It’s been over 25 years since Christopher Reeve first donned the iconic red cape in Richard Donner’s Superman, yet he still remains the definitive big screen iteration of the iconic superhero. In the years since then, many filmmakers, including Tim Burton, J.J. Abrams, and even Nicolas Cage, have tried to resurrect him but failed. When Bryan Singer, the mastermind of the X-Men series, finally got the gig to bring him back in 2006’s Superman Returns, the result was a forgettable disappointment.
While a plethora of bad ideas have undoubtedly played a part in explaining why we still don’t have a movie that comes even remotely close to the cheesy, dated Christopher Reeve series, there’s also the problem of Superman himself. He’s not tortured like Batman, nor is he witty like Iron Man. He’s not even an underdog like Spider-Man. On the contrary, he’s the poster child of perfection; and a dull one to boot.
So how exactly does one make a flawless superhero relatable in an era where superheroes are defined by their flaws? The answer, at least according to Man of Steel, lies in his origins. What must it be like to grow up isolated and alone in an alien world where your superpowers are more of a burden than strength? If that sounds like a massive departure from the Christopher Reeve series, it’s because it is. The brainchild of screenwriter David S Goyer, producer Christopher Nolan and director Zach Snyder, Man of Steel is certainly the most ambitious and thematically complex film about the character thus far. It’s darker, more somber, and more character-driven than any of the previous films. That’s all well and good in terms of giving the film heft but does it work?
Forgoing the conventional origin story approach, Goyer and Snyder unveil their narrative by utilizing flashbacks, switching back and forth between the brooding adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as he drifts from town to town, and his younger days growing up in rural Kansas with foster parents Martha and Jonathan Kent (Diane Lane, a wonderful Kevin Costner). While this choice is nothing original, it’s unique where superhero filmmaking is concerned. These flashbacks, which cut into Clark’s dilemma of choosing to live a life in obscurity over embracing his Kryptonian-given powers, lend the film a moniker of a character-study above everything else. Snyder, a master of composition, handles himself exceedingly well during these scenes, taking his time with revealing the drama, and bringing gravitas to even the tiniest of moments.
But a successful film can’t be fueled on ambition, character and beautifully composed shots alone. It requires a compelling structure to give it impetus – and that’s where Man of Steel misses its mark. The flashbacks, so integral in building character, aren’t always seamlessly blended into the plot. Though some work in pushing the plot forward, many are clumsy and feel shoehorned into the script for the sake of heft. Because of this, the film always feels like an under-performer, never able to get to the point where it’s able to be truly revelatory.
Clumsy as they are, those criticisms are but a blip in comparison to the film’s action – or rather, the gross stupidity of it. Snyder, who has yet to meet an explosion he doesn’t know how to make cool, amps up the decibels to 11 and the destruction to a 1000. Although, he does a grand job with the film’s lengthy action-heavy prologue set on Krypton between Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the mad General Zod (Michael Shannon), he surrenders to all his Wreck-It-Ralph instincts during the major set-pieces set after Zod and his team detect Clark’s presence on Earth.
The film’s climax in which Superman and Zod go at each other in the CGI brawl to end all CGI brawls in the middle of Metropolis, is the most staggering and negligent sequence of cinema of 2013 – something I hope will not be topped. Countless skyscrapers are reduced to rubble all because Superman couldn’t take his fight with Zod outside. The pornography of violence in this scene as the two characters unwittingly end thousands, perhaps even millions of lives, is a disappointment not just because it betrays the ideology of Superman, but also because it nearly aborts all the good-will the film earns during its first two acts. The amount of devastation depicted during this redundant act puts the desolation of Chicago in the third Transformers movie to shame. Even Michael Bay would stand up and say, “Hey, that’s too much!” Okay, maybe not but you get my drift.
At least Snyder had the good sense to get the casting right. If there’s a lasting takeaway from Man of Steel, it’s that Cavill is by far, the best actor to ever play the role. With his jacked build, piercing blue eyes and chiseled face, the British actor checks off all the requisite physical requirements for the role, and like my female friends tell me… and then some. He captures the sadness, loneliness, confusion and frustration of being an outsider on Earth. If Cavill is who Warner Brothers is putting its faith in to lead its long plagued Justice League, I can roll with it. What’s more, he makes the character both relatable and cool, which is more I can say for either Reeve or poor Brandon Routh. What’s he up to nowadays anyway?