The last son of the dying planet Krypton is sent to earth… Oh, you know the score.
It’s been long awaited but perhaps the most crowd splitting lead into a superhero franchise film of all time. Is that suit too dark? Is the footage too dark? Superman’s meant to be bright, right? That’s a tried and tested creative team, but is Zack Snyder too stylistic? The trailer looks badass, but is it going to be too CG heavy? Do we need another Superman origin story? Are they going to mess around with his origin too much?
These were all very valid concerns leading up to the film, and, looking at the opinions to date, concerns people still hold after viewing. It’s still splitting the crowd.
This boggles my mind, I found Man of Steel to be a masterful reboot, a reboot that adds more substance than almost every incarnation of the character to date, and from here on I’ll be its stanch defender.
From the outset the writing team of David Goyer and Chris Nolan, along with director, Zack Snyder, set out to answer the question of: How do we make this outlandish story FEEL plausible and not just have people accepting aspects of the mythology ‘because it’s Superman and everyone knows it’s meant to be like that’?
From a writing perspective the answer comes from a two-fold solution that very much gels with how they tackled Batman Begins. First and foremost the realism and realistic responses of the characters have been placed front and centre; they have not been written (or performed) in any way, shape or form as caricatures, despite the incredible situations at work. In addition the structure of the film is such that after an epic sci-fi opening it isn’t too long before we get some Super-action dished out, as the life lessons of Clark Kent are played out in chronology mixing flashbacks (a la Batman Begins).
The method of really separating Man of Steel from the pack has come from shifting its emphasis away from super-heroics to out and out science fiction, with super-heroics acting as a kind of natural ramification of the scenario. This Clark Kent had no intention of going out and saving the world, he simply has no other choice; which is a fantastic angel.
Balancing out this grand space opera are the Smallville based ‘real life’ sequences, but the whiter than white, inspirational, Pa Kent view of life here is replaced with a wholly more realistic, pragmatism through paranoia attitude, which, again, seems like a fair angle being that the man is raising the first known alien lifeform.
But with such contrary approaches to storytelling, how does one seamlessly ground both into the same narrative while keeping it all plausible? Zack Snyder’s solution it to go against his usual highly stylised visual look (300, Sucker Punch) and portray all the events, Earth and Krypton based, with rough edged, documentary-like freehand style cinematography. It’s a simple and elegant solution that performs its intention impeccably.
This groundedness is assisted by a cast that can only be described as ‘Class’. First and foremost, the relatively new British actor, Henry Cavill, who seemed a little charmless for all the promotional material in the title role, in actuality, makes Superman as three dimensionally human as he’s ever been. It’s not that I think Christopher Reeves, Dean Cain, Tom Welling or Brandon Routh were particularly bad in the role, in fact I quite like aspects of all their interpretations, but I DO think that impossibly ‘good’ attitude is part of what has made the character kind of stale and inaccessible over the last few decades.
They refer to Superman as a boy scout, but how many young lads do you know that are that well behaved? I’m not saying that Cavill’s Superman is conflicted about right or wrong, he’s still a good dude, but deciding on the right course of action, in this world of moral grey areas? Well, that’s a different thing all together.
The rest of the cast; Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne and oodles of great character actors, as well as having filmographies that speak for their talent, are all excellently cast.
This IS an origin story in the true sense of the term, not just of a hero but of his moral stance and sense of self, and plenty of this origin story has been thought up from scratch, but the important things about the character, the things that make him what he is, are all present and correct, to one degree or another, but I can see the changes to the mythology irking some people.
While I understand that the popular consciousness interpretation of Superman is that of the original Richard Donner film, especially as it has filtered into most modern versions of the character, and though I get that its hard to shake such an iconic presence, it should be remembered that THAT film drastically altered the origin and mythology in its own way, and the same has been true for every generation in the ongoing comic and animated adventures. From Siegel and Shuster through Curt Swan, John Byrne and Bruce Timm to the DC’s New 52, a major change to the look and/or origin and mythology has always been on the cards to keep Superman relevant or fresh, so it could be said that change is as big a part of this character as the big, red ‘S’ and his powers (which, of course, have both gone through extensive changes over the years).
As such, complaints about surface changes to the characters, especially when they make as much sense as they do in Man of Steel, are simply a matter of taste and for the most part misguided.
And so we get to the important issue of the action. To this reviewer’s mind there has always been a problem portraying the level of action that a power set like Superman’s deserves. Comics, while only being bound by imagination, are a medium of still images and so can never really relay the furious speed that would come with a real Superman punch-up; films and TV were always limited by budget and FX capabilities, and when this became less of an issue, we got a Superman film in which he never threw a damn punch (!?).
The nearest we came to real Superman action was with the WB animated shows and films, most notably Superman: Doomsday, though even then budgets restricted their boundaries. Man of Steel delivers action that exceeds its predecessors to the nth degree, the kind of action that the character has always deserved. When he crash-lands he brings down a mountain, when he kicks a villain they smash through five sky scrapers before coming to a stop, and he uses super-speed, flight, strength and heat vision simultaneously.
Here in lies what I can see as the only genuine gripe that folk could have with the film. There’s no other way of executing this level of action without just resorting to copious amounts of CG, and to this the brain is always a little aware that it might just as well be watching an animated film, if a rather spectacular one, and the approach to super-speed is unavoidably jarring, it can’t be otherwise without slowing down the action a la Smallville; it’s a case of the imagery being a dizzying flurry of activity or a ‘first they’re here, suddenly they’re there’ approach.
But if all this is embraced you are rewarded with action sequences that are nothing less than breathtaking and on a scale that equals The Avengers, with a level of destruction that surpasses it.
I tend to find that the design teams on such blockbusters always go above and beyond the call of duty, and here is no exception. The new look Krypton is so rich with alien oddities and culture that I could just as easily watched an entire feature about Russell Crowe’s adventures of Jor-El (though a weird floating metal, sort of monitor device that followed him everywhere was about the worst thing in the film, design and concept wise). All of the alien tech felt well thought out to the point of adding relevance and history to much of Superman’s possessions, including the much discusses new costume.
Man of Steel couldn’t be recommended to everyone, its visually and thematically too daring for that, and as such I could see why you wouldn’t like it; perhaps you find the colour palate too murky or the camerawork too shaky, maybe you’re not a fan of large amounts of CGI or simply have never liked the character, to which I say fair enough; but if you were to accuse it of being a bad film and at odds with the ‘spirit’ of the character, I’d say you are absolutely wrong. Goyer has turned out his greatest screenplay for a wonderfully emotional, intriguing and visionary, not to mention kick-ass feature that has been brilliantly realised by a director who knows exactly how to bring a fresh look and much needed visual flare to a reboot that is as relevant and purposeful as The Dark Knight films.
A grade – for story
A grade – for direction
B+ grade – for VFX
A- grade – for acting
A- grade – for action
Overall grade – A-