Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
2013/ USA, Canada & UK
Director: Zack Snyder
Right it may be time to strap yourselves in folks, maybe stick the kettle on, this is going to be a long one.
The speculation and wonder around this film has been brewing for several years now. Ever since “those guys who made Batman cool again” sat down and chatted about an idea to try and re-introduce and modernise the world’s greatest super hero character. Christopher Nolan fresh from the jaw dropping ‘The Dark Knight’ was at first courted as a director but stepped aside and decided to take the producer role. Batman’s famous new scribe David S. Goyer (who incidentally had the first brainwave for this new Superman flick) was down to write the story as he did so well for The Caped Crusader. The weight of expectation on Man of Steel then firmly rose with the association of these two names.
The next name that came into play then set to baffle film audiences the world over. Zack Snyder was later confirmed to direct the film and his inclusion is actually rather an odd one. It’s safe to say Snyder really hadn’t had a massive hit film to his name prior to Man of Steel. Yes 2006’s geek out swords and sandals epic ‘300’ became notorious for being nice and gory. But other films like 2009’s complicated comic-to-screen adaptation ‘Watchmen’ and 2011’s ‘Sucker Punch’ missed the mark and can be accused of being slightly more style over substance. Ironically ‘Watchmen’ is very much an anti- hero movie so to see the director of that film being given the reins of Superman was at the time quite odd.
At this point it may be pertinent to remind ourselves of the film’s plot. Man of Steel plays out initially like an old classic. Like ‘The Nativity’ or other famous bible stories we all know how Superman’s origins play out, we know all the characters and so Snyder had to go into this film to try and re-work this old story.
For those who aren’t as brushed up on Superman here’s the brief: Superman begins life as Kal- El the first born son of scientist Jor- El and his wife Lara on the alien world Krypton. When Jor- El realises the planet Krypton is dying he devises a plan to send his son to Planet Earth. One, to seek refuge from the dying world and two, to escape from the clutches of Krypton’s military leader General Zod. Little Baby Kal- El then lands on Earth leaving his home world and dead family behind and is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent of Kansas, USA. They rename him Clark and raise him as a human being. It is obvious though that Clark is no ordinary child and as he grows up Clark begins to master his super human strength, x-ray and lazer vision and ability to fly to become Earth’s greatest protector.
Well that’s the basic framework, Man of Steel goes further to add intricacy and embellish upon the original origin of the character but that really is pretty much it. In Man of Steel Clark is pursued by General Zod who is seeking to re-build Krypton on Earth using Clark’s DNA. Clark in the mean time has been in hiding, scared of what humanity will do when they find out his true identity. Zod’s arrival, with a whole host of other evil Kryptonians sparks Clark into action and forces him to seek the truth about his home world and become the hero we all know him to be. The over arching plot thread of Man of Steel is ‘facing up to your inner demons for the greater good’ and tries to look straight at the true meaning of super hero existence.
It has to be said that visually Snyder has done a fantastic job here. Great work has been done to try and make Man of Steel stand out from its contemporaries. It isn’t too polished and at times scenes feel almost like they’ve been filmed hand held. We feel we are getting a window into the truth amidst some very surreal sci-fi action. The opening scenes on Krypton are fantastic and are sure to ping on an IMAX screen. It looks nothing like Nolan’s Batman trilogy though and stands apart as an individual piece of work. My only problem with the visuals, and the audio at that, is that Snyder seems to enjoy blowing shit up. It might be that I’m getting older and I’ve seen New York get blown up in films a thousand times but there is something rather dull about devastating cities against the back drop of a super- hero showdown. There are actually few precious moments in the film when things aren’t exploding, toppling and disintegrating. The first or second time you say “oooooo” but when you’ve seen Superman burst from a fiery inferno for the sixth or seventh time the effect begins to wear off. The soundtrack as well is like someone force feeding you an emotion sandwich “oh no Superman might die now” chords kick in frequently, but we know he won’t he’s fucking Superman thanks Hans Zimmer.
There are also pacing issues in the plot. A lot of work is done early on to establish Krypton and the mythology behind Superman. We need this for us to have any real plot and it also keeps the super-geeks at bay. Why then does Snyder decide to flash through Clark Kent‘s childhood the minute we arrive on Earth? The second the space ship hits the ground we jump forward 33 years to see Clark in all his muscly bearded glory. We do get snippets of Clark’s origins as flash backs but it feels like Snyder presumed we ALL knew the story when in fact the vast majority of people will come away not really knowing why Clark Kent decided to be a fisherman at the start of the movie. It actually feels like they took chunks of these early pieces out to save running time for blowing buildings up over and over and over again.
There are some acting performances in the film which help carry the disjointed narrative. It always annoys me that people say every time a new actor is cast in the role of Superman that “he was picked merely because he looks like Christopher Reeve“. This my good people is utter crap. Reeve was picked because he had muscles and looked like Superman. All the people who have played the character since were picked because they look like Superman. Strong jaw, black hair, muscles… you get the picture. Henry Cavill was picked because he looks like fucking Superman… not Christopher Reeve… GOT IT!? Overall Cavill is quite good but then again Superman isn’t hard to play. He’s THE good guy. He isn’t a conflicted hero like Batman or Wolverine or even Iron Man. He likes helping people and wearing spandex and Cavill does that well so he’s nailed it.
Russell Crowe is also good as Jor- El Superman’s real Dad and has his best attempt yet at becoming the Marlon Brando of his generation. Very Shakesperian throughout and he gets to say things like “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?” which sounds cool in the trailer and alright in the actual scene it’s in.
The real show stopper is Michael Shannon as General Zod. He is a character based around real conflictions. Blessed with all the same powers as Superman but tasked with saving the Kryptonian race at any cost. He never seems comfortable at having to begin the genocide of the human race to advance his own. He doesn’t enjoy being evil, it is his sole purpose in life to have to kill in order to protect and Shannon plays him to all new levels of crazy and makes us all forget Terrence Stamp and his famous knees.
This is where Snyder’s Superman is let down though. Zod’s motives makes him compelling. They tried to make Superman too much like Christian Bale’s Batman. Clark Kent is scared of exposing himself as an alien but he really has nothing to worry about. After all he’s invincible the worst thing that could happen is that people won’t like him… and if they don’t he can just blow up a sky scraper and drop it on them… and at no point did I feel sorry for Superman the way I did when Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot dead in front of him. Also… there’s a hurricane… in Kansas… yes they referenced ‘The Wizard of Oz’…
Kevin Costner is also quite good in the three minutes of screen time he gets.
Sadly there are two acting performances/ characters that really do grate. Amy Adams is a good actress but she doesn’t play Lois Lane well at all. It may be down to poor writing on Goyer’s part and I think that is really the case here. She says “dick” early on so that we know she’s ballsy but she spends most of the film falling from or into the various Snyder explosions only to be saved every time by Superman. She has no reason to suit up and join in when the US Air Force fly to bomb General Zod’s command ship because she’s a journalist not a soldier. Her involvement in the plot feels forced at times.
Antje Traue’s Faora- Ul (the token evil girl character) detracts from General Zod. Where Zod is troubled by destruction she seems to get a kick out of well… kicking people and punching them… and blowing them up. It’s all done so that we can whoop with joy when she get’s her comeuppance. Also where did she find the time to shape her eyebrows whilst planning the destruction of a planet? Awful character, terrible delivery.
Superman is always going to do well at the box office lets make that clear. But honestly I came away from Man of Steel thinking it was really just like a well shot and better cast version of Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” with lots of fighting in. That film was excessively cheesy and Man of Steel didn’t divert from that. Overall it comes down to Nolan and Goyer in the end. They tried to emulate a certain ideal against a character that doesn’t embody the same things that Batman does. Superman knows what he needs to do and he does it, he doesn’t run away from his problems he flies head first into them. They tried to cover this up by bringing in Snyder hoping that he’d shoot the film so well that we wouldn’t notice that actually it’s a re-hashing thematically of ‘Batman Begins’. All of the same things happen in both films. The main characters are both lost souls who must face up to who they really are and becomes heroes. The villains of both films are based in the origins of the main characters. There is a love interest who becomes inexplicably involved in the plot. I could go on but watch ‘Batman Begins’ and then Man of Steel and you’ll see the comparisons start to flow.
Yes it looks shiny and it will make lots of money for the big people at Warner Brothers but actually is signals doom for the planned ‘Justice League’ movie. The problem with Man of Steel is that it tries to ground an alien that can fly and shoot fire from his eyes in reality just a bit too much. We don’t want to know why Superman IS we want to see Superman DO in all his righteous splendour. Which makes me think it’s a shame that J.J Abrams never got to make his planned ‘Superman: Fly-by’… in fact I’m disappointed Tim Burton never got to make ‘Superman Lives’ with Nicholas Cage I think even that would have been better. Sandra Bullock would have made a superior Lois Lane put it that way.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?… No it’s actually just an OK movie that a lot of people will shout about at first then revisit and realise that under all the CGI fire there isn’t much there to justify this particular slant on the character continuing. I admit there was a good movie somewhere in there but Zack Snyder just couldn’t tease it out.