Despite being bestowed with some of the greatest superpowers a wish list could contain, you can’t help but feel that sometimes the last son of Krypton just can’t win.
Back in 2005, Bryan Singer’s incredibly beige love letter to Superman, while lusciously realised, was somewhat of a damp squib and subsequently failed to set the world on fire.
“Too lovey dovey!!”, yelled it’s detractors “Superman doesn’t even punch anything!!”
Now, while this argument may seem a little simplistic, it did actually hold some merit because while Singer’s Kal-El has to fly faster and lift harder to save the day there was a distinct lack of physical threat standing in the heroes way.
Fast forward and enter Zack Snyder.
Having somehow achieved a trio of near impossible feats early in his directorial career (pulling off a good 70’s horror remake and somewhat accurately adapting Frank Miller and Alan Moore is nothing to be sniffed at) and with Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer getting his back, the world waited to see what this visual powerhouse was going to deliver with anxiously bated breath.
What we got was one of the most divisive comic book movies of it’s time… until Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman came out years later, but if nothing else, the argument that Superman didn’t punch enough was thoroughly addressed.
The distant planet of Krypton seems to have it all, a technologically superior race, totally sweet four-winged tiger/bats you can ride, a devastating military coup and – just to top it all off – the imminent near-death of the entire planet. Yup, some civilisations have all the perks, but in the middle of this upheaval is suprisingly burly scientist Jor-El, who resists both the hypocrisy of the ruling class and the violent power play of the decidedly unhinged General Zod to harvest the genetic matrix of his entire race, implant it into his newly born son and then subsequently blasts the mewling nipper into space to spare his life from Krypton folding up like an accordion.
Years later, Kal-El, the last survivor of Krypton living under the name Clark Kent has grown to beef cake manhood after being raised on the planet Earth by a kindly couple who found his intergalactic life raft and has taken to travelling the world in search of his alien heritage. Using his substantial superpowers to help out where he can and occasionally wrecking the truck of the odd, drunken bully, Kal-El finds the wreck of another Kryptonian craft and runs into supernaturally determined reporter Lois Lane. However, as an uncertain Kal struggles to find his place in the world, General Zod arrives after escaping his interdimentional banishment with the mind to terraform the early into a new Krypton and he needs the genetic material located in our hero’s genes. So clad in a snazzy blue and red uniform and mastering his God-like powers as the virtuous Superman, Kal goes to war with the remnants of his old world in order to save his new one, but what desperate actions will the genocidal Zod force him to commit and what are the future ramifications that will arise from this notoriously destructive conflict?
Going darker with established superheroes isn’t a new thing, Nolan scored huge with The Dark Knight Trilogy and replicating the sunny optimism of Richard Donner’s peerless original didn’t work out too well for Brian Singer, so Snyder’s decision to go with a moodier Superman, plagued with flashbacks and doubt and unsure of whether he even WANTS to be a hero makes sense. Upping the action quota also makes sense. Why hire the director of 300 to make a Superman movie if you don’t want shit to be broken, and to be fair, the God-like fist fights that crumble large chunks of Smallville and Metropolis are bombastic and huge. Think the mid-film, 3 on 1 scrap in Superman 2 and then think much, MUCH bigger.
But here lies the issue that sits at the core of Man Of Steel and it’s a big one. It’s all very well heaping shades of grey on your hero and having him kill to defend the innocent when your story requires Superman to learn what it takes to except the responsibilities of policing the world, but at some point you have to pay it off in a way that feels earned.
Having a somewhat victorious Superman plant a kiss on Lois Lane is what the audience wants, sure, but don’t do it standing in the ruins of a building district were countless civilians have literally just died and have a young Clark Kent’s parents guide him morally, don’t maybe have Kevin fucking Costner of all people tell his son that maybe he shouldn’t be saving people at all. Snyder continually muddies his own message like this for pretty much the whole film, torpeadoing the positive aspects of the character by simply being unable to restrain his more “edgier” tendencies, Clark refraining from retaliating against a thug in a bar and then destroying his truck anyway out of spite and Costner’s bewildering self sacrifice in the face of a tornado are just two examples of the vision and the story just simply failing to line up.
And yet, when Man Of Steel is finally given a chance to fly (both figuratively and literally) it soars. The early Krypton scenes are magnificent as is the crunching downtown showdown in Smallville and making chunks of the film play like an alien invasion movie are inspired although the final dust up between Supes and the villainous General Zod (a shouty Michael Shannon with his face etched permanently to glare) feel too much like the climax to The Matrix Revolutions for comfort.
Henry Cavill, while no Christopher Reeve, does a good job and certainly looks the part (maybe more than anyone else before him) and Amy Adams is a competent romantic foil and does just enough to keep from becoming Lois Lame.
However, most impressive is Hans Zimmer’s score, while certainly not as instantly iconic as John Williams’ super-recognizable fanfare, is still triumphant, moving and very, very Superman.
So, while loaded with more faults than most, Man Of Steel is still able to just hover above most of it’s problems but the Kryptonite that is some controversial plot choices brings it crashing down when it should be flying high.
No one needs their Man Of Steel to have feet of clay.