Vault: 'Man Of Steel' (2013) Dir. Zack Snyder
A reboot of both the Superman film franchise and first of the DC Extended Universe, Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan teamed up to bring us a very different big blue boy scout...
As the planet Krypton faces destruction due, scientist Jor-El (Crowe) and his wife launch their new-born son, Kal-El (Cavill), towards Earth. As the twisted Kryptonian General Zod (Shannon) attempts to take over the Council, he is arrested and exiled to the Phantom Zone as Krypton is destroyed
As an adult, Kal, now named Clark after being found and raised by loving parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Costner and Lane) in Smallville, Kansas, traces his past to understand where he came from. Why does he have special powers? What his purpose is on Earth?
Embracing his status as one who can bring hope to others in times of crisis, Kal attracts Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Adams) who wants to report his story and prove he is not a person to be feared. But General Zod and his army, freed by the Kryptonian blast, arrive on Earth and demand that Kal surrenders himself before Earth pays the price...
After 7 years since the last tepid Superman outing on the big screen, 'Superman Returns', the world waited for a sequel. Instead we were presented with a dramatic new re-visioning of the Superman story for today’s generation in what would be the answer to Marvel’s Avengers franchise – the foundations of the DC Justice League.
At 2hrs 23 minutes, it's a long film and it does feel strained at points. A good hour of back-story involving alien worlds and alien technology and character discovery awaits us as more bleak, emotive themes are used like never before in a Superman film. The one thing I felt justified in this was the real character development from Kal-El as a young boy, and a firm focus on the parental responsibilities each family face towards their son and how best to prepare him for life on Earth as an outsider; an alien. But I found myself not really caring about a codex, or a new race of engineered humans....I just wanted Superman!
The second hour is very action heavy, but it gives us time to really feel this is a comic book adaptation of a fantastical world. There are spaceships, alien technology and visits to Smallville and Metropolis as General Zod and Superman come to blows in a visually chaotic finale to decide the fate of 2 worlds - Krypton or Earth.
It's an origin story, but one we've never seen before in this way on screen about Kal-El on his path to become Superman. And it takes a long time before anything of the Superman we may know and love appears.
Henry Cavill is as convincing a Superman as Christopher Reeve was in the 70s and 80s. The problem was, Reeve portrayed the all-American hero TOO perfectly and created an image no-one can crack, which isn't a bad thing, but makes following in his footsteps near impossible. The character of Superman realistically has to be based on 75 years of material, not just 35. Cavill evoked the emotion as Clark Kent wonderfully, with a gentle angst trying to find a place in the world and control his powers and anger to those who challenge him.
I can't understand the reviews about him being too serious; he’s not going to have a barrel of laughs, but he certainly has moments where he soars. Superman was serious, yes, because he was alone out there with the power to change the world on his shoulders, and every decision he makes we see his thoughts and reaction perfectly. He's a strong willed hero, and Cavill certainly has the look and physique to evoke this hero from the comic books (remember how strong he was drawn before Reeve played him). While his acting isn’t always the best and he doesn't evoke a natural character, Cavill is ideal as a thoughtful, righteous and strong Kryptonian warrior. The defining shadow of Christopher Reeve has to be reduced in order for older audiences to accept Cavill as a stronger and bolder interpretation for the future.
Amy Adams is a different Lois to the one we are used to, more resilient and spending time fighting with Superman for the most of the film and working with him, representing the modern era where women get stuck into action as much as the men. She spends little time actually seeking out the story as a journalist, acting in the interest of the audience to piece together the puzzles of Superman, but her character should be able to grow in future thanks to the chemistry we see between her and the Clark family.
Michael Shannon as General Zod is just as fearful and powerful as we'd expect. Again, let Terrence Stamp's performance stay in the 1980s and let Shannon show a true warrior of Krypton for modern audiences, one who is acting out of sheer patriotism that makes the audience question is he REALLY all bad in what he is trying to do. Acting alongside Cavill and Crowe, Shannon is one step away from being an OTT villain, but manages to command every scene he is in with a sense of simmering danger and threat to be more memorable than expected. I'm glad we had a Kryptonian villain of this scale rather than a faceless CGI monster.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent work just as you'd expect. They are the real slice of Americana that is the guiding hand for Clark as he discovers his place in society. I longed for more scenes with Costner, but the ones he was in were honest and real, but it's safe to say his penultimate scene with Clark is a little over-the-top. Yet he's fine actor and performance, as is Lane who doesn't put a foot wrong. She's the mother figure we all want, caring, loving and wanting what's best for her son and family. The emotion shown when faced with such dilemmas' regarding Clark's future are played really well and brings the real heartfelt moments of the film to the surface; how do you let go of a son you always fear to lose?
Russell Crowe takes on the role of Jor-El. Again, leave Marlon Brando back where he belongs and focus on his new image. He is younger than the Brando incarnation and so gets involved with far more action, leading a resistance battle against General Zod and his soldiers in the opening scenes on Krypton. He is the perfect father for Kal-El, speaking wise words in all of his scenes and conveying a sense of torn loyalties to his planet and his family, but always striving for what is right.
The other players like Lawrence Fishburne, Antje Traue and Harry Lennix shine in their roles taking them seriously and doing the task they are given. Mentor, warrior and solider, all taking on Superman in their own way. Lawrence Fishburne was devoid of a decent screen time as Perry White, but again I feel his foundation is there to work on.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is a fusion of almost dystopian, sci-fi, apocalyptic power, but with tendrils of hope within. One thing easy to admit is that you will always miss THAT fanfare for Superman by John Williams.
It conveyed the bravery, heroism and triumph of what Superman stands for. When a moment arrived you wanted to cheer for, you wanted a theme to represent it. But this isn't Hans Zimmer's fault, it's simply the direction this is going for a more grounded approach. So as Superman is still "discovering" himself, he's not really earned a theme. Well, he has as we heard in the trailers, but we never hear that moment until the end credits, another Christopher Nolan plot point that maybe now as we leave him, we are getting our Superman. But, the music is loud and bombastic and generally adds mayhem to the already busy action scenes and does what is says on the tin.
The most evocative moments is the soft piano and strings music, also teased in the trailers, when used to convey the emotion and journey of the Kent's, the El's and Superman himself. This portion of the soundtrack speaks volumes, and if people want humour from Superman they should watch 'Superman III' as 'Man Of Steel' delivers drama unlike any other incarnation, and the music cements this journey.
Now sadly, the action is my one negative point. Too much action for me anyway. The first 90 minutes of the film is well-paced, but it’s all CGI. It has a few shining moments that let Superman show his power from saving workers on a burning oil rig and defending Smallville in an exciting battle with General Zod's army. It's what we've seen in all superhero films, just enhanced with CGI as it needs to be with warriors greater than any force on Earth, so expect to see objects and the combatants themselves thrown and pummelled and ripped up like toys. The Smallville battle is brutal and exciting and it's great to see great use of the actors and CG doubles mixed so well to make a fight as fantastical as this so real when they are on the ground.
However the final battle between Superman and Zod in and around Metropolis goes a little too far for me. Again, we need to have two god-like intergalactic warriors using Earth as a playground, and if you can't accept this then Superman isn't for you. It's once more frantic and brutal which again uses the Smallville techniques to make it as real as possible. But as the 10th skyscraper collapses and rubble falls from the sky, I felt it was veering into computer game mode. When we could hear and see Superman and Zod in battle trading punches, that was brilliant to see the Man of Steel actually battle a force of evil just as strong as him. But they became rag dolls too often and tossed each other around too easily around the city and at the end; I felt we had pretty much lost any seriousness about the thousands of people obviously dying in each shot and a great coincidence as many survive. It's far too much noise, and you'll be forgiven for covertly feeling an odd, chilling duplicity with the September 11th tragedy.
Call me old fashioned, but the damage dished out in 'Superman II' would have sufficed for me. It certainly tops 'The Avengers' for full-scale destruction and carnage, but it just keeps going and going and going, and quickly becomes boring.
One thing I will say with Superman in action is the powers he has are used brilliantly. The heat vision is almost demonic when used, a real God-like look, and it's great to see. We don't see all noted powers used, but I’d forgo things rather than shoe-horn everything in. Until the final frame of this story, it's clear Superman is still developing, much like Batman was at the end of 'Batman Begins'.
Director Zack Snyder had made a name for himself with the epic action fluff that was '300', the visually stunning 'Watchmen' and the luke-warm fantasy 'Sucker Punch'. So was he right to bring Superman back for a modern audience? Yes, he was. He knows how to direct an action film but also how to develop characters and honour the source material. It's a long film, but Snyder directs his cast to give pathos, thrills and drama. There's a clear love evident for the lore of Superman in all his shots. Some editing turns them too quick, abrupt or shaky, but there heart is there.
Christopher Nolan may not be directing but you know he’s injected his brooding tone and feel of the 'Dark Knight' trilogy into Superman's return. Nolan has used a familiar sense of self-discovery, battling demons and redemption against the odds for reality-based Superman and it works. Just about. If you loved 'Batman Begins', then this is quite simply Superman begins. Same format, different hero and representation. But, as said, it’s darker than anything that has come before for Superman so prepare yourself.
The hardest thing to do to really enjoy this film is to forget the 1978 Richard Donner film. Let Christopher Reeve et al keep their performances in history for the time they were in. But let us also embrace another chapter in the 75 year run. Henry Cavill is now Superman. He has the look, style and emotion as the alien from another world, trying to fit in to our society. Cavill's Superman could easily be taken from the early pages of the Action Comics from the 30s and 40s, and we need to remember this isn't a remake of an earlier film. This is a new vision, and it certainly works. There's no shirt rip, no phone booth and no cheeky jokes or gags - and honestly? It doesn't need them. I didn't miss them and didn't wait for them to appear.
The drama, the emotion, the fantasy, the power and the triumph was what captivated me about Superman in earlier films, games and comics, and all that was here on screen in a fresh way to win over new fans. It's not perfect, and with some changes to the approach of some factors, the future of DC’s big blue boy scout can build to be even stronger and more confident.
Superman, the film character, has to change to survive new audience’s new threats in the world. Reeve did it in the 70s and 80s. Brandon Routh brought him back in 2006 but was let down by a poor film overall. Cavill has done it for the 00s perfectly when the world is ready for his new era of superhero.
Superman is there in 'Man Of Steel' if you look deep enough, but this is a hero with demons and troubles that aren't brushed over for the sake of escapism. It's a Superman film like nothing you've seen before, but will plant the seed that a new cinematic Man of Steel can exist in this new world of heroes.
'Man Of Steel' is the most bombastic Superman films yet, but it will be up personal choice how this sits with you. It's a bold start with a promising future, unless you pick holes in it and compare it to the MCU, which isn't what fans of either should do.
'Man Of Steel' is a co-production between Warner Bros. Pictures. Legendary Pictures. DC Entertainment & Syncopy