Superman is back on the big screen and we must ask the question that Superman Returns failed to answer in 2005: does the world need Superman?
Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) Man of Steel opens with a gorgeous sequence on Superman’s home planet Krypton where the screenplay tries its best to update the origin story of Superman. And while there are still some bumps and holes it is a much more satisfying rendition of why Krypton was doomed than the story we got in the Donner movie.
The screenplay even addresses a plot point which always made me wonder: if Krypton is so advanced why do they only have one planet and no outposts?
A good deal is spent setting up the conflict between Superman’s father Jor-El (Speed Racer Award for Best Comedy Actor Winner Russel Crowe) and the military leader Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod is angry at the Kryptonian Council because Councils in movies are always terribly boring. I found it a bit sad that the movie had to attach a sort of Nazi-race ideal to Zod to make it clear that he is the villain. Maybe the makers were worried that we would sympathize too much with Zod and wanted to yell as early as possible “Remember, he is space Hitler”. Which is a bit sad as it would make Zod even more interesting but Shannon still gets a lot out of the character.
The origin story
After a very very long Kryptonian sequence we finally get to meet Kal-El/Clark Ken/Superman (Henry Cavill). He is going through the world to find his purpose every once in a while he stops to get a flashback. As Batman Begins proved a flashback structure can be more interesting for people who are already familiar with the story. I just wish that there would have been more connection between the flashbacks as they are not all in chronological order and sometimes have precious little connection other than the fact that they all deal with Clark not fitting in.
The movie would love to be the Batman Begins story of Superman but the problem is that the flashbacks are triggered by some random events like a schoolbus going past Clark instead of story elements that throw up a question which gets answered in the flashback – “Tell us Mr. Wayne… what do you fear?”
A notable mention is the way the movie deals with Jonathan Kent. There is an overly constructed scene where it is pretty clear what the story point and the symbolic value are meant to be but there is little to none emotional connection.
The movie’s Kryptonite
Man of Steel wants to do big things. And in some way it really succeeds. But there are some troubles that the movie doesn’t really overcome and it is hard not to get frustrated with the “could have beens”. The entire movie works on a basic storylevel and in my mind is much more consistent than the disjointed wreck that was Iron Man 3 but there are just moments in the movie when the ball is completely dropped and the question is who was responsible for that.
While the story is perfectly servable a few more rewrites by a skilled author (say Jonathan Nolan) might have done wonders and really catapulted Man of Steel up there with the Batman reboot.
The problem is that screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Blade Trinity) and Zack Snyder are fans of the material who – when reigned in – can deliver some really nice twists to a mythology we all know because they are so well versed in comic lore.
While Christopher Nolan was attached as producer I can’t help but wonder how much story input he actually had. Nolan is a director who doesn’t want to dictate other directors what to do so they don’t do the same to him (taken from a Five Live interview about 3D and The Dark Knight Rises) so I doubt that he had that much input aside from casting actors and general story structure. Nolan is mostly there for marketing purposes.
Yet compared to reboots like Amazing Spiderman the movie has a solid story and a villain with a motivation that isn’t just “mad lizard scientist”. The villain also has a plan that is more thought out than turning people into lizard monsters – but to be clear, it is not a super original plan.
But at least this movie has the balls for a very interesting decision at the end of the movie and with ballsy I don’t mean cop-outs like giving Superman a son.
I can’t make a list about the problems without noting the awkward shaky cam style and the random zooms within shots…
Continuing on the more positive side…
The first contact and scope
What makes Man of Steel really interesting is the way it uses Superman in a sort of first contact story. Contrary to most comic book movies it is actually a very big deal that in this story humans are not alone in the universe.
See Avengers and Green Lantern for examples where it is just a curiosity at best. Clark Kent revealing himself to Earth does not only change his life but the life of every human on this planet. In comparison a fullblown alien invasion happens in Marvel’s universe and the only thing that changes is that Robert Downey Jr. has convenient panic attacks.
And with the invasion comes colossal collateral damage. One thing that I felt was lacking in Avengers was the fact that the alien invasion pretty much only harmed a few roofs and a street in front of the train station. With the powers involved the entire event just seemed like another beatdown and not a world changing invasion. Same went for the Hulk – he could smash everything and a monster like him let loose would probably wreak more havoc to buildings than to the aliens. But instead the Hulk was reduced to running through office spaces and conveniently smashing desks and printers after people leapt out of the way.
That being said the third act in Man of Steel – while lacking in emotional attachment – was something truly breathtaking to watch. Zod’s doomsday device was not reduced to drilling a hole into one spot – like a true doomsday machine it flattened the center of Metropolis.
Same goes for the fights between Zod and Superman. They are truly fighting like gods among men
To say that I wasn’t disappointed with Man of Steel would be lying. There is so much potential that could have been used. And with a more polished script and a direction more focused on the emotion this movie could have been the Superman movie to end all Superman movies. Instead Man of Steel is only ok.
It is a bit disheartening seeing all the great actors lined up.
- Henry Cavill is a fantastic Superman and I want to see more of him
- Shannon is a believable Zod
- Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is hit and miss because there are moments when she is deliberately forced into a scene to then get rescued by Superman
- Russel Crowe gives a better performance than in Les Misérables
Overall Man of Steel is still a movie worth watching on the big screen. The final act is spectacularly entertaining and despite all its faults this comic book movie at least tries to do different things than the by-the-numbers blockbusters. While it often fails the movie excels when it really hits the mark – which makes the fact that the movie could have been so much more even tougher to bear.