As one of the many that grew up on the original Richard Donner Superman film of the late 70s, this is the first time I’ve seen Superman’s origin story told on the big screen. While my adoration of the Man of Steel may have died down over the years, Zach Snyder’s re-envisioning of one of the most iconic heroes of our time has the strength of Superman, but lacks the heart and soul that makes the archetypal story so endearing.
If you don’t know the Superman myth by now, that’s one heavy rock you’re hiding under. The story has been updated though with an alien invasion plot that actually makes Man of Steel feel more like a science-fiction film than a pure comic book movie
If you happen to like the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Man of Steel should hit that sweet spot over and over – it’s cold and unemotional but packed with all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect from the newest crop of superhero flicks.
The Bottom Line
Is a hero defined by the size of his muscles or the strength of his character? Superman may be the most powerful hero ever written, but in his core, what makes him strong his not his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound; power in excess of a locomotive; or even speed that puts a fired bullet to shame, but rather his incorruptible value system. This value system was central to the Donner film – yes he made you believe that a man could fly and fire beams from his eyes but where those effects were simply a technical marvel at the time, the heart of the film was the unwavering strength of its hero’s resolve…and I’ll be honest here, the late Christopher Reeve had a smile that could win anyone over.
Man of Steel, with all it’s grand special effects, cannot make up for good storytelling and characters, and unfortunately the weakest elements of the Man of Steel are sadly what typically define good cinema. When Brandon Routh took up the mantle of Superman from Reeves (we won’t even talk about Dean Cain here), he appeared more as an homage to the Reeves character than a true successor, regardless of failure of Superman Returns, those shiny red boots were no small feat for Henry Cavil to fill. Cavill has the looks for Superman, chiseled jawline, dark flowing locks and steely blue eyes come with the territory, and while he fulfilled the checklist of physical features that the hero required, it’s hard to deny that Cavill just isn’t a particularly skilled character actor – yes he can hold his own against a green screen but with a script that featured no more than two paragraphs for our boy in blue and red, he just doesn’t embody the heart of the character and neither Superman or Clark Kent get the performance that they deserve.
It’s unfortunate that Superman himself is the weakest element of his own reboot, but the film is not without merit to lore that is Superman. Zack Snyder has had remarkably rough career filled with hit and miss productions that typically appeal to the male demographic, but it’s clear that he’s invested a good deal in Man of Steel, attempting to bring substance to a thin plot that is otherwise overpowered by its larger than life characters. Snyder’s reboot gives us more of look at Krypton, the society, and it’s imminent demise, outlining a civilisation that is very similar to our own – in fact I would argue too similar as logically Kryptonians wouldn’t speak English or even have the accents as defined by Earths culture. We also learn more about General Zod – the militant interloper of Krypton whose sole mission is to preserve his people – a task that he’s prevented from doing because of his genocidal tendencies. Michael Shannon helms the role of Zod and while I found his performance to be powerful and honest, it never really resonated with me entirely, that said, he’s clearly the most interesting character in the film and his views on good and evil add a mature existential quality to the character.
Zack Snyder of course, with all his vision, is probably one of the kookiest directors working in Hollywood today. From a technical point of view, Man of Steel is just balls – the first act suffers from debilitating pacing issues as Snyder tries to infuse exposition into to the plot through flashbacks and it’s a recurring technique that lessens as the film progresses. Fundamentally the film makes little sense as the director attempts to add logic to a story that is clearly based in fantasy and instead of relying on the time-tested lore, insists and adding plot elements to legitimise the fantasy in reality (lets think about how well that worked out for George Lucas when he tried to convince audiences that the Force were a bunch of microorganisms). A story like Superman requires not rationality, it’s goddamn freakin Superman, and he needs no explanation.
Man of Steel may not be my idea of a perfect Superman movie, but it is a reflection of the times that we’re in, and the film is a reflection of a genre that has evolved to become a gritty, realistic idea of fantasy rather than obeying the outlandish routes from which it stemmed. The Quest for Peace almost killed Superman like the proverbial Kryptonite that saps his power, and Returns was almost the final nail in the coffin after a absence of nearly two decades – Man of Steel does not have the spirit of either of those films, but it does have the strength to pull the archetype of all modern heroes from the grave of character that just couldn’t fit in.