Retro Review: Man of Steel

So it arrives.  The much heralded return of Superman to the big screen.  Ever since the alleged failure of Superman Returns, and the huge popularity of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the reboot of the Superman myth has been kicking around.  When Zack Snyder was attached to the project, the majority of people anticipated a disaster.  However, the casual tagging of Nolan’s name onto the film as producer turned many around to the idea.  You see Nolan is apparently the second coming, and he literally craps gold – or so many of his fanboy followers will attest.  This, sadly, means that negative reviews for Man of Steel so far have blamed Snyder, whilst positive ones seem to exclaim that Nolan delivered.  You have to feel sorry for Snyder, but then again he made Sucker Punch, so deserves all he gets.

Anyway, here we have a new origin tale about the destruction of Krypton, and how Kal-El was sent by his father to Earth, where he would act as their protector.  The young boy is raised in Kansas by the Kents, and discovers his alien heritage as a young adult.  This coincides with the arrival of General Zod, a merciless leader of Krypton’s armies who staged a military coup.  You see, Zod is after something that Jor-El sent to Earth, and wants Kal-El to bring it to him.  Cue danger, and action spectacle that packs a super-punch.  Added into the mix are new variations on the support cast of Superman comics and films, with Lois Lane, Perry White, and, erm, Jenny Olsen?

Jenny what now?

Jenny what now?

Okay, so this was never going to be a true comic book adaptation.  Warners wanted to reboot the franchise and make it ”darker” and ”edgier”, believing that the reason ”Returns” failed was due to it being bright, colourful, and fun.  But, you see, Returns didn’t fail – it made profit, but had thrown a chunk of the budget away on the various aborted attempts at the film through the years.  Returns was also quite well received by critics and fans.  But, of course, it wasn’t as much a success as The Dark Knight, and so they decided they wanted a Superman film to match that darkness.  And therein lies the problem with Man of Steel, which I will get to in a bit.

Suffice to say the film is well cast.  The changes to characters (Perry White is now Laurence Fishburn, Olsen has changed sex and become a girl) are fine, and don’t really make a difference.  It is helped by having such a wealth of strong names involved.  Amy Adams is a strong minded Lois Lane, Russell Crowe gets to kick some ass as Jor-El before turning all Yoda later in the film as Kal’s mentor, and Kevin Costner reminds us why he was such a big deal a few decades ago.  Henry Cavill, the one factor I was uncertain of going into the film, does a decent, if not great job.  It is Michael Shannon who steals the film away from everyone as General Zod.  Spitting menace and with a stare that would make a grown man cower, he storms through the scenes with serious intent, and manages to really portray a villain whose reasons for being have a pure validity to them.  If you imagine Magneto in the X-Men series, then you have a similar contrast – he believed his people needed saving, and would destroy any who get in the way.

Action and spectacle wise the film delivers in spades.  Buildings get trashed, cars get flipped, streets gets ripped up.  The last act of the film is one of scene after scene of devastation, with Superman versus Zod’s Kryptonian forces being of such a scale that the whole planet does feel at risk.  Gone are the comic book films of the past where all fights took place in one street…now the fight moves from one end of the city to the other and back again.  Yup, for those who complained that there was not enough action in Superman Returns, there is no way you will say the same here.

Kneel before Zod!

Kneel before Zod!

However, that is part of the problem.  There is a bit too much action and property damage this time around, and without the levity to break the tension.  Last year, The Avengers did a similar scale of damage, but it had fun whilst doing it.  You laughed, and got caught up in it all.  Here, in Man of Steel, it is all too serious and foreboding, which makes for a long, harrowing, drawn out action fest that leaves a bitter taste when you weigh it all up.  Whilst the big-S flies to the rescue of a few individuals, the level of destruction in which a plethora of others would have been engulfed makes you wonder how heroic is he?  Does he have to personally know your name to give a damn about saving you?  Why is he so flippantly disregarding everyone else?  Way back in Superman 2 (even the Richard Lester version), as soon as Superman realised that humans were in danger during the fight with Zod, he flew off to draw them away from the population.  This time around, he seems quite happy to contribute to the destruction.  Maybe that’s the point, though.  Maybe this is him learning the consequences of his actions.  Regardless, it still feels out of place.

The film also, sadly, lacks heart.  There are moments within, don’t get me wrong, such as the scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent teaching Clark to keep his powers secret, but we never really connect or care too much about anyone.  Even Lois Lane, who is played well enough by Amy Adams, doesn’t seem to have any chemistry with Cavill as Clark/Kal-El.  In the end I think the lack of solid heart comes from that earlier mentioned uncertain factor, Henry Cavill, who lacks the charm and presence to make us really connect with the central character.

The film isn’t a terrible film.  It stands well ahead of Superman IV, and is at times a stronger film than Lester’s version of Superman II.  Snyder has matured as a director, and his ”slo-mo” flourishes have nearly vanished completely.  Forget the Nolan name, this is a Snyder film, and it shows in the action.  But it doesn’t feel right as a Superman film.  Loads of spectacle, with a distinct lack of hope throughout (ironic given the symbol on his chest being Kryptonian for Hope) make it a film that doesn’t sit right.  Throw in the musical score, packed with ominous repetition, and a far cry from the uplifting Williams score, and it just didn’t feel like Superman.

New audiences will likely embrace it, approaching the character without expectation they may find it sit well with their idea of what a DC comic book movie should be like (given the responses to Nolan’s trilogy).  But for fans of the character of the comics, or the previous films, there will be that nagging doubt.  Maybe the second film will pick up and move in a lighter direction?  We can only hope.

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