Not much in Zack Snyder’s Superman movie feels like any other filmmaker’s take on the character. Snyder has dialled down a lot of the warmth and humour of Richard Donner’s pictures, and the blatantly comedic antics of Richard Lester’s contributions are all but gone. Totally absent is the nostalgia and reverent ring of deja vu that echoed throughout Superman Returns.
Instead, we’ve got a film that wears its gravitas like concrete boots, but packs the sheer muscle power to still keep moving forward.
The picture opens with an extended sequence on Krypton, kicking off with the birth of Kal-El, the boy who will be Superman, and leading us up to his expulsion from his dying homeworld.
And it’s a world dying in terrible pain.
We’re quickly told that the Kryptonians have drained their planet of its resources, rendering the core unstable and dooming themselves to total apocalypse. At the same time, their society seems to be marching to the beat of a military order who believe in eugenics and a genetically cleansed future of selected bloodlines – but don’t seem to see the end of days creeping right up on them.
If there’s anything else happening on Krypton beyond a kind of legal-judicial system, General Zod’s military and the eugenics re-birthing centre we certainly don’t get told about it. It almost seems as though the Kryptonian culture has been insectified, turned into a hive of drones, workers and warriors. At the same time, though, the society’s mistakes are all identifiably human. It’s not just their appearance and language that the Kryptonians share with us, it’s their cruelty, vanity and arrogance. It makes sense that Kal-El is framed as a special child even on Krypton, because the planet’s people are just as much of a mess as Earth’s, if not more so.
The film’s first big structural surprise comes when Kal-El crashlands in Kansas and we instantly jump forward many years, skipping from the moment of his touchdown to the life of his alias, an adult Clark Kent working anonymously on a trawler. We’re now in the film’s “present day” with a thirty-something Clark, and any sequences of him as a child or teenager are framed exclusively as flashbacks.
And while Man of Steel does in so many ways behave as if the Superman story has never been told before, I believe some of this movie will play a little like a puzzle to audiences who don’t know even the broad strokes of the character’s origin. We get a series of flashbacks, keyed in by incidents that prompt a moment of reflection or memory from Clark. As a result, all we see of the young Clark Kent are his very particular, peculiar rites of passage. Each scene is high stakes, and seemingly instrumental in his development. There’s not a great deal of Martha and even less of Jonathan, and I’m not sure how much these sequences benefited from my prior understanding, at least in general terms, of the core, well-established relationships we know from earlier films, TV and the comics.
One of the flashbacks introduces us to Clark’s unusual supersenses. It’s not clear what makes them particularly hard to handle at the moment in question, but a classroom scene shows Clark struggling to control his x-ray vision and heightened hearing.
I’ve never seen these senses so well exploited in a Superman story. Not only are they used to give him powers, they’re used to build his character, and they even get flipped in an interesting way that gives Kal-El the upper hand in battle. There’s more to this Superman than muscles and aerodynamics.
Meanwhile, the talk of there being no Kryptonite in the film has turned out to be something of a red herring. There’s no Kryptonite, per se, but it’s been replaced with Kryptonian atmospheric gases that, at least when we’re looking at a threat for Kal-El, serve more or less the same narrative function.
When it’s revealed that Clark is 33 years old, the age of Jesus at the crucifixon, it’s during a short sequence full of religious imagery. There’s a scene in a Church where Clark makes a confession and the Christian symbolism is laid on pretty thick… but then something very interesting happens. Just when we’ve been cornered by the Christian story of sacrifice, Clark observes how he’s not sure he can trust humans to do the right thing. Of course not – they nailed that other chap to a cross, why would they behave any differently this time?
But he does like Lois. They develop a bond, a crucial trust, and quickly.
Lois is demonstrably a good journalist, if very much the kind who gets up to only-in-the-movies misadventure. When The Daily Planet won’t publish her story about an impossible, apparently alien creature – our Superman – she leaks it to a blog. At first, nothing comes of this and there’s a bit about how the story just faded away into the ether, but there are repercussions later.
Sadly, there was a prime chance for Lois to play a key part in the progress of the third act but she loses out on a prize plot point to a subsidiary character. It would have been nice to see Lois get a chance to be proactive “in the final battle” but I will promise you, at least, she doesn’t get kidnapped as bait and when she is in distress, it’s of the kind that really does require the intervention of a Superman. She’s not weak and rubbish, she just isn’t alien and superpowered.
A considerable amount of the film is given over to Kryptonians in combat. Jor-El and Zod get plenty of opportunity to come to blows, and then later, Zod, Faora and other members of Zod’s Black Zero crew get their chances to, essentially, wrestle with Superman. These sequences are, for the most part, very well conceived and, at a storyboard level, work well. The CG is inconsistent, maybe, but the 3D in my screening went some way to levelling it all out. Dodgy effects integration can look like less of an issue when the elements are clearly separated in space, anyway.
One key set piece in Metropolis focuses intently on just a few characters – key characters of this movie – while thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, are being killed out of frame. There’s an awful lot of collateral damage visited upon the city, too, and one wants to assume that Superman’s supersenses have made him absolutely, definitely sure that he’s not about to mince Earthlings every time he punches Zod through the middle of a skyscraper.
While a lot of choices have been made to make the film seem realistic and much of what we see and hear is actually pretty sophisticated, this doesn’t extend so much to the dialogue. Screenwriter David Goyer has very often given the characters lines that are larger than life and often quite declaratory.
This film definitely has ideas about Superman and what he stands for, and sometimes they’re just put out there, big and bold, in a rather conspicuous line of dialogue or exchange between characters. What would have worked wonderfully in the subtext has also been thrust into the text. But if you like the tone of your bigger-than-big tentpole action movies to stay notched at the top, I’m sure this dialogue will fit that amps-at-eleven style for you just fine.
Everything begins again in Man of Steel. We have an origin story for Superman… do we also have the origins of the DC cinematic universe? You’ve given yourselves a fresh start, Warner Bros., so now make the most of it.
Man of Steel opens in the US and UK this Friday, June 14th. Michael’s review of the film will be published here later this week, as well as more discussion about some of the ideas the film contains. We’re far from done talking about Man of Steel, I just wanted to get the ball rolling.