Otherwise known as “Watch the 300 sucker punches in the Inception backyard plus angst”.
When Christopher Nolan was given the role to shepherd in the re-imagining of the classic property of Superman, the whole geek world soaked their underpants just a little. This man who had single-handedly turned the quietly whispered Schumacher mangled franchise back into a billion dollar property.
The approach was bold yet somehow pretty common sense. It was to go with what was canon, then tweak it a little and sprinkle liberally with grit and realism and less shark repellent and neon spandex . The result? Batman reborn as a character not two steps removed from Frank Serpico. More man rather than myth. More flawed rather than icon.
When the announcement was made that Zack Snyder would helm the production to bring Kal-El back to the big screen, at least one thing was guaranteed. The movie would be visually arresting, however the big question mark would still be over the actual storytelling and narrative prowess of this newest approach to telling the story of the last son of Krypton.
Here at Geek Culture, we won’t bury the lead. The best way to answer that is with a question mark. As in when asked if Man of Steel is any good, we answer with “maybe?” or “kinda?”
And here is why.
The story of Clark Kent is a pretty straight forward one. Alien humanoid, the last of his race is sent over to Earth where the difference in physical density and gravity results in his nigh limitless reserves of strength, coupled with his ability to absorb solar radiation to exponentially increase his abilities and regenerate his being. This shapes him up to be potentially a terribly potent villain. But because his formative years are shaped by the grounded values of a loving and moral pair of earthlings, this alien learns that as foreign as he is, he is as more drawn by the normative values of his upbringing and social conscience to become a physical representation of all the values that he holds dear in this adopted land of his. An avatar to the rest of Earth as a living example of what he believes is the very best of human behaviour.
In a nutshell, that’s classic Superman.
So what the film gets right is that this time the deliberate approach is taken to show just how foreign Kal-El really is. Gone are the white togas and chin fat wobbling soliloquys of fat men waddling around in what has to be a Scandinavian lighting commercial.
Krypton now is a living, breathing world with alien indigenous lifeforms and an evolution of technology a few centuries ahead of Earth’s.
Prozac laced Brando has been subbed by Space Maximus Russell Crowe , arguably the toughest looking scientist outside of the milky way. In this film every casting is impeccable, each person portraying a really believable version of their character. Russell does a great job as the egalitarian Jor-El. With great energy the father of Superman chews the scenery opposite the menacing and sometimes hilarious General Zod, played by Michael Shannon doing his best Nicolas Cage impression at times.
There seems to be a concerted effort in this film to empower all the roles and players in this postmodern update, even though by and large the thesis of this film seems to be built around the conflicting ideologies facing one messianic figure in the face of three separate but equal paternal type figures.
The film is stitched with a similar narrative style as that of Batman Begins. Chronology shuffles back and forth through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards. Henry Cavill impresses with his sheer physicality and timbre, though the new take on Clark Kent seems to be a much more brooding one. This Clark Kent slums it up through much of the first third of the film, wandering in search of purpose highlighting the intense loneliness of a man in such a position of power.
Our tortured super hobo wrestles with the dilemmas of identity and responsibility and is not helped by the updated Pa Kent, played by Kevin Costner channeling his best Ray Kinsella impersonation, as if the character had walked directly from Field of Dreams and found a baby in a space pod just fifty meters away from where he built the baseball diamond. In this version Pa Kent is of the “Keep your head down and don’t do anything extraordinary or they’ll drag you off to Area 51 and put probes up your hee haw” variety of conservative parent figure.
The women in Man of Steel are equally as vivacious though lacking a little in the screen time department. Diane Lane has few but some of the best, most moving lines in the story. Amy Adams as Lois breaks the traditional Lois template. She is sharp and observant, and plays more as a character that solves problems rather than contributes to them.
However as well cast and interesting as some of the concepts may be for this version of Superman, it is not without some serious issues in structure.
The films pace is uneven. And almost over edited. The bits that resonate with moral and character development almost get truncated for the expense of the eyeball overloading punch festival that the film degenerates into in the last 40 minutes of the film. While some of the shots of utter devastation are indeed arresting, it does come to the stage where the viewer just stops caring, being over punched and over loaded with scenes of mass architectural collapse lifted almost completely from the scenes of Limbo from the movie Inception.
Nonetheless, this film is more energetic than almost all of the previous Superman films though it doesn’t break the ceiling into epic storytelling that arguably has been achieved in some comic book based character stories on film like Richard Donner’s first Superman, Nolan’s The Dark Knight or even Whedon’s Avengers.
That being said, the absence of any Kryptonite in this film helps keep away any cheap cop outs at least for this first film. When the invaders from Clark’s home planet come to wreck spectacular havoc to his adopted home, the results are titanic and catastrophe sized levels of awe.
It does however come at an expense and there is a clear line where the story stops and Snyder breaks out the visual style guide as dictated by the Michael Bay school of “Make Big Things Go Boom”.
Ultimately, it seems like an opportunity was missed to make the most out of Man of Steel in the same way the Batman Begins did for fully reinvigorating the Batman franchise.
But hey, no Katie Holmes. I guess we can all be thankful for that. Praise Kal-El.