I’m going to try and keep spoilers to a minimum in this review, in case you haven’t seen it yet. But be warned, I consider anything that happened in the Christopher Reeve films fair game for comment or comparison. Anyway, I don’t consider the origin stories of superheroes to be sacred texts. (In fact, I don’t believe in the concept of sacred texts full stop, but that’s another story.) So if filmmakers want to come along and switch things up I really don’t mind.
Enter “Man Of Steel”, Zak Snyder & Christopher Nolan’s take on the Superman mythos. As you’d expect, it’s got bags of visual style and while Snyder may be overly fond of reusing the same iconic visuals (there’s only so many times you can see Kal-El create a sonic boom as he flies and think it’s cool before you start going “meh”) he’s toned down his almost fetishistic use of slow motion and the result is probably his best looking film to date. The action set pieces raise the bar for superheroes in general and Superman in particular, and “Man Of Steel” brings the true scale of the power of Superman to the screen in all its glory. The Krypton scenes are a bit over the top and cluttered but there is at least a genuine attempt to portray a truly alien society, although Snyder makes the baffling decision to colour grade all the footage in golden Michael-Bay-esque tones, creating a slight cognitive dissonance with the famously red sun of Krypton. As an aside, the 3D adds nothing so isn’t worth the extra money on your ticket.
Henry Cavill makes for a handsome, sympathetic leading man and while he lacks the instant charm and authority of Christopher Reeve’s Kryptonian, he’s a leap of several tall buildings ahead of Brandon Routh’s earnest but bland turn in “Superman Returns”. Amy Adams is a perkily likeable Lois Lane while Russell Crowe impresses as wiser, warmer Jor-El than we are used to seeing. Michael Shannon’s Zod was a little too shouty and theatrical for my taste but there’s no doubting his mendacity and he’s less inadvertently comical once he arrives on Earth.
So overall, it’s a great summer blockbuster and a magnificent superhero action film. As a Superman film though? That’s where I start to have a few problems.
To paraphrase the past work of the writer of “Man Of Steel”, this isn’t the Superman we need right now, but it’s the Superman we deserve. This is a stoic, sombre Man Of Steel, with complex and guilt-ridden motivations and a downbeat attitude. This is a Kal-El/ Clark Kent who was raised to hide his abilities, was taught fear, suspicion and shame at being different. As a reflection of our society and the times in which we live now, it’s a sad indictment on our cultural mood that Superman has become so dark and brooding. Compare, if you will to the brash, breezy confidence of cinematic Superman from the late 70s and early 80s, and see how far we’ve fallen. It’s no coincidence this film plays with the iconography of the 9/11 attacks. This is a Superman for a world haunted by fear, bitterness, suspicion and envy. This is Superman as a heavy-handed Christian allegory, but its the hypocritical ‘Christian values’ of the selfish, fearful and judgemental American right that provides the discordant melody for this particular immigrant song.
I know it’s cool and edgy to be all dark and brooding these days but it fits some characters (cough-Batman-cough) much better than others. In the pantheon of all superheroes, Superman is the absolute pinnacle. Despite the sectarian squabbles of Marvel v DC, there is no doubt that he is the top of the pile. As such, he is an entirely hopeful, aspirational character, so trying to drag him into the shadows diminishes him in a way that fundamentally undermines the character. The death of Jonathan Kent has always been a pivotal moment in the Superman story – it’s the Supes equivalent of Uncle Ben in Spiderman but with the opposite message: that even with all his power, there are still some things that he will be powerless to prevent. It’s the ultimate moment of humility for this ‘God amongst men’ but in “Man Of Steel”, Jonathan Kent’s death is not only eminently avoidable; it’s risibly stupid and pointless.
I wish Warner Brothers and DC all the best in building their shared universe. I just hope they lighten up before we get two and a half hours of a bunch of angst-ridden heroes raging against the fragility of justice. After all, half the fun of “Avengers Assemble” was – you know – the fun. For all its flaws, though, “Man Of Steel” is still a great movie. It’s just that of all the superhero movies there could be, a Superman film should be a slam dunk as the one I can take my seven-year-old to see without any hesitation. “Man Of Steel” isn’t that movie and that makes me a little sad.