How to reinvent an icon, known for seventy five years, recognised the world over, unmistakable, and crucially one who has been omnipresent in popular culture for all that time? It may be seven years since Brandon Routh flew across the silver screen in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but while he may never have worn the familiar costume Tom Welling portrayed both Clark Kent and Kal-El for ten television seasons between 2001 and 2011 on Smallville, to say nothing of the ongoing comic titles where the character originated in June 1938.
Unlike Superman Returns, which picked up the story following a long off-planet absence after the events of 1980’s Christopher Reeve starring Superman II, wisely ignoring the embarrassment of both Superman III and The Quest for Peace, Man of Steel is an origin story, as is the current fashion of superhero films to reinvent their icons for the modern audience.
With the current popularity of the genre, this is an approach which makes sense, allowing a uniformity of presentation granted by contemporary production techniques, opening the film to a wide audience without need of prior familiarity with the characters (not necessarily a problem in the case of Superman), and a release from the weighty baggage of accumulated history, much as the comic books periodically reinvent themselves for new generations.
Director Zack Snyder is no stranger to comic adaptations, having guided both Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen to the screen, both of them very literal translations but both already structured in a format which readily offered themselves to the movie screen and also both aimed at the older audience which Snyder favoured in his bloody remake of Dawn of the Dead and Sucker Punch.
Working from a script by David S Goyer, whose variable resume holds Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance alongside Blade II and The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel is certainly a reinvention of much of the origin of Superman, beginning with an extended prologue on a vision of Krypton with more in common with John Carter than the frigid wastelands of Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie, where Jor-El (Gladiator’s Russell Crowe) and Lara (Angels & Demons’ Ayelet Zurer) have broken tradition by secretly giving birth to a natural son, Kal-El, an act of heresy.
A military coup led by General Zod (Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon) attempts to seize control of the capital from the “degenerate bloodlines” who have corrupted Kryptonian society. The insurrection is put down, but the planet is already doomed due to the collapse of the core which has been accelerated by “harvesting” it as a power source; Kal-El is sent to a distant star system where the young star will enhance the cells of his body.
Rather than the step-by-step arrival, childhood and discovery of his abilities, Snyder wisely jumps forward to Clark Kent travelling the world anonymously, aware of his powers and his responsibility to those around him, but also his responsibility to himself, to remain hidden, echoing the concern of his long dead birth mother that he will be an outcast, a freak who would be killed if it was known what he was.
Inevitably, circumstances require the intervention of the man who will become Superman, and on an Arctic expedition where Kryptonian technology has been discovered, Pulitzer winning Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane becomes interested in the man with the false identity who vanished into the night after saving her life.
Despite a running time of over two hours and twenty minutes, Man of Steel is simultaneously rushed and a tiresome slog, a series of disjointed highlights; Krypton becomes a battle scene and the planet explodes before the audience can come to know this strange society or care about the characters, Lara in particular coming across as passive decoration in contrast to her action man husband, but worse is to come.
With the key events of his childhood on Earth told through flashbacks which punctuate and inform the current action, particularly the traumatic development of his powers and the death of his adopted father Jonathan Kent (a warm performance from Waterworld’s Kevin Costner), the middle section of the film is handled efficiently, which only highlights the crashing failure of the third act as Snyder casually throws away any goodwill he had earned to that point.
Having escaped from their imprisonment following the destruction of Krypton, General Zod and his followers arrive on Earth, their target specifically Kal-El and what his bloodline represents for recreating their lost homeworld. What follows is an hour of escalating destruction, in Smallville, in Metropolis, on a global scale, each confrontation following the same format as the Kryptonian technology (too reminiscent of the biomechanics of The Matrix), explosions and endlessly collapsing buildings take precedence over narrative and character.
Disappointingly bland in Immortals, Henry Cavill certainly looks the part and manages the almost superhuman task of making Kal-El his own; handsome, honourable, proud and yet humble when the occasion calls for it, unlike previous portrayals he is far from a goody-two-shoes as his encounter with a badly behaved truck driver proves, yet that doesn’t excuse his lack of attempt to protect the civilians of Metropolis by either trying to move the conflict away from the densely populated area or contain it within a section of the city.
Successor to the insipid Kate Bosworth whose Lois Lane undermined the relationship on which the whole plot of Superman Returns was built, the challenge facing Enchanted’s Amy Adams was not so great but even so her effortless charm, honesty and dedication shine through, and while she and Cavill share precious little screen time there is much to build on in the almost inevitable sequel.
The relationship between Lois and Kal-El has never been depicted like this in a motion picture; they are friends, they trust each other, and crucially she knows his secret almost from the outset yet will not betray it, placing herself in danger both from her own government and General Zod to protect the man she believes to be a force for good, a position few others support.
Of the supporting cast, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne do well in what is little more than extended cameos as Martha Kent and Perry White; for all his dominance of the action, Shannon is reduced to a screaming monomaniac whose blinkered devotion to his cause makes him little more than a monster, a far less interesting interpretation than that of Terence Stamp.
With Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack as dour as the film it supports, Man of Steel deeply misses the John Williams fanfare which Singer retained for Superman Returns, and while that film was not entirely successful it had a good deal more heart in it than this, the only joy being allowed to watch as Kal-El learns to fly across mountains and fields, a whirlwind aerial tour the width of the Americas.
Had more of Man of Steel focused on the uplifting optimism which has made Superman an enduring touchstone for generations in moments such as this, an upstanding and uncompromised role model, the enduring iconic hero who defines the very genre, it would be a less disappointing experience, even had modernity dictated that image be somewhat tempered.
Rather, with the symbol on his costume the Kryptonian icon for Hope, though it may have been dashed on this occasion, it is a firm foundation upon which to build a future if this cast are allowed to fly manner unfettered by Snyder’s destructive urges.