Director: Zack Snyder
By Roderick Heath
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, internet pop culture commentary is essentially split into two camps. There are those who tend to celebrate everything shiny and new and consider it automatically superior to the old, and those for whom all revision is doomed never to measure up to the purity, authority, and warm associations of a classic. In this era of commercial cinema sustaining itself through troubled times by carefully reinventing properties many of us have an ingrained affection for, the schism is all too easy to observe. A caveat here is that in spite of what the selective memory of cinephiles and filtering processes of repute suggest, commercial movie-making has been eating its own tail since its birth, with popular properties remade and reconfigured in an endless tapestry of remakes and reboots, as well as original works that are mostly variations on the same old themes. The difference today is not just in the kinds of properties being recycled, but in the stature of this process: audiences of millions don’t just go to see a movie, but await news of the filmmakers’ choices with merciless scrutiny. Every tweak risks stirring frenetic excitement or irrational loathing. For myself, who grew up very happily watching the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films repeatedly, there’s a certain bittersweet sense of both profit and loss from Zack Snyder’s new take. I know I’ve really wanted Superman to come back strong. Superman doesn’t exist, of course, nor do I want him to, but his symbolic power is still enormous. We still live in a world where awesome abuses of the weak occur, and the promise of absolute justice represented by Superman is, like Sherlock Holmes, one based in a faded era and sensibility, and yet nothing superior has yet been invented to replace him.
Bryan Singer’s strongly felt, but deeply problematic Superman Returns (2006) already proved the folly of trying to reproduce past glories, attempting anxiously to recreate the emotional and audio-visual textures of the Reeve films but failing through an inert story and half-hearted stabs at heterodoxy. Snyder’s take leaps into the phantom zone of near-complete redrafting, skewing the franchise back toward its rowdier roots. The charming mixture of naiveté and sophistication, mythic feeling and inclusive, good-humoured knowing of Richard Donner’s great take on Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster’s canonical comic book hero seems now to have been an unreproducible alchemy: none of the superhero flicks that have tried to claim its mantle lately have measured up in more than flashes. Like this year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, Snyder’s film is cursed, therefore, with inevitable comparison to a near-perfect totem of fantastic cinema, and like J. J. Abrams’ film, stirs divergent responses in me, only more so.
Donner and his team updated Superman by leaving his overgrown Boy Scout sensibility untouched whilst making the world he inhabited as vividly, energetically disillusioned as the 1970s and presenting analogues for the audience’s delight at the conceit in the characters sharing his world. Donner’s film wasn’t an irony-free zone, but its power lay in deliberately evoking sarcasm and then being seen to nullify it. Snyder’s take comes under the production aegis of Christopher Nolan, and in many respects Man of Steel obeys the basic demarcations Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer placed on their version of Batman: an attempt to sustain a coherent and grounded take on material once played purely for incongruity, with emphasis on psychological credulity and a variety of selective realism. That’s become a popular approach thanks to the success of Nolan’s films.
And yet blockbuster movies have started to feel like they’re running together precisely because there are so many of them, and they all seem aware of each other because they have to be. This genre specialises in creating worlds unto themselves, where anything is possible, but the correspondingly conversant audience has come to accept it all without batting an eyelid. The fantastic no longer needs introducing, but rather, mere reiteration. The wayward elements that helped make Donner’s film great are also its weirdest and most esoteric: the mystically tinged space trip Superman takes during his tutelage by his father’s simulacrum, the Andrew Wyeth and John Ford-esque moments of Americana, the goofy, quixotically romantic nighttime flight Superman takes with Lois Lane. Such quirky, spacious indulgences are verboten in tent-pole flicks now, where a risk-averse ethos of the part of both filmmakers and the target audience favours the creation tolerable entertainment. Snyder’s approach doesn’t skimp on set-up, at least: the difference is one of method. Instead of mythical elegy, here we have chain-lightning pulp pace rendered with an overtone of sombre grandeur. Whereas the early ads for the film suggested a soulful, doleful take on Superman as a Terrence Malick-esque searcher, that quality only emerges in occasional flashes in the film, which opens up the possibility, to me at least, that this version was built in the editing room from a more expansive take.
Snyder’s stuck remixing a familiar story: again Krypton explodes, again young Kal-El is sent rocketing off to safety whilst his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) die. But here things are more baroquely complicated, with Jor-El’s efforts to communicate imminent danger to the Kryptonian high council interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is intent on taking dictatorial control of the planet. Jor-El slips through Zod’s clutches and steals a codex that contains the DNA of all Kryptonians, and has this diffused into his son’s body so that he becomes the living vessel for his species. Zod, unable to stop Kal-El’s escape, kills Jor-El. Along with his followers, Zod is then captured and exiled to an acausal space pocket called the Phantom Zone, just before Krypton finally explodes. Kal-El’s spaceship safely lands on its destination: Earth.
Man of Steel skips the tale of Kal-El’s earthly upbringing, at least for the moment. His adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), his ostracism and outsider status in Smallville, Kansas and glimpses of his latent powers, like saving his schoolmates from a bus crash, instead emerge in flashback fragments throughout. This peculiar choice evokes a similar one made by Cary Fukunaga in his fine adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) for expostulating character genesis quickly; indeed, it works thematically as well as structurally, placing Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s physical and character growth in counterpoint with the great drama to which his entire life seems to have been leading. Stylistically, Snyder quickly declares intent to do the opposite to Singer, and throws out all hangovers from the Reeve series, including John Williams’ unsurpassable score, which Singer leaned on like a crutch. The music here is provided by Hans Zimmer, who offers what is for him an unusually energetic and expressive score, but which still seems all too standard-issue compared to Williams’ dream-conjuring work. That’s the most overt disparity between Superman 1978 and 2013, though there are other qualities to mourn. The hunky grin and humane openness of Christopher Reeve and the husky-voiced, she-nerd vivacity of Margot Kidder are gone. Everyone here is much sterner, more grown-up, more world-weary. There’s a constant feeling in these modern spectacles that some kind of spiritual Rubicon has been crossed and that the jovial, old pulp and comic book world cannot be invoked again. Whereas Donner and company made the very disparity between youthful dreaming and adult disillusion the fuel of their movie, Snyder and Goyer split the difference.
There’s been no shortage of good and entertaining work in the superhero genre lately, even if it’s often repetitive and lexically limited, its days as major blockbuster material possibly limited now. My own favourites of recent years, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), stood out for their willingness to stretch into blurred genre borderlands, whilst last year’s The Avengers went for plain entertainment by limiting its focus to oddball character dynamics and a big, crowd-pleasing third act. Man of Steel has a similar structure and climax to The Avengers, but it’s a far more ambitious work, refusing to relax into geekfest fun and games. Snyder tries to retell the most famous origin story in modern pop culture, not quelling the memory of previous incarnations but coherently setting up its own priorities, and doing it all in a fashion that recreates the specific gravity of this mythos. The big, make-or-break difference between Nolan’s Batman films and Man of Steel lies in who’s actually doing the filmmaking. I am aware that my own disregard of Nolan and evolving admiration for Snyder is largely opposite to most commentators, but I’m happy with this attitude. Snyder is a technical wizard and messy, dramatic filmmaker, with a compensating passion for the big screen as an expressive space. He has more sense of cinematic show and shape and in his little toe than Nolan and most of his ilk have in their whole bodies.
Snyder’s last two live-action features, the disjointed but impressive Watchmen (2009) and the rich and strange Sucker Punch (2011), were divisive films, but for me, of course, made Man of Steel a film to watch for on top of its provenance as a comeback of the greatest superhero. Superman has come to be seen, awkwardly and even tiresomely, as a figurative superego for the United States, a noble knight who has to retain perfection or lose his status, as opposed to the malleable, id-inflected figure of Batman. As with the criticisms levelled at the new Star Trek movies, the sensation of idealism slowly being replaced with specious “relevance” looms throughout, though the hovering spirit of real-world anxieties always hangs heavy over such inventions. Superman offered a quasi-Jewish messiah figure at the start of the worst episode of anti-Semitism in history. The idea of Superman as a symbolic bulwark against the bleakest of threats takes its power from such circumstances of birth. Aptly, according to his interpretation, Zod, the Kryptonian rebel who has been promoted in the movies to one of Superman’s greatest adversaries, is here characterised as a both an engineered warrior whose reflexes quite genuinely can’t move beyond the bellicose, and a eugenicist and übermensch-proponent who believes Krypton’s past was ruined by weak stock and that its future must be purchased with species-cleansing.
Whilst I could wax lyrical about the specific pleasures of the older Superman that this one avoids, Snyder’s take nonetheless achieves authority in part for its sense of sobriety, lending the material much more scifi cred than it’s had before: the opening is a sprawl of ebullient Edgar Rice Burroughs-isms, with Jor-El dodging apocalypse and the wrath of Zod’s attempted coup on the backs of flying lizards to get his son Kal-El launched off-world. The rocket-paced élan of the opening is the sort of sequence that illustrates the painterly zest Snyder brings to CGI spectacle, resolving in the punch-drunk poeticism of Lara watching geysers of flame erupt to consume her world. That sort of scruff-of-the-neck gambit is one many movies can’t recover from, but Snyder tries, with varying levels of success, to keep the sense of relentless, junk-epic storytelling hurtling forth with the same unstoppable force as Superman’s flying—and therein lies some of the discomfort. These sorts of films are now expected to do all the heavy lifting that was once dispersed over a dozen modes of popular moviemaking in the 1970s, engaging real-world conundrums and providing parables for questions of morality and political resonance that would have once been only a vague allusion or frosting of agreeable subtext, whilst providing nonstop thrills. Snyder retains, however, a quiescent poetic sensibility, one diffused into his love of spectacle and world-contorting effects, leaking out from such visuals as the glimpses of Clark in youthful exile labouring on a fishing boat, faced with a distant glimpse of a burning oil rig that demands he leap in and save the day. There’s a strong sense of life on the fringe of civilisations here that gives Clark’s status as a man caught perpetually between worlds a grounded, experiential flavour.
One aspect of the plot here seems to reference intentionally The Thing (1982), as military authorities discover a Kryptonian colonising ship that’s been under the Arctic ice for millennia, and Clark, on the hunt for clues to his hitherto mysterious origins, infiltrates the workforce on the site. There he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Clark has to save her from one of the guardian sentry robots in the spaceship. Clark encounters his father, whose personality survives as an uploaded programme stored in a device salvaged from Clark’s spaceship, and Jor-El is able to school Clark in his background and nature. Snyder provides a neat piece of exposition as Jor-El explains Kryptonian history to his son, events displayed in a kind of moving art-deco, bas-relief that hurls the mind back to 1930s public artwork, a sort of design in-joke that touches on this mythology’s roots. Jor-El then sends Clark on his high-flying way, now wearing his iconic costume, actually a piece of salvaged Kryptonian utility wear sporting the symbol for “hope” that is his family’s emblem. Snyder stages this scene beautifully, revelling in Clark testing his ability to fly, crashing spectacularly but then gaining more perfect control and shooting across the face of the earth with liberated joy, a sequence that confirms that modern special effects really can communicate the essence of the fantastic.
Clark finds himself just in time, because soon Zod and his cabal turn up. Released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton’s destruction and having scoured the galaxy searching for remnants of their civilisation, they finally locate Clark through the frozen ship’s homing beacon. Zod, with his incapacity to think beyond immediate blunt-force solutions, demands that the humans hand over his compatriot: Clark gives himself up to the authorities, represented by General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff), whilst Lois, having been arrested for her contact with the alien, becomes interlocutor. Clark agrees to be handed over to Zod, but warns that Zod isn’t to be trusted, and this proves exactly right: with his super-opponent immobilised by immersion in the Krypton atmosphere aboard his ship, Zod decides that with a little redecorating, Earth could become a new Krypton, repopulated with the DNA strip-mined from Clark’s body. One problem Man of Steel develops is that it boils down to plot 1-A of scifi action: supervillain wants to destroy the world with doomsday device, superhero sets out to stop the plot with major whoop-ass. But, of course, that’s the essence of roughly half the comic books ever penned, and who are the filmmakers to mess with that? But the attempts to skew the Superman mythos closer to real scifi are smart, and pay off with some lush and spectacular imagery, rejecting the day-glo neoclassicism of Donner’s Krypton in favour of a more organic world, and building to a superlatively envisioned contrast of Clark’s raw, corporeal force going up against the chitinous cyberpunk styling of Zod and company.
Man of Steel certainly offers a darker, rougher take on the Superman myth than usual, but to its credit, it tries to take the creation of the most elevated of superheroes seriously on a level that the older films essentially avoided. It’s this element that emerges with singular power: what makes a hero? Man of Steel aptly and coherently reflects the notion, dodged or fumbled badly by most movies of this ilk, that we no longer trust heroes simply for parochial reasons: with several versions of “truth, justice, and the American way” jostling for supremacy at the moment, some of them rather ugly, Superman more or less has to reinvent them. Snyder, who tackled Alan Moore’s cynical probing of the theme with Watchmen, offers a kind of dialectical antithesis here, albeit one that still raises awareness of the dark side of being a messiah figure. Man of Steel actually follows through with it, as Clark’s ethical construction as well as origin story is explicated. The paternal dualism of Jor-El and Jonathan is cleverly paralleled by the structure, each offering versions of self-sacrificial communal care: Jonathan is killed, in an affecting twist on the old mythology, trying to save people during a tornado, signalling to Clark not to save him in his certainty that the time for Clark’s public revelation of his gifts has not yet arrived.
Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s quiescent mix of anguish and acquiescence at his place in the scheme of things becomes the defining motif of his journey, leading to a surprisingly nuanced moment when he returns home to Martha, happily declaring he knows now who he is, and she responds with a stiff, faintly wounded bromide, like any mother hurt by an adopted child’s location of an alternative identity. The sense of overwhelming import that infuses Clark’s growing experience finally pays off in that great first flying scene, and when the creation they start to dub Superman finally appears fully formed, setting off to battle with motivation and character as well as apparel settled. When he launches himself into the fray, telling Lois with quiet charm to step back before he takes off at full power, it’s a genuinely rousing moment.
Much less impressive are Snyder’s nods towards religious parallels, which Singer plied tediously. A sequence of Clark consulting a priest to work through his issues hits a note reminiscent of the lost-in-translation, fetishized evocations of Christian iconography in Japanese anime—which might actually be the point. Another element of the film that falls unexpectedly flat is Adams’ Lois. Adams knows how to play neurotic, but appealing energy, and as such, she could be expected to follow comfortably in Kidder’s footsteps. But her Lois never feels very important, and romance between her and Clark is frustratingly dampened until a scene close to the climax when Superman lowers her lovingly to the ground. Kate Bosworth’s much-maligned turn as Lois in Superman Returns was actually one of the better aspects of that film, for Bosworth offered a Lois who was more a frustrated career woman on the verge of being half-willingly domesticated. In retrospect, Bosworth’s Lois feels all the better because Adams’ take remains stolid and functional, a reminder that Snyder’s touch with actors can be weak.
Cavill’s performance holds up under considerable pressure, however: his characterisation is subtler than Reeve’s, if not requiring much flexibility. Cavill sustains the sense of igneous strength under an essential conscientiousness and self-effacing will. Cunningly, Cavill, whose most high-profile role before this was Theseus in the god-awful Immortals (2011), conspires with the film around him to suggest that Superman becomes all the more human, and humane, because of his exceptionalism, rather than in spite of it. The notion that Superman is a hero for whom killing is an abhorrent act, even though he’s finally forced to cross that threshold, finally emerges with force, unlike many superheroes, such as most of the Marvel crew, who are essentially deadly weapons restraining their neuroses.
Zod and Clark are counterpointed throughout not simply in the broken fraternity that produced them, but because of different ideals. In a sneaky twist on the film’s insistent religious imagery, Kal-El is the result of the first nonvirgin birth on Krypton in centuries, Jor-El and Kara having had a baby the old-fashioned way. By contrast, Zod was the result of Krypton’s long genetic engineering programme, manufactured as a member of a warrior caste, one who cannot see past the end of his own nose, bellowing in triumphalist certainty at his quarry, except, of course, Superman, a product of deviant influences, proves superior. The contrast between battles of the spirit and battles of the flesh is exacerbated by Zod’s icy number two Faora (Antje Traue). She smashes her way through soldiers, facing off against a hapless but unswerving human opponent, Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni), for a knife fight that’s going to have an inevitable end, Kryptonian patronising the human in his Horatius-on-the-Bridge moment: “A good death is its own reward.” Fortunately, Clark comes to the rescue, so that, in the film’s best pay-off, Hardy has a delayed self-sacrificing revenge as, firing her quip back at her, he blows Faora, himself, and most of the other invaders up. Traue’s statuesque villainy actually come close to stealing the film: she’s not really asked to provide erotic crackle or narrative depth, but provides both anyway with clinical brutality and genuinely alien regard for a lesser species that surprises her with its gameness. Snyder likes his women kick-ass, so it’s not surprising that he’s more animated by Faora than Lois, who’s reduced to spouting exposition as characterisation (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!”).
Shannon’s Zod, on the other hand, is effective without being surprising, as the actor plays in essentially the same key of perma-ferocity he’s handled a half-dozen times before. Terence Stamp’s disco-glam Zod was distinguished by Stamp’s projection of imperious egotism and confident psychopathy even when speaking clueless malapropisms (“So this is planet Houston!”) reflecting the disconnection between his knowledge and his assumptions. Shannon plays a far more coherent and motivated Zod, but he’s inevitably less fun. Crowe, on the other hand, is aging into a superbly relaxed and engaging actor: whilst in last year’s dreadful The Man with the Iron Fists he provided the sole source of fun, here he fulfils one of the most thankless roles imaginable, the guy who always dies in the first act of this story (previously played by Marlon Brando, no less!), with a blend of paternal poise and conscientious anxiety, believably projected even beyond the grave as a model for his son. Costner, never one of my favourite actors, nonetheless does well in counterpointing Crowe as the kind of role model we all wish our fathers to be, someone who can die ignominiously and yet still become practically omniscient through pure character—which is, indeed, what both Jor-El and Jonathan accomplish. Laurence Fishburne provides the third corner for the great paternal triangle in Clark’s growth, playing Lois’ boss Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in a pitch of sceptical authority.
The much-deplored last act of the film, depicting Clark’s battles with his fellow Kryptonians, is indeed overlong, but also deeply, beautifully in debt to the essential nature of its comic sources, with superbeings rumbling across cityscapes in fistfights that shake worlds, whilst recreating something of the antiheroic tilt of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in making the destruction of Metropolis collateral damage. Snyder and his effects team pull out all the stops to translate the suggested nature of the physical tussling in the comics in a manner the movies haven’t quite managed before. There’s a sense of Superman here as both a bulwark against chaos and also unwitting facilitator of it. Particularly great are a couple of fillips of zest, the first coming when Zod, threatens Martha Clark, only for Superman to come crashing through the wall to drive his foe crashing through fields and silos in a pummelling rage, shouting, “You think you can threaten my mother?” If there’s one absolute law in the fictional universe, it’s that you don’t pick on Superman’s mom.
The second comes as Zod and Superman duel in a world-cracking frenzy, springing from the midst of a devastated city up into space where they kick about a space station before plunging back to Earth: this sequence is so pure in its evocation of the strange logic of the Superman comics that it could be animated pages of the old strip. The finale builds to an effective climax not just of the fighting but also of the essential moral drama of making Superman choose between various evils, making the right choices but with the personal cost for its hero not elided. The howl of anguish Superman releases after snapping Zod’s neck, to save the lives of some hapless passengers, evokes the one he gave over Lois’s body in the Donner film, but with a new dimension. This isn’t actually so new: after all, Superman actually killed Zod far more casually and indeed unfairly, in Superman II (1980), and of course, the interesting question is raised as to who exactly would be Zod’s judge and jailer? No, Snyder’s film doesn’t displace or eclipse Donner’s, but it does earn the right to complement it, proving that a superhero movie can offer a different brand of class. Welcome back, Superman.