Warner relaunches its DC Cinematic Universe with its most famous of characters, but is it still Superman?
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to prove that superhero box office is alive and well, Warner has struggled to advance its own properties to the big screen. Despite the successes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and television’s Arrow, the disappointments of Green Lantern and Superman Returns have seen the studio turn to a Zack Snyder to rebirth their own cinematic universe. With visually faithful adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore seminal Watchmen already under his belt, Snyder takes an even bigger risk by attempting to bring arguably the first great American superhero to life for the second time this century.
While Man of Steel is undoubtedly influenced by Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright, Geoff Johns’s Superman: Secret Origin and certainly elements of Superman: Earth One, David S. Goyer’s screenplay is mostly its own beast. It does, however, re-imagine much of Richard Donner’s framework from Superman and Superman II, especially in terms of the villains. As the politically turbulent planet Krypton begins to destroy itself, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) launch their newborn son Kal-El in a rocket bound for Earth. Fusing him with the ancient Kryptonian codex, he grows up in Kansas with foster parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), absorbing the Earth’s solar radiation and developing amazing abilities. After a lifetime of hiding his powers, the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is almost exposed by intrepid Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams). However, when Jor-El’s enemy General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth, Clark must step into the light and become the hero he was always destined to be.
Superman is one of the hardest characters to write in any format, and not simply because there is seventy-five years worth of material already out there. Like Disney’s Mickey Mouse, he works best in his purest form, as a genuinely nice guy who has taken on the mantle of Earth’s protector. Superman Returns, while excellently capturing the fine line between saviour and god, demonstrated that Superman’s strength is also his biggest drawcard. Without the ability to punch something, we are left with an overgrown boyscout. To Goyer’s credit, he attempts to layer the almost universally familiar origin story with the struggles of the outsider trying to fit in, using the same chronological shifts he mastered in Batman Begins. It’s just unfortunate that this time out those shifts only ever serve to make the film feel disjointed, shifting tone from one genre to the next, almost as if the filmmakers forgot to fill in the gaps between scenes. It is unsurprising given that Snyder’s last outing was Sucker Punch, a film that made no apologies for cherry-picking “cool stuff” the director liked and throwing it all into the cinematic sink.
Like that previous Snyder film, action is a strong point for Man of Steel. From the opening scenes, we see Krypton like we have never seen it before, a world at war with itself, bristling with technological wonders that range from pin art to The Matrix babies. It delivers a jolt of action to get the audience ready for what is ultimately the mass destruction of several locations on Earth, and Snyder demonstrates that he is accomplished at bringing these wild visions to life. His skills do not extend to bringing those sequences into a cohesive structure. Comparing this with last year’s The Avengers, for example, director Joss Whedon’s explosions were the payoff for all the threads he had been weaving. Here, the action sequences stumble in, tripping over the tangle of plot threads that may or may not have been leading somewhere. Rather than a full stop, they are repeated exclamation marks, relentlessly pummelling their way out to the audience in glorious 3D.
It’s a shame, because some of the ideas and moments are classic Superman. Clark, upon learning of the heartbreaking duality that comes with not being native born to Earth, has a touching scene with Pa Kent. However, this is almost undermined by several poor decisions and actions the elder Kent takes later in the film. A similar moment of reflection between Martha and her adopted son is abruptly and clumsily cut short for an explosion or two. Baby daddy Jor-El comes off as a virtual saint as a result. What really jars is Clark’s decision to don the suit as one of narrative necessity, rather than a conscious decision to become ‘Superman’. As such, it is the villains that become the strongest characters, with their motivations clear from the start. Shannon, fresh from bringing the crazy on television’s Boardwalk Empire, takes it up a notch with his maniacal decision to rule the Earth, even if the rapid development of his powers contradicts what we know about how Kal-El gained his. In return, Cavill mostly responds with heroic stances and petulant cries of anguish. He makes a convincing Superman/Kal-El, but he is less comfortable as Clark Kent.
In an attempt to modernise Superman, Goyer and Snyder have exchanged the optimism of Grant Morrison’s definitive All-Star Superman for something closer to producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s an impressive visual feast, and some of the more common comic books are no more or less ambitious than this film. Yet it’s also lacking in joy, save for a few moments, and one has to wonder if this is truly a Superman film at all. Indeed, save for a handful of mentions of the ‘S’ word, Man of Steel goes out of its way to remind us that this is not your daddy’s Superman. Coupled with a final decision that Kal-El makes that is horribly out of step with the ideal of the hero, it is a film that might succeed as an action spectacle, but less so as a spiritual adaptation. Yet this is just the beginning, the first in what will undoubtedly be several chapters with this Superman. Kal-El tells Lois that it is not an ‘S’ on his chest, but a symbol for hope. It’s hope that we are left with, a hope that despite the stumbles and falls, in time the series will join the best Superman tales in the sun.