticates and electrifies any scene that he’s in as a philosophizing, no nonsense bad-ass. Kevin Costner holds up his end admirably as Clark’s earth bound pop’s Jonathan Kent, dispensing an earthly sagacity and adding weight to an otherwise outlandish scenario with humility. And between these two some of the most impacting scenes in the movie are divided.
The third big gun in MOS’ acting arsenal is the ‘character’ powerhouse that is Michael Shannon. Currently lighting up Hollywood as the next Bob DeNiro, Shannon embodies bad guy Zod with a realistic purpose and patriotism that makes him seem almost reasonable until he enacts his methods of getting it. He’s a well rounded patriot, idealist and at the same time a magnificent howling melodramatic bastard. He can go from serene to snarling madness at the drop of a hat and is backed nicely by his ethically defunct lieutenant Faora (Antje Traue), who frankly seems to enjoy her work (fucking people up) a touch too much.
7. CGI Heavy
By necessity MOS was going to rely on CGI to achieve it’s scope. Snyder to his credit tries to understate what at times is some suffocating CG. Krypton in particular suffers from overt CGI as an entirely manufactured world, and while Snyder tries to balance this with practical effects and fight scenes, the balance is often smothered on one side by some heavy handed computer generated effects.
Snyder confirmed this himself when he said:
“Let me just say one thing about Superman – he can’t do anything that’s not a visual effect. He can walk around and talk, but if he’s going to do something physical, that’s a visual effect, because he’s Superman.”
It’s a fair that this movie could not have achieved it’s target of a massive sci-fi superhero origin story were it not for the CG, but at times it feels like the blue screen took prevalence where it might have benefited from something a touch more practical.
6. The Kryptonian’s
One of the boldest moves Snyder makes in Man Of Steel is to revamp Krypton. Not only does the city sport a radically different look from the crystalline metropolis of the comics and former movie incarnations, but it’s technologies are bolder, darker, more organic and most importantly more alien. Let’s not forget that while these creatures look like us, they are in fact aliens.
The impressive concept art brought to life by production Designer Alex McDowell gives a bold new look for a bold new take on what is a very well worn mythology. It’s fresh and interesting, and most importantly in helping us digest this crazy tale, it seems to serve a practical purpose.
Michael Wilkinson and James Acheson’s work on the costumes also adds an element to MOS that turns what was formerly ridiculous ‘outside pants’ wearing hokum into practical and aesthetically pleasing ‘genius’. Zod’s commando armour in particular is so alien, yet practical it adds a militaristic realism where could have as easily been a spandex nightmare.
Another interesting aspect of ‘New’ Krypton is it’s mirroring of Greek philosophical granddaddy Socrates’ ideal philosopher state. Every person is harvested as a worker, soldier or leader much in the same way the ancient Greek philosopher imagined selective breeding in order to enact perfect societal harmony. The idea that Kal-El’s home planet mirrors an ancient ideal at the apex of it’s stagnation is interesting and plays on a sort of advanced democracy that our own ancients dreamed of, but failed to ever enact.
Clark reading Plato’s Symposium later in the film confirms that this reference isn’t accidental and clearly scripter David S. Goyer used the Socratic ideals as a template for his version of Krypton.
5. The Score
While John Williams 1978 original score was a more upbeat ode to the can do eras of America that went before it, it also epitomized the optimism and upbeat nature of Superman, and what he as an icon brought to the table as a comic book effigy of all American values. Hans Zimmers score is understated to meet the tone of the film, which is less about Superman as an icon, and more about Clark/Kal-EL as a young man struggling with his personal identity.
The score thus lacks any sort of iconography coming over instead as somber and at times bland. There is no real ‘oomph’ to Zimmer’s score, that seems subdued even during some of MOS’ more epic moments, where some ripping orchestral’s might have helped to raise the bar. This was a decision to specifically distance Snyder’s Superman from other incarnations. It worked, but not entirely to it’s benefit.
4. The Plot
‘The Moses Basket’ fable of an infant Kal-El shot to earth in a space pod in the last throes of a dying world, only to be raised by humble Kansas farmers remains mostly intact, but for some interesting changes made by David S. Goyer. Clark/Kal is no longer simply an infant being shot out of harms way, but a genetic template for the future of Krypton. This serves as excellent reason for extremist/idealist General Zod to come gunning for Krypton’s lost son, and the fallout of Jor-El’s choice to send Kal/Clark to earth becomes increasingly more interesting and evident as the film unfolds.
Sending your child somewhere that the natives couldn’t kill him and any potential pursuers could terraform is dual-ly smart as a plot device. It also makes sense that an alien hiding among a native species and in search of his own origins would be an exceptionally well hidden target. This Superman isn’t at all integrated, and unlike the (pre-New 52) version we know from comics, TV and the previous films, has spent more time searching for who he is than a reconciled Kryptonian working on pretending to be human.
This makes for a more dangerous Kal-El. A less established, human friendly character who’s more of an urban myth than a hero. An alien with unknown allegiances and a heritage that threatens to doom his adoptive planet. This makes him as big a liability as a potential savior. And that’s interesting.
3. The Tone
MOS’ tone is somber, and at times melancholy which is enhanced by Amir Mokri’s pale and grounded Cinematography. For a more optimistic and characteristically colourful character like Superman this decision brings a darkness that at times is damaging as the sort of weight normally attached to a Batman film similarly becomes Clark Kent’s burden.
It’s traditionally been the case that Clark/Kal suffered through the trials of learning to live with his powers and heritage with the help of his humble human parents. Adding a sadness and uncertainty to the character strips Clark/Kal of the uniqueness that makes Superman Super, and instead replaces it with the angst of his darker company Icon; Batman.
Snyder Superman lacks the color, inspiration and upbeats of previous incarnations. He’s too human and too grounded and at times its hard to root for him with such a grey cloud of emasculated uncertainty hanging over him. Christopher Nolan’s excitement at writer Goyer’s hyper-real take on Superman might have been sightly premature.
2. The Scale
The most notable element of MOS is the massive scale of the story. Not only does it span worlds, galaxies, time periods and across our small blue globe, but thematically it brings something larger to the table than any previous Superman incarnations. Big questions like: free will – what it means to be human – the choices that define us – the morality of abstinence and science vs faith fall under cinematic scrutiny, albeit at times they are only fleeting snapshots of the much bigger questions.
And while the focus is mostly on Clark/Kal as he works towards uncovering his heritage and destiny, the use of his adoptive world and supporting cast as defining proponents of his journey, with as much at stake as Clark/Kal himself adds a layer of relatability that Christopher Nolan, a well felt influence in this films execution, utilised so well with characters like Jim Gordon, Alfred and Rachel Dawes in his Dark Knight Trilogy.
The Super-Battles are notably the best we’ve seen so far, with the physics of actual super powered humans beating the sh*t out of one another hammered home viscerally with the maximum property damage yield.
1. The Pacing
MOS’ opening sets up a delivery that we wont get a taste of for at least the next 60 minutes.
The film plods along past the first 20 minutes and for the first half seems mournfully cumbersome, to the point where not only doesn’t it invest us in the main character, but gets slightly muddled between Clark/Kal’s story and Lois’ investigation, which gives it an almost clinical documentary type feel, told through flashbacks and time jumps that do nothing to endear us to the characters beyond making us aware of their plight.
The time/location jumps kill the audience focus and at times it’s hard to stay interested in Clark/Kal’s soulful wanderings and the coincidental legwork of his love interest Lois, who seems shoehorned in a bit late in the game, with their much lauded romance seeming a combination of rushed and unlikely.
The sort of three tier plot that vintage Star Wars was famous for falls short due to a severe lack of character and a pace that takes a very long time to make its point. The first time we actually feel invested in Clark/Kal as a character is when his mother (Dianne Lane) is in peril in the latter half of the film. Up until that point he has successfully avoided making us care and by the time we do it may be too late.