Despite the immense bankability of superhero films right now, the character who originated the genre back in 1938 has had a tough time of things. There have been several attempts to bring Superman back to the big screen in the past thirty-odd years, but few have got off the drawing board and none matched the staying power of the first two Christopher Reeve outings. The latest attempt is Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder from a story by The Dark Knight’s Christohper Nolan and David S. Goyer, which retells Superman’s origin and pits him against a gang of rogue Kryptonians led by the evil General Zod.
Christopher Reeve’s Superman was an unabashed, primary-coloured fantasy figure; even when disguised as Clark Kent, his oversized glasses and comically outdated suit marked him as a cartoon character come to life. Man of Steel takes a very different approach, however. This is one bleak Superman film.
Superman’s iconic red, yellow and blue suit looks decidedly dingy – this is presumably intended to add a realistic touch, but ends up making it look as though it needs a wash. His Fortress of Solitude, once an immaculate crystalline retreat, now resembles a futuristic crypt. The depiction of Krypton is a strange hybrid: Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque animals and people who resemble the Time Lords from Doctor Who in the seventies sit alongside a seedy, Giger-infused landscape more in line with Alien or The Matrix. Here, the optimistic futures of past pulp SF are filtered through the modern day’s fondness for dystopia and gloom. Even Superman’s powers can be horrific: one flashback to his childhood shows his X-ray vision overpowering him, turning his teacher and classmates into nightmare visions of bone and organs.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman films toned down the more cartoonish elements of the source material and attempted to keep a handle on reality, but they could afford to. Their stories took place in a world where characters embodied moral complexities and tough decisions. They also had a good grasp on what they wanted to do with the protagonist: they were interested in the idea of Batman, and how a myth can be forged in the modern day.
Most successful superhero films focus on their character walking a narrow line between success and failure, whether it is Batman’s moral quandaries or Spider-Man’s attempts to balance his crime fighting career with his teenage life. They show their heroes developing moral codes as they adapt to what life throws at them. It is remarkable how Man of Steel almost completely fails in this regard.
Superman has been comfortable with his powers since childhood, and although he gets to use them to their full extent during the course of the film, he is pretty much established from the get-go. His relationship with Lois Lane is barely developed. There are some flashbacks to his childhood, in which his adoptive father persuades him to keep his powers a secret no matter what the sacrifice, but Clark’s departure from this philosophy is never convincingly developed. All he learns during this film is what planet he came from.
The climactic battle with Zod gives Superman a painful moral choice, one which leaves him yelling with anguish. But with no build-up – or pay-off, for that matter – this scene barely registers.
Thanks to his near-unbeatable powers and straight-laced, black-and-white moral code, many comic writers have struggled with finding exactly what to do with Superman. Man of Steel avoids this problem by simply not doing anything with him.
The overall narrative of the film is about as empty as the character arc of its protagonist. There are attempts at a subtext about the nature of humanity, but the cast of characters is too thinly drawn for this to work: there is little point discussing humanity in a film with no believable humans. Instead, Man of Steel props up the evil Kryptonians as straw men with little credible motivation beyond a vaguely fascistic philosophy based on genocide and nostalgia. When the villainess tells Superman that “you have a sense of morality and we do not, and that gives us an evolutionary advantage” she is rehashing one of the most basic of stock supervillian ideologies, only a couple of rungs above “the world will be mine”.
Man of Steel is a film of murky design, murky conception and, finally, murky action. As with the Transformers films the fight scenes are loud, brash and often incoherent. Joel Shuster’s squeaky-clean renditions of a bold figure leaping across idealised cityscapes are translated into noisy and graceless set pieces. The film has no less than three overblown city-destroying battles in which Kryptonians smash each other’s heads into skyscrapers and provide plenty of material for any passing media students who want to write dissertations on the role of 9/11 imagery in popular cinema.
There are glimpses of what could have been a quite intriguing take on the character, although they are never used to their full potential. Man of Steel embraces the idea of Superman as alien, taking advantage of the decades of UFO folklore that have entered the popular consciousness since the character was created. The Kents fear government attention after their Roswell-esque discovery of a crashed ship; Lois Lane goes on an X-Filesish mission to find Superman’s identity with the help of a conspiracy theorist; the evil Kryptonians arrive on Earth in a UFO; Zod delivers a broadcast message which echoes the “Ashtar Command” hoax from 1977.
Taking Superman into the more conspiracy-focused area of science fiction offers a pretty fresh perspective, even if – like Independence Day before it – the film ultimately uses the iconography of Roswell and Adamanski as a springboard for shoot-em-up action scenes.
To be fair, the film is not disastrous. It has a number of inventive touches – particularly in its depiction of Krypton, which boasts a number of truly alien sights such as babies growing on underwater plants, floating computers with pinscreen-like displays comprised from tiny metal balls and a vast database implanted within a fragment of skull. The cast is good, and help sustain interest in the underwritten characters. Fans of the genre should find something to enjoy, certainly: buried under the noise is a serviceable superhero yarn which hits enough right notes to provide entertainment, despite the many missed opportunities.
2006’s flawed-but-spirited Superman Returns was quickly forgotten. That won’t be the case with Man of Steel: a sequel has already been confirmed, and it has been suggested that the film’s version of Superman will turn up in a Justice League crossover film. Since this looks to be the incarnation of the character which today’s kids will grow up with, would it have been too much to ask for the new itineration of this childhood fantasy figure to be less cold and hard and more, well, super?