By Niall McArdle
Did Warner Bros. name its Superman film Man of Steel because they couldn’t get the rights to the name Son of God? There has always been an overtly Christian theme to the story of the man who is sent to Earth by his dad and becomes the saviour of the planet. This was sublimated in previous incarnations in the comics, on television and in the cinema in favour of silly but enjoyable “is it a bird? is it a plane?” heroics and an ongoing love affair with plucky reporter Lois Lane. Her journalistic instincts, by the way, have always troubled me: how anyone can be fooled by a pair of spectacles is perhaps the most amazing thing in the Superman lore.
No matter: Superman is after all a comic book hero, so simplistic nonsense is the order of the day. Why then did DC comics and Warner Bros. hand off the son of Jor-el to Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, two of the most self-important and humourless filmmakers around? Nolan – he of the noisy and pretentious Dark Knight trilogy – produced and co-wrote. Snyder inflicted the homo-erotic muscle-beach concoction 300 and the undergraduate metaphysical studies Watchmen on us, and he is the director here. Together, Nolan and Snyder have made a two-and-a-half hour film that is full of bombast, pathos and Christology, but is sadly lacking in wit, humour and by the end, sense.
The planet Krypton is doomed, but only Jor-el seems to know it. He is played by Russell Crowe, and you should know that this is not Foster’s-swilling, matey Aussie Russell Crowe; this is sober and sombre Russell Crowe, full of pomp and plum of voice. He puts his only son in a capsule and dispatches him Moses-like to Earth, and says things like “he will be free to forge his own destiny” and “he will be a god to them” while staring at the stars. He also flies around on a dragon, but the less that’s said about that, the better.
Kal-el crashes amongst the cornfields of Kansas, and Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) call him Clark and raise him. They teach him good, honest middle American values, which apparently include hiding your true self, especially if you’re different (one wonders how sensitive youths in Kansas deal with life?) Poor Clark gets bullied in school but he has to turn the other cheek and resist opening a can of super whoop-ass because it will bring unwanted attention. He does save his classmates from drowning when he lifts their crashed schoolbus out of a river, which causes the neighbours to think he’s been chosen by God.
Clark’s youth is covered in brief flashbacks from the main action, and his Kansas childhood is a Winslow Homer fantasy: flags and laundry fluttering in the breeze, golden sunsets. We don’t get too much of young Clark other than the schoolbus incident, and the film skips right over the awkward teenage years when Clark would have been writing super-bad poetry, suffering super-acne and having super-wet dreams. Instead, Clark (Henry Cavill) becomes a drifter in the rainy Pacific Northwest, and then eventually makes his way to the Arctic to find out exactly who he is and fulfil his destiny. By a marvellously clunky plot contrivance, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is also there, and soon she’s pursuing him with all the gusto that a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Daily Planet can muster.
She’s a dogged reporter, but she has to be the only Pulitzer Prize winner who hands her story over to another journalist – an internet conspiracy nutbar, no less – simply because her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) kills the story. Mind you, he’s not exactly a great editor either. When the FBI come looking for her, his advice is “this is not the time to fall back on journalistic integrity”. No wonder the newspaper industry is in trouble.
The square-jawed Man of Steel has always been a fairly bland do-gooder, and Cavill does what he can to give the role some gravitas, but the performance is badly hampered by the script, which – unlike other iterations of the hero, at least Christopher Reeve got to play Kent as a bumbling coward – offers no distinction between a guilt-ridden Clark Kent and a gloomy Superman. So all Cavill can do is be Super Jesus: he’s been on Earth for 33 years, and several times in the film he puts his arms out and forms a crucifix.
Jor-el’s hologram pops back into the film as an expositional deus-ex-machina, so we get to listen to Russell Crowe’s plummy tones again as he outlines a brief history of Krypton and Kal-el’s significance. It’s close to an hour into the film before we get to see Superman fly. I’m not sure why the filmmakers need another hour and a half of story, but apparently they do, even though most of that consists of confusing, epic CGI fights between Superman and main Krypton bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon in latex and wearing a beatnik beard).
These fights destroy most of Metropolis in ways that look left over from the citywide destruction in the Transformers movies and The Avengers. There’s a lot that’s silly about this extended sequence. I know the recession is tough and job security is slim, but surely people could get the day off work when there is an alien threat to our species hanging in the sky. And I’m not sure if it’s a comfort that even when we’re threatened with extinction, we still have ihop. However, I am satisfied to report the death of at least one hipster.
The only real bright spot in all of this nonsense is Michael Shannon. He plays Zod as a genuinely unhinged military nut, part Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God, part George C. Scott in Patton, and he has a grand time of it. He’s a remarkable actor: he gets to say “I will harvest the Codex from your son’s corpse and I will rebuild Krypton atop his bones” and still keep a straight face. Shannon makes the role his own. I thought that I would never hear the name Zod again without thinking of Terence Stamp, or even this:
There’s also some sub-par Samurai code (“a good death is its own reward”), some odd military jargon (do fighter pilots really say things like “Permission to unleash the hounds”?), and an overwhelming, booming, but totally forgettable score from Hans Zimmer. I don’t remember a single joke in the film. There is a moment of lightness at the very end (and the only smile in the entire film), but by then I’d stopped caring. Also, Metropolis has no distinct character. At no point, sadly, was there anything to compare to this:
Verdict: Send it back to the Phantom Zone.
The DVD comes as a 2-disc edition. Special features include an exploration of the Superman mythology, an animated celebration of 75 years of Superman, a couple of behind the scenes features, and oddly, a location report from The Hobbit.
- Man of Steel 2 will see ‘physical’ fight between Batman and Superman (byonlineweb.com)