For fans of comic books, the last few summers have been hugely exciting. Marvel, now property of Disney, has been putting out movies based on characters from their movie universe since 2008’s Iron Man, making piles of money on even their lesser-known characters like Thor. This culminated, of course, in last year’s release of Avengers, which broke countless records in the Box Office, and was a pretty great action movie to boot. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, have been looking on in what must have been horror, as they saw their Dark Knight franchise draw to a close, as successful a close as it may be; and their numerous attempts to put a Justice League movie, based on the wealth of DC Comics characters under their ownership, all ended in development hell.
If the hype is to be believed, however, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel will be a new start for the other half of comics’ big two. Considering it is being produced by Christopher Nolan, there were predictable changes made – characters added, changed, plot points altered, storylines condensed. All of this is understandable, and one gets the clear feeling that we are witnessing the beginning of a strong new movie franchise. Superman in this movie is angrier, edgier, and while the film overall is certainly not flawless, it is a fine start.
While it is standard for new superhero franchises to begin with an origin story, Man of Steel specifically follows the example set by Batman Begins. Both avoid a linear storyline, allowing them to avoid the obligatory boring first hour where the principal players are set up. Instead, they are able to tell the required parts of the back-story as they become relevant, in flashbacks. Similarly, the film is as much a setup as anything, the audience finally seeing the character as an established hero at the end. It is an effective technique, to be sure, and it certainly leaves one looking forward to the inevitably upcoming sequel. It does, of course, leave the film open to the obvious danger of the end goal being, in a way, the status quo.
Luckily, great care is taken with this film to ensure it is anything but boring – to the point that the excitement almost becomes dull by over-saturation. The action is intense and fast-paced, and for fans of action cinema, initially glee-inducing. This is not, as promised, your father’s Superman, and Henry Cavill is no overgrown boy scout. Unfortunately, as much as the redefinition is a welcome one, the lack of earnestness on part of the character which has always been characterised by his care for humanity leaves one with a cynical aftertaste. The one promise the film fails to deliver on is Superman saving us. Sure, he wins, as we knew he would, but despite the numerous Christ imagery, one never gets the feeling the Man of Steel does any of it for us. There’s an adversary to be bested, which is accomplished. It is as if caring was deemed “too lame” for modern audiences. Consequently, he ploughs his similarly invulnerable opponents through countless buildings, seemingly giving no thought to what no doubt must be thousands of innocents within. It is true his enemies must be defeated at any cost, and even if Metropolis is destroyed completely in the process, a military strategist would deem it an acceptable loss when weighed against saving the entire planet. Clark Kent, however, is not in the military, he was raised by farmers in the heartland of Kansas. To Superman, even a few people dying is NOT an acceptable loss, inevitable though it may be, and he must make every effort at every turn to prevent it. That’s what makes him a great, and ultimately, vulnerable character – without that vulnerability, the character would be the epitome of boredom.
The change makes sense, of course, from a marketing perspective. The film does end on a note of Superman setting himself up as the resident protector of mankind, and the hope is, I think, that now that the franchise is set up, the character will be allowed to return to his actual roots. Here, too, there is a comparison to be made with producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – while in the first instalment, Batman is perfectly happy to simply allow his enemy a fall to his death, an analogous confrontation with the Joker in the second film ends in the stalemate that defines the character – he is unwilling to kill, or through inaction, allow the death of a human being. The cultural cache and the box office assured by the first film of the franchises allows for greater complexity in the follow-up.
The cast of the film certainly warrants mention. Here the supporting actors are actually better known than Henry Cavill himself, who not only looks the part, but projects the character’s strength with ease. Lois Lane is probably the best-known non-powered character in the Superman mythos, and Amy Adams’ version of the intrepid reporter is almost certainly the finest seen on film so far. She projects confidence and intelligence; gone are the days of Ms. Lane, an investigative journalist, not realizing that her subject, the man she is in love with, and colleague are the same person. I, for one, couldn’t be happier, I always thought that glasses obscuring a superheroes identity were by far the least believable element of the entire story, flying and heat-vision included. In the rest of the cast, we have Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s birth father, defending his son in both living and holographic form fiercely. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, on the other hand, teach the child in the ways of being human, the adoptive father controversially instructing his son to keep his powers hidden, for fear of prosecution. This is an interesting dynamic, but one can barely help but miss the old Pa Kent, who taught the young Clark to help others at all costs. Of course, every hero is only as interesting as his villain, and Michael Shannon’s General Zod is the embodiment of menace. While there is no particularly great complexity to the character, he is a worthy adversary, to be sure, due to the absolute conviction of the performance, his stern expression the absolute picture of grim, terrible determination.
Ultimately, therefore, purely as setup, Man of Steel is a fine film. In visual terms, it defines for what may be the next decade the way that DC universe’s superheroes fight – they are out for blood, move at terrifying speed, and their fights are akin only to natural disasters in terms of destruction. Whereas Richard Donner famously made us believe some thirty-five years ago that a man could fly, Zack Snyder showed us that a man could punch another guy through a skyscraper in the blink of an eye. And for fans of superheroes, that’s cool. We want to see that. But we also want to see our heroes care about things, have desires, suffer from their failures… So here’s hoping. In the meantime, as one of the last lines in the film goes, “welcome to the planet”, Superman!