In the Summer of 2013, and after a 7- year hiatus since the release of Superman Returns (2006), a new Superman movie came to the fore. This time, the decision was made to revamp the character in a brand new way and, all previous reference to the Richard Donner tentpole Superman film would be forgotten, and no ill advised trips down Memory Lane, as Superman Returns (2006) had basically been, would be taken. From the creative department it was decided that their cues for this Superman cinematic reboot would be taken from the 1980 line of Superman comics heralded by John Byrne.
This would be especially noticeable in the redesign of Krypton, giving it a more organic and Earth-like feel to it and of course, in the costume, ships and weapons design.
But more importantly, a new actor had to be cast for the titular role. They decided to go with a relatively unknown actor in the big screen, but who’d made a name for himself on the Showtime TV show The Tudors (2007-2010), British actor Henry Cavill.
The man chosen to helm the production was none other than Zack Snyder, who’d been relatively successful with the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006) and especially Watchmen (2009), in what it’d turn out to be a very questionable decision, in my opinion. Even though Watchmen hadn’t been the Box Office success that was expected, it later on created a Cult following that would, somehow, lead Warner Bros to believe that Snyder would be the right man to sucessfully adapt a much beloved and universally known comic book character and bring him into the Modern Age.
Nothing further from the truth. His take on the character deviated so much from the way it had been portrayed on the big screen until then, that the end result wound up being quite jarring.
Personal views on the material
Given the wholesome nature of the character that had been presented to us over the years, his fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way, and his absolute, to a naive point, belief in the redeeming qualities of the Human race, it was quite shocking to see that Superman’s set of beliefs had changed to the point of mistrust and alienation. In his core, he was still being portrayed as being well meaning and fundamentally good, but also mistrustful and a tad resentful. This is highlighted in various instances throughout the movie; like his petty retribution on the bullying truck driver whose truck he smashes to pieces ( Superman would never do that), his talk with the priest where he debates whether to surrender himself to the Kryptonians and put his faith in the hands of Humanity or do nothing….All of this, plus his sense of not blending in, of being an outcast, gives out a very bleak outlook on the character.
But my biggest qualm with it all is that Zack Snyder turns him into a Supersonic, all powerful, weapon of Mass destruction. And even though this may work in some moments of the film, like when he rescues the workers from the burning Oil Rig, his first test flights, or his fight against the Arachnid-like World Engine; in other instances it works against it. I’m referring, of course, to the fight against the Kryptonians in Smallville, where they literally level out the entire town, or Superman’s final showdown with Zod, where they do the same in Metropolis. Rather than taking the fight to the outskirts of the city to minimise collateral damage, they have an all out Bar brawl in the city itself and, although we rarely see the direct consequences of such a massive punch up, there sure has to be a massive amount of Property and especially, Human loss, which Supes doesn’t even try to avoid. It comes to mind the scene when Zod throws Superman a Gasoline truck, and Supes, instead of trying to stop the truck to avoid further damage, just dodges it, resulting in it smashing against the building and causing a huge explosion. Compare that scene from the one from Superman II, where Ursa and Non throw a bus full of people to Superman, not before Superman pleads them not to do it and doing his darnest to stop it from crashing into a building afterwards.
So people always come up with the argument that Superman had only been Superman for one day, and that he did the best he could given the circumstances; but that is just a lame excuse to justify mass destruction and show off what the visual effects department could do. The thing about Superman breaking Zod’s neck to stop him from killing a family, is utterly unbelievable in the sense that he wouldn’t be able to physically do it, given that Zod’s superpowers are all intact and they’re both physically on a level playing field in that regard. Not the same thing that happened in Superman II, where Zod had already been deprived of his powers when Superman smashes his hand. Its not the same thing. It was just lazy writing and an easy way for the filmmakers to get out of the situation.
Now with the positives.
The good stuff
All that being, from a purely visual perspective, the film is a treat. Everything from the newly designed Krypton, with its flying and earthbound creatures, the buildings, the Sea creature-like Scouting spaceships, the Genesis chamber, the Black Zero and Phantom Zone portal, the bone-like design of the Kryptonian Space and Combat suits. All of these are top notch and elevate the movie to a whole new level. The color palette is too muted for my liking and even though I don’t have a major problem with the new suit, and it still doesn’t have the yellow S on the back of the Cape, is a major improvement over the suit design for Superman Returns(2006).
The first act of the movie is, by far, the most interesting. It’s the part of the movie where the creative department got the most out of. First off, we’re witness to the birth of Kal-El, which we later on learn, was the first natural birth on Krypton for Centuries. The idea of Krypton having a genetically engineered birth control system is a very interesting idea, and also the fact that the Kryptonians were once Intergalactic explorers and, that the abandonment of their colonization efforts and adherence to their old ways, leads to the harvesting and consequent depletion of their planet’s core and their ultimate destruction. The character of Zod (a brilliant Michael Shannon) is given a new spin.
His one dimensional way of thinking and non-stop endeavor to protect Krypton’s way of life, end up turning him into a power-crazed dictator, who will stop at nothing to protect Krypton’s legacy. Is a remarkable contrast to Jor-El (a solid Russell Crowe), the scientist and explorer, who sees his son as their only hope to protect their home world’s heritage, binding his son’s future to that of his adoptive home’s, by way of a coexistence between both cultures.
Therein lies the main conflict point, that will be further explored in the second, and especially, third acts of the film.
Unfortunately, due mostly to the way Snyder turns everything into an all-out, non-stop action movie, rather deflates all the previous and carefully laid out ground work, and what we mostly get is a CGI showcase with a lot of overblown and over the top action set pieces, with lots of shaky cam work and poor dialogue.
That’s another unfortunate weakness in this movie. Although the movie starts out with promise, even going back and forth in time; much in the same way Batman Begins did, and in spite of the all-round, solid performances from all the cast, Kevin Costner is surprisingly effective as Jonathan Kent; there’s only so much the actors can do with what they’re given. I’d say that the strongest dramatic moments from the movie come from the scenes shared between young and old Clark (Dylan Sprayberry as the young Clark) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). The moment when Clark watches Jonathan die is heartbreaking from a dramatic point of view, but then again, stupid story-wise. Being as fast as he is, Clark could have easily saved him without everybody else seeing. The same death scene for Jonathan is far more effective in Superman: The Movie (1978). Again, another lazy piece of writing that could have easily been corrected.
I’d say that, all in all, most of the movie’s problems stem from a hastily and poorly written script, that even the greatest actor in the world wouldn’t be able to save, and the direction of a filmmaker who clearly doesn’t understand the character and what it represents.
Henry Cavill and Amy Adams
It was always on the casting of the two main characters of the story that the success or failure of this movie was going to hinge.
Unfortunately, and despite their best efforts, the desired chemistry between the two actors is never achieved and thus, their supposed on-screen love seems contrived and forced. This is to no fault of both actors. They do the best they can with what they’re given. Lois Lane, once again, as a sign of the times, is portrayed as a tough, street-wise, hard as nails, news reporter who, through Amy Adam’s performance, comes off as smug and unlikable.
Cavill, on the other hand, is the perfect physical representation of Superman and does a pretty good job considering the circumstances.
So, how does this movie fare against the previous incarnation of the character?.
Battle of the Supermans
Of the last two movies entirely dedicated to the character, I’d say that from a visual point of view, Man of Steel comes out on stop. Snyder is a far stronger visualist than Synger. His work, even if you may not like it, is most of the time, visually striking. His penchant for creating iconic imagery is undeniable and this one, especially on the first act, is a feast for the eyes.
On the storytelling front, though, I’d have to give the nod to Synger. Even though the script for Superman Returns wasn’t the strongest, and that it mostly relied on the nostalgic factor from Donner’s Superman: The Movie; it still has a much better understanding of what the character is all about and the end result is much more emotionally moving than what Snyder is trying to convey. Plus, Routh’s Superman, for me, is a much better physical and emotional representation of the character.
Synger’s movie also boasts a far better musical score than Snyder’s. John Ottman’s score for Superman Returns was the perfect compliment to John William’s iconic music, whereas with Zimmer we get another droned out electronic score that tries to sonically replicate what the composer did with The Dark Knight Trilogy and it doesn’t suit the character at all.
Neither of the movies is perfect, but at least with the first one we get the character as it was intended, barring misconceived Production and Costume Design choices and with Man of Steel we get all the glitz and modern day approach that should have been in Superman Returns, minus the penchant for levelling out entire cities. A cross breed between the two would have been nice.
Thanks for reading.