Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns came in out in 2006 to a somewhat muted response. Although I for one felt the film got a lot right. In particular Lois Lane’s article “Why the world doesn’t need Superman” struck right to the core of what a Superman story should be, it’s less about who he is than what he represents. Unfortunately the final act of that film was all kinds of terrible, and as a result it’s taken seven years for there to a reboot.
Man of Steel is based on a story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, the main two minds behind the Dark Knight trilogy. Joining them is Zack Snyder, already a director familiar with adapting comic book characters to the big screen (300, Watchmen).
The film opens with the birth of Clark Kent, or Kal-El to give his his Kryptonian name. The planet Krypton is about to be destroyed and his parents send him off to Earth as a way of keeping their race alive. Meanwhile the sinister General Zod (Michael Shannon) forms a military coup to try ‘save’ Krypton. However, he is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, a fairly short-sighted plan which sees him and his followers as Krypton’s only survivors.
Thirty years later we see a grown-up Clark Kent struggling to find his place in the world. He is yet to don the familiar suit and cape, but still there when people need him. It’s not long however before General Zod shows up asking for Clark’s head, otherwise he’ll destroy earth. Should Kent give himself up? Or try and save the earth some other way?
The excellent trailer for Man of Steel ironically tells you everything that’s wrong with the film. The whole movie literally feels like a trailer. No one has actual conversations, but delivers EPIC lines over a foreboding score. Action scenes are very visually impressive (like all of Snyder’s work), but because the film rarely takes a break from them, they left me feeling bored and longing for a moment’s silent reflection.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing was the character of Clark’s earth father, Jonathan Kent. In most Superman iterations, he acts as a moral guide for Clark, teaching him right from wrong, and generally showing him the best of what it means to be human. In this telling, it is almost the opposite. He tells him to protect his identity at all costs, going so far as to suggest leaving a bus full of his classmates to drown may be the right thing to do.
The controversial ending to the film also betrays the fact Snyder and co. wanted a new “21st Century” version of Superman. The mistake they here was to change his character, Superman is always outside the world looking in. Instead they should have chosen to show the ways the world has changed, and that what a ‘Superman’ means today might be different to when the first films came out in the 1970s.
What they chose to instead is send the message that the 21st Century does not need Superman, but rather a flawed hero forced to make difficult choices, someone we can ‘relate’ to. As a result, he becomes just like any other hero, and Man of Steel becomes just like any other superhero film.
Overall, Man of Steel is a film high on action but lacking in just about every other aspect. This Superman does not feel inspiring enough, Lois Lane does not feel independent enough, Jonathan Kent does not feel moral enough. It is a film where you feel like everything is being thrown at you, but nothing seems to stick. For me, a real disappointment. Perhaps Superman Returns wasn’t so bad after all?