The veteran Labour politician and Superman aficionado Tony Benn once observed that every generation has to fight the same battles. Thanks to Hollywood, they must watch them too. Can it really be 33 years, Superman’s age in Man of Steel incidentally, since Christopher Reeve’s son of Krypton got purchase on the extremities of Terrance Stamp’s Zod and hurled him into a giant piece of in-movie advertising? Well now the time has come for those characters to joust once more, except the shot length required for a similar spot of product placement is anathema to this film’s mayhem orchestrator-in-chief, Zack Snyder. Companies allegedly paid $160m to associate themselves with DC’s iconic hero but they’d have been better off paying half that and giving the rest to the editor.
If every generation deserves a Superman of their own then it’s worth asking what Man of Steel tells us about how Warner Bros. sees the kids of today. All comparisons will lie with Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman; a film that was in turn fantastical, corny, romantic and grandiose. As exemplified by John Williams’ majestic accompaniment, it gave ‘70’s tadpoles a view of the character that was wholesome, optimistic and magical. The film’s distinct movements gave the movie scale while the intimate character scenes provided heart. This, the filmmakers believed, is what those flare wearing, long haired miscreants wanted; pure escapism bound with sentiment and spectacle. What do the seen-it-all-before fanbois and gals of 2013 want? On this evidence, introspection, staring into the middle distance, violence and call backs to child friendly moments like Cambodia’s killing fields and September 11th.
That isn’t to say that Snyder, here trying hard to claw back some credibility following his masturbatory fantasy Sucker Punch, has sent a runt to Earth, but he’s made a curiously joyless picture. If filmmaking is indeed painting with light then Zack impastoes each frame, but a film marked by textured visuals and eye-opening composition is only half a movie. The rest is human and it’s here that Man of Steel opens its shirt and reveals a Batman logo signed by Christopher Nolan.
From Krypton to Smallville the tone is grounded throughout. This, Snyder knows, is a contrast with the light, often tongue-in-cheek approach beloved of Marvel, but what he can’t do is complete the thought and add dimension to his characters, perhaps because for this director po-faced equals faceted. You wouldn’t have heard Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane say, “if we’re done measuring dicks, can you tell me what you’ve found?” yet somehow we understood she was tenacious and no nonsense. In a bid to externalise the same characteristics, Amy Adams, like her cast mates, plays it straight – straight as in flat.
In the first half, where a cannily employed series of visually-associated flashbacks neatly truncates Clark Kent’s formative years, giving us an economic and sometimes surprising précis of Superman’s burgeoning identity crisis, the sombre approach works well. Growing up is difficult enough for those of us lacking puberty blot-ons like x-ray vision, heat-eye and strength spurts. But once the boy with tantalising flashes of anger and moral uncertainty becomes the duller, less conflicted bestubbled beefcake of Henry Cavill and the planet’s invaded, a change in register becomes desirable. It might have energised the characters and allowed the film to cut loose. Instead it gets louder and more frenetic while the human contingent remains inert. We’re dazzled while unmoved.
If getting the characters in and taxing our sympathies isn’t Snyder’s special power, he can be said to have been ambitious on other fronts. This is a Superman Universe that looks back to the world of the character’s birth; those heady days of 1938 where racial purity, eugenics and military conquest were discussed as LOL Cats are today.
David S. Goyer’s script is no crayola scribble; he’s cleverly inverted Superman’s Nietzschean connotations by making him the only naturally born son of a socially engineered race. This is typical of a movie that’s got one half of a good brain. How clever to make Superman an aberration to proto-fascists like General Zod, you say, but when you realise Jor-El’s motive for a natural conception is to allow his son to live the life of freedom and self-determination denied to his pre-programmed, role-assigned peers, you wonder why his first move, upon making spectral contact with Kal-El, is to tell him he was sent to Earth to fulfil a pre-ordained purpose.
Destiny sounds like a lot like a slapping a life path on a foetus to me; more so when it becomes clear that the fledgling superhero doesn’t have a choice. ‘Forget whatever your Earth bound step-father told you about choosing your own path and deciding whether you’re good or evil,’ Jor-El seems to say, ‘just get out there and start setting an example to humanity’. What a different movie it would have been had Superman told his Father he’d rather help Zod exterminate the human race, starting with the bullies and barflies that gave him so much shit in the first half, but instead he dutifully puts on the suit and flies into action. So much for free will. So much for a new take on Superman.
Henry Cavill’s got the requisite musculature for the part, he fills the suit, but what you miss is Christopher Reeve’s warmth and charm. Snyder’s neatly covered his lead’s limited range by deploying his physique instead of his personality while replacing him with a computer generated avatar in the daisy chain of highly kinetic, digitally rendered action sequences that consume the movie’s last hour. Preceding the melee Cavill might have fewer than 15 lines. Too much talk, Snyder knows, could be more deadly to his leading man’s prospects than a hunk of Kyptonite and with a $225m budget at stake he’s not taking any chances.
Said fortune buys you a handsome Super-flick that despite a running time of nearly two and half hours, is in a hurry to hit all its marks, rolling one act into the next without pause or apology. There are some neat touches; Perry White’s now black, the chrome graphics of Krypton’s answer to PowerPoint illustrate Superman’s baby-craft with a shape similar to the design used in the 1978 movie, Michael Shannon’s Zod is the hero in his own mind, ultimately enslaved to his own enslaving philosophy and Lois Lane’s closing line manages to neatly encapsulate the whole movie, but once a city’s been turned to ash and both corneas have been shredded, you’re conscious something was missing: that all important emotional connection to the eponymous hero and his hack lay that we once foolishly took for granted.