I finally found time to go see Man of Steel at the local cinema, and I fail to see why it is getting such a bad reaction. I’ll readily accept that it isn’t perfect, and that there are some big opportunities for improvement in the sequel. I can also readily see why many Superman fans would take issue with certain elements. Nonetheless, I’d consider this the best Superman film we’ve ever had (OK, so I haven’t seen the 1951 George Reeves feature Superman and the Mole Men, but I’m willing to bet it won’t blow me away).
But yes – I think Man of Steel was better than Superman: The Movie.
As much as I enjoy the 1978 film, and as wonderful as Christopher Reeve is as Clark, it does feel rather twee to me. The Nolan-Goyer-Snyder take on the franchise modernises it, and not in a crass, clever-clever way that misses the point of the original. When it comes down to it, I’m not that much of a Superman fan. He’s too simplistic, a straightforward goodie with very little limiting his power. There’s no challenge for Superman. There have been many effective recent updates of the Superman story in comics and on television, but in film, he still seems to lag behind, as exemplified by the well-made but old-fashioned Superman Returns of seven years ago. Finally, Man of Steel lets the character and his universe push past that on film, into something with more contemporary sensibilities.
Nolan and Goyer’s story makes the wise move of focussing on the development of Clark into Superman, striking a good balance between origin story and outright adventure. Tellingly, the name Superman is barely mentioned, only being uttered in the final act. Clark is not Superman for most of the movie, rather he is coming to terms with his alien nature and how best to use his powers. The origin part of the movie is broken up in an unusual way, with the opening act dealing with the demise of Krypton in detail. It’s probably a mistake to let this play on so long, for while it introduces the mythology effectively and develops both Jor-El and General Zod in enough depth to support their later reappearances, it holds off the meat of the movie. The Kryptonian sequences are breathtaking, presenting us with a far more physical, believable version of the planet than that of Superman: The Movie, in spite of the heavy use of CGI. The vast expanses of Krypton, with its mind-boggling architecture, ever-present hyper-technology and alien beasts of burden brings to mind the Asgard created for Marvel’s Thor, only with a toe kept in the real world. (I want to see these guys take on Gallifrey.) However, we need to get on the way to Earth sooner. We want to see Clark.
Wisely, Clark’s childhood is not dwelt upon in too great detail, with only essential, life-changing moments captured. We see, in perhaps the most effective sequence of the film, a young Clark struggling to come to terms with his incredibly refined senses, constantly bombarded by audiovisual information and barely able to make sense of the world. It’s a defining character moment, illustrating the difficulties that Clark will have with living in this world, while also providing a critical plot point later in the film. Another highly effective scene is Clark’s rescue of his bully – and later friend – from drowning, moments after pushing an entire schoolbus full of kids to safety. Not simply because it’s an effective scene in itself – although it is – but because of the following scene in which Jonathan Kent berates him for revealing his abilities and risking discovery. The alternative – to simply let them die – would be unthinkable for Clark, even at this young age, and it’s a key character moment.
Both of the actors playing young Clark – Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry (what a name!) as his nine and thirteen-year-old selves respectively – are astonishingly good in their roles, and are well cast to match with the man himself, Henry Cavill. Cavill proves to be the perfect choice for Clark Kent, and it’s hard to believe that he missed out on the role to the admittedly talented Brandon Routh in 2006. Cavill combines the slight geekiness of Christopher Reeve with great physical stature, charm and sex appeal, but also humility and a sort of nagging uncomfortableness with himself. He totally convinces as a powerful man who has spent years hiding his abilities from humanity. We see Clark’s life, moving from place to place as he is forced, by his own inability to turn away from human suffering, to reveal his great strength and thus to leave and start his life anew. There’s a consistency to his abilities, too – this isn’t someone who moves from struggling to stop a speeding train to effortlessly shifting a planet out of orbit. Thankfully, there’s a weaker side to him as well, seen when, in one of his many crappy jobs in backwater America, he destroys the truck of a pissed-up bar patron. Most men, in that situation, with his strength, would have snapped the tosser’s arm off. Clark suppresses his anger, and settles for the truck – but he does at least do that. It’s this combination of compassion, childishness and anger that make him so human, something that Superman has all too frequently been missing as a character.
Also excellent in her role is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. At thirty-eight, Adams is old enough to convince as an experiences, respected journalist, and thank Jor-El that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to cast some young sexpot in the role. Not that Adams isn’t beautiful – she is, and she and Cavil lake one hell of a screen couple. This isn’t her sole purpose in the film, though, and aside from being a strong, realistically motivated female character - and heaven knows we need more of those – her investigations force the plot along. First she establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with when she pulls strings and gets herself to the site of an unearthed Kryptonian starship, an event which not only has her first meeting Clark but also kicks the entire plot of the movie from park to drive (see, I can speak American). It’s a pity that her character becomes weaker as attention is shifted back to Clark, and her presence in the later stages of the film is less impressive, through no fault of Adams. Gratifyingly though, the romance element is not overplayed. Lois and Clark’s first kiss is played as much as from sheer relief at being alive as well as the result of a developing attraction, and leaves plenty of room for development in future without overshadowing the rest of Clark’s development.
In fact, the entire cast is excellent, and that’s a rarity in itself. Laurence Fishburne gives us a perfectly straight, respectable version of Perry White who we can believe as a role model for Lois. Kevin Kostner returns to what he is good at, the wholesome embodiment of the American dream, while giving his Jonathan Kent a powerful but understated sadness. Diane Lane and Ayelet Zurer, as Clark’s two mothers, Martha and Lara, are poles apart in their performances but both provide strong, deeply emotional characterisations. Russell Crowe gives us a surprisingly physical Jor-El – as SFX said, can you imagine Brando nutting someone? His is a noble, understated performance, one that fits the backdrop of a disintegrating Krypton perfectly. Once he returns, as a holographic ghost, his performance lacks somewhat. I feel Crowe needs that physical element to sell his characters, and as an incorporeal entity he cannot use that. While the use of this ghost version keeps Jor-El a part of the story, he has outlived his welcome by the time the main events of the attack on Earth occur, and it’s hard to disagree when Zod states that he is “tired of [his] debates.”
So, then. General Zod. Michael Shannon is spectacular in the role. Zod, burdened with one of the sillier names in comics, is an old-fashioned character as well, and again, he is effectively realised for a modern audience. Although horrifically evil by anyone’s standards, he is a product of his own upbringing, created to be Krypton’s great commander. Although Zod comes out and says as much, it’s written through Shannon’s performance throughout. He does terrible things, and is fully aware of how terrible they are. There’s that flinch when Jor-El, once his friend, calls him a monster. He is a monster, and he knows it. But he has to be, in order to protect Krypton. When he attempts to usurp the Kryptonian council, it’s for the good of Krypton. When the turns on his friend, it’s for the good of Krypton. When he decrees that humanity must die for Krypton to live, we can understand why he makes this appalling decision and why he is so horrified that Clark will stand against him.
When the Kryptonian outcasts reach Earth and demand Clark be returned to them, the film kicks in to top gear and the sheer terror of an advanced alien presence becomes apparent. At the same time, we learn that Kryptonian technology has been spread throughout the universe and that there has been a presence on Earth for thousands of years, albeit just an abandoned ship. While this propels the film into somewhat more generic disaster-explosion-fighty style, it’s breathtaking stuff and the mission to stop Zod’s ‘world engine’ from terraforming (kryptoforming?) Earth is a strong one that holds things together. Where the film finally weakens is in its unnecessary final semi-act, where, having saved the Earth, Clark fights a vengeful Zod who is determined to wipe out humanity to spite him. This is a troublesome tendency of many superhero films these days, to give us a climax and then continue the fight beyond that, sapping our investment in the proceedings.
Of course, it’s this final battle against Zod and his Kryptonian hoards that has upset many Superman fans, and it’s easy to understand why. Although we see little actual death, the battle against the invaders levels vast areas of Smallville and Metropolis, causing vast levels of collateral damage. There are those who take exception at Clark’s part in this. For me, though, this exemplifies how Clark is not yet Superman, but is learning to become him. Humanity is right to fear these insanely powerful aliens, and even in trying to protect the Earth, Clark is risking its destruction. It takes time for him to convince the authorities that he is on their side, and rightly so. Clark is a threat. What we’re seeing is the process of him learning not to be. Also, to be brutally honest, this is a Superman who reflects modern America, rather than the sugar-coated traditionalist view of a perfect America. For many people around the world - including many Americans - the USA and collateral damage go hand-in-hand.
Beyond that, though, we get that final, shocking yet inevitable moment, when Clark kills Zod to stop him killing some innocent bystanders for reasons of pure hateful spite. There are many purists who will simply state that Superman does not kill, and more power to them. However, and I’m willing to accept massive disagreement from others on this, I feel this is a more realistic approach to the character. When faced with terrible, overwhelming threat, hard decisions have to be made. Clark is suitably anguished by his act of murder, but it’s hard to see how any other outcome was possible. With a human opponent, things may have been different, but with Zod, as powerful as he and unconfined by morality, Clark had no choice but to betray his beliefs and kill. This kind of monstrous decision, to go back on your instinct in order to do good on a greater scale, only increases his heroism for me.
Finally ending with Clark reporting to the Daily Planet for his new job (“Welcome to the Planet,” says Lois – very cute), we see the beginnings of the Superman we know. Only this time, he’s not hiding his powers under faux-clumsiness, but behind restraint. Lois isn’t in the dark to his true identity, but his confidante. We can see the character develop as DC’s world develops around him. And with that cheeky shot of a Lexcorp vehicle, I think we know who he’ll be facing next.