Based upon the "Superman" DC Comics series created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster
Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Screenplay Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
*** (three stars)
Near the conclusion of Quentin Tarantino's superlative "Kill Bill Volume 2" (2004), our anti-heroine The Bride (Uma Thurman) is tied up in the clutches of the titular Bill (David Carradine) who, before planning to wipe her from existence once and for all, graces her (and the audience) with a stunning monologue upending comic book mythology for the purpose of discussing the concept of alter-egos and the roles which we all play in life. Regarding the character of Superman, Bill expresses the following:
"Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race."
That monologue resonated with me as I watched Director Zack Snyder and Producer Christopher Nolan's "Man Of Steel," their bold, defiantly risky re-invention/re-exploration of the Superman legend, a film which shook the theater walls valiantly with a dark, disturbingly grim vision that for all of its considerable sound and fury nearly crumbles under its own significant weight.
As we all know from the original comic book mythology, Superman was born as the baby Kal-El on the far away planet Krypton to parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer), who send him to Earth to escape the imminent destruction of their home due to Krypton's disintegrating core. In "Man Of Steel," a re-telling of the Superman origin, all of the previously stated information remains intact but what has been added is that Krypton is also engaged in a climactic war against the renegade and megalomaniacal military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is soon imprisoned in The Phantom Zone alongside his compatriots.
Once Krypton explodes into oblivion, baby Kal-El races through time and space, crash lands on Earth and is discovered and raised as an Earthing by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (very well played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Over the course of "Man Of Steel," Kal-El embarks upon his life journey of self discovery as the film unfolds as a series of snapshot pivotal events in the first 33 years of his life, all of which culminate in the return of General Zod and his army, who plan to destroy Earth and remake Krypton in its place unless the Man Of Steel (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) can stop him.
For those who have seen "Man Of Steel" and were disappointed that the film did not adhere, strictly or partially, to the overall brightness, triumphant heroism and often playful tone of the comic book series or even the classic films with Christopher Reeve, I can understand the frustration yet I cannot align myself with that same sense of disappointment.
As far as my personal relationship with Superman is concerned, I adored the comics as a child. I watched the classic television series starring George Reeves during those early formative years as well. I was 9 years old when Director Richard Donner released his extraordinary "Superman: The Movie" (1978) starring the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the leading roles of our red caped hero and the intrepid newspaper reporter Lois Lane. And Director Richard Lester's "Superman II" (1981) is indeed one of the finest sequels ever made as it actually improved, deepened and strengthened all that came before by surprisingly playing with the classic mythology in truly inventive ways. As for "Man Of Steel," Snyder and Nolan have gone decidedly further...much further. While this film is a quantum leap upwards from Director Bryan Singer's disastrous and interminable "Superman Returns" (2006), as well as being a quantum leap upwards from the masturbatory hell of Snyder's previous film, the mean spirited, stupid and sleazy "Sucker Punch" (2011), "Man Of Steel" is not your Father's, Grandfather's or maybe even Great-Grandfather's Superman in any conceivable way, for better and for worse.
I think part of the many problems with Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" was that it was a film that was much too reverential to the Christopher Reeve era and interpretation that Singer's film had no personality of its own to speak of. Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have clearly taken "Man Of Steel" down a much different path and for me, it was a path I was truly riveted by for a good portion of the film as they wisely realized that if they were going to bother with a new interpretation of Superman, it could not be a film that lived within the shadows of any previous versions. They had to blaze their own trail, which they have done to jointly successful and dangerously unsuccessful degrees. And frankly, the failures of "Man Of Steel" do make me appreciate just how difficult making an effective new story for Superman actually is. Face it...Superman is an embodiment of the perfect being. His inherent goodness and super-powers, as blessed by our shining sun, makes him an infallible character and therefore, a potentially uninteresting one. With regards to the late Christopher Reeve, I just do not believe that we will ever find an individual of his kind again to bring this character to life in any traditional sense. He made Superman completely embraceable due to the intense warmth of his sheer presence the very minute he arrived upon the screen. We latched onto him instantly and his chemistry with Margot Kidder was truly a screen romance for the ages. You just cannot top that. Period.
Like Snyder's excellent film adaptation of "Watchmen" (2009), "Man Of Steel is a dark film for our increasingly dark times. Working with a gritty, non-linear narrative, the film begins with war and apocalypse, ends with the potential genocide of all humans and the near annihilation of Earth and exists within a turbulent state of paranoid fueled agitation throughout. "Man Of Steel" also works a a sly and sharp cultural commentary as Krypton is a world that meets its self-inflicted end through a combustible combination the depletion of the planet's natural resources, political insurgency and war mongering. Sound eerily familiar?
In addition to playing with the classic mythology by muting the romance between our hero and Lois Lane (this time, played crisply by Amy Adams), never mentioning Kryptonite, the Fortress Of Solitude or even the Daily Planet's Jimmy Olsen and even only referencing the name "Superman" only once in the entire film, what Snyder and Nolan do with their vision for "Man Of Steel" is to essentially run in the opposite direction of all previous incarnations and plunge darkly into the heart of the sentiments made by that aforementioned monologue from "Kill Bill Volume 2." Superman has always been the symbol of "truth, justice and the American way" and Christopher Reeve's performance and embodiment represented humanity itself at its best. But this movie is importantly called "Man Of Steel." Superman is not American. Superman is not even an Earthling. Superman is an alien and Snyder and Nolan very smartly decided to tackle the character from the perspective and status of being the ultimate outsider, the being who will never be one of us no matter how long he walks among us. He will always be not of this Earth.
To eliminate comparisons to Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill takes his own risks by not playing either the character of Superman or even Clark Kent. From beginning to end in "Man Of Steel," Cavill is playing the role of Kal-El and I found him to be extremely compelling as he struggles with the existential questions concerning the truth of his identity and of being forced to hide the truth of himself for the comfort and security of the society he has sworn to protect but one he has also been forced to exist within. There are great sequences depicting this internal crisis most particularly, Kal-El's heart to heart talks with Jonathan Kent regarding when he should or should not reveal himself to the world and one beautifully frightening section where he discovers his X-Ray vision as a child during a day at school. This aspect of the character also sets up the film's overt allegory to the story of Jesus Christ, a story that is indeed inherent to the legend of Superman. Just look at how he arrived to Earth...as Jor-El gave his only begotten son to serve as a savior for humankind. Mmmmm....hmmmmm!
Now truth be told, the sequence does have its purposes and there are some images and moments here and there that truly evoke a post 9/11/ "end of the world" horror like Steven Spielberg handled so nightmarishly well with his "War Of The Worlds" (2005). I did greatly appreciate how Snyder utilized the film's opening apocalypse not for popcorn's sake but for something that nearly rivals Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011). You could feel the emotional shock of a world ending and not be wowed by special effects pyrotechnics. The film's concluding war sequences are crucially story driven--how the burdens of Jor-El the Father are cast downwards for Kal-El the son to complete. But the overall tone of "Man Of Steel" becomes a mirror of our society's "shoot first, ask questions later" and Orwellian "Peace Through Strength" political ideology so completely that I was confused if it was critiquing that stance or downright embracing it.
It was during this section of the film where I was wishing that Christopher Nolan had directed the film instead of Zack Snyder as Nolan's sensibilities appeal to me more and I just think he holds a much better handle upon how to utilize action, tension, and excitement and to not allow his films to descend into CGI overload, which Snyder does ad nauseum and completely without restraint or mercy. And then, we wind up in Chicago's Union Station (i.e. the fictional Metropolis) for the film's resounding climactic moment in the war between Kal-El and General Zod. For all of the great risks "Man Of Steel" takes to great effect, I feel that in this section there is a crucial moment where the filmmakers took one risk too many and essentially upended the core of who Superman actually is. I have no problem with filmmakers essentially taking DC Comics characters and giving them Marvel Comics complexity but to make Superman something that he clearly is not, and has never been, was disturbing at best and a flat out unforgivable mistake at worst.
Look, I have often complained against 21st century cinema for not having the audacity to take risks, try new things and extol a personal stamp upon the stories filmmakers wish to tell, The audacity of "Man Of Steel," as grim as it is, I believe is something to be applauded. You cannot blame Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan for desiring to make a new statement and swing for the fences as powerfully as possible. But you also have to know when to rein it all back in, to show that you have control over your material and that the material is not controlling you. In "Man Of Steel," our Kryptonian hero who is faster than a speeding bullet and strong er than a locomotive nearly whipped the film clean out the the filmmakers' hands with a barrage of blistering ugliness that ran against the urgent display of a man's emerging humanity and world responsibility that came before it. The inevitable sequel has already been announced, with a swift release date of possibly next year at that! This worries me because what else is there to build up towards once you've destroyed the world ten times over already?
Zack Snyder's "Man Of Steel" is strong stuff. But it's just not strong enough.