Zack Snyder | 143 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Canada & UK / English | 12 / PG-13
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, eager to find a new mainstream audience, can you imagine how well it would have gone down if it spent the first six or seven minutes on an alien world where old men with silly names wearing strange costumes argued about politics? Fastforward the best part of a decade and, buoyed no doubt by the various scales of success enjoyed by the likes of Avatar (strange alien world, silly names) and Game of Thrones (arguing about politics, silly names), that’s exactly how Superman reboot Man of Steel chooses to spend its opening 20 minutes. (In percentage terms, “6 or 7” is to Doctor Who’s brisk 45 minutes as “20” is to Man of Steel’s indulgent 143.)
Produced by Christopher Nolan and other creatives behind the uber-successful Batman reboot The Dark Knight Trilogy, this is intended to do a similar thing for Superman: a present-day, real-world relaunch. Which begins with a huge sequence on a crazy alien world. Well done, chaps. And that’s before we get into the merits of grounding clean-cut Boy’s Own all-American hero Superman in our ideologically complex modern world. Is that what Superman is? Based on critical and fan reaction to Man of Steel, your mileage may vary — some seem to find it fresh and invigorating, others a betrayal of what this archetypal superhero is meant to be.
Personally, I find it a valid thing to attempt. Rather than take the Superman mythology as read, here Nolan and co — including screenwriter David Goyer and director Zack Snyder — have tried to imagine what would really happen if an alien baby with incredible powers arrived in our world. So Clark Kent hides his abilities, goes on a trek around the world to ‘find himself’, and when he’s uncovered there’s mass media and military interest. Which is pretty accurate, I think. If some guy started stopping oil rigs collapsing single-handed, or flying around the place, the military’s hardly going to sit back and go, “oh OK then”.
Snyder emphasises this “it’s real!” tone with grainy handheld cinematography, which I’m sure is consciously designed to look like a ’70s independent drama. It’s also designed to mask a simple fact: such presentation details and a languorous first half aside, this is a pretty standard blockbuster. Shoot it with clean digital visuals and cut the “finding himself” segments back to a brisk first act and you’d have a completely standard array of big punch-ups and faintly ludicrous plotting. It’s interesting how much a ‘gritty’ sheen (as it were) can persuade people that what they’re watching is revolutionary across the board, but really it’s just a different way of presenting your common-or-garden blockbuster content.
The filmmakers have certainly bought into their own conceit, to a frankly laughable extent. The Blu-ray contains a featurette called All-Out Action, which the menu describes as follows: “The action in Man of Steel soars to new heights with a level of realism never before seen in a super hero film.” Hahahaha! Realism my arse. Once the action kicks in it’s positively comic book. Men are hurled around like rag dolls; Metropolis is destroyed in a huge flying punch-up, which just feels like a less effective re-hash of The Matrix Revolutions. There’s nothing wrong with comic book action in a comic book movie, in my opinion, but shooting it on desaturated grain-addled film stock with handshake and ragged zooms does not make your OTT computer-generated fight “soar to new heights with a level of realism never before seen”.
This is before we even get on to the morally divisive aspects of said fighting. Much talk focused on two elements (spoilers follow for the next three paragraphs): the large-scale destruction of Metropolis, and Superman killing Zod. Defenders say that destruction happens, that Metropolis was evacuated, and that Superman had no choice but to kill Zod to save innocent lives. Opposers say we don’t need to see so much disaster on screen (especially in the wake of other films, like The Avengers, showing similar city-level destruction), and that it’s out of character for Superman to murder someone in cold blood and it simply shouldn’t have happened. My view is split between the two.
As to the destruction of the city, I think the criticism is right. The city clearly isn’t evacuated before buildings start falling — it’s being evacuated, but no one even knew to start running before the Massive Machine Of Destruction (I forget what it was actually for) turns up and starts destroying things. People run into the streets as buildings fall on them. As a viewer, how can you miss that hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocents are dying? The cinematography makes it look like 9/11 — incredibly like 9/11, in fact. That was 12 years ago by the time of the film’s release, but is it OK to trade on such iconography in a blockbuster entertainment? Should we just ignore the notion that so many ‘extras’ are dying because, hey, it’s just a superhero movie? But aren’t we meant to be taking this as Real World, chaps?
The fate of Zod, on the other hand, is a different matter. I think it’s interesting to push heroes — heck, characters fullstop — in new and challenging directions. It’s all too easy to just avoid putting a character in a certain situation so you don’t have to see what they’d do; to give Superman an easy way to lock the villain up so he doesn’t have to make any other decision. But what if that isn’t an option? What if someone just as powerful is running around killing people at random; what if it’s within your power to stop him from imminently murdering a family with kids, but the only way to achieve that is to kill him? That’s the position Snyder, Goyer and Nolan put Superman in at the climax, and that’s the decision he has to make. Does he do the right thing? In fairness, I think that’s the debate the film is asking for. It’s not like Superman walks away fine with what he did, and I expect the idea is that his actions will have an impact on his values going forward.
There’s a lot else that Man of Steel plays with in the Superman legend besides the violence and cinematography. Some people will surely miss the bumbling Clark Kent, the burgeoning relationship with Lois Lane, and so on. These elements are eventually brought in, sometimes in a modified way, which makes it feel like they’ve been put in place — Superman Begins style — to be used in a sequel. Except we know the sequel is headed off in the Batman vs Superman direction, so how much ‘clumsy Clark’ we’ll get to see is questionable. I have to say, I don’t blame the makers going a new way — how do you compete with the Christopher Reeve classics? And if you try to emulate them, you end up with Superman Returns, which was a box office and critical success but for some reason is remembered as a failure in both regards.
A 21st Century reinvention of the oldest superhero is an interesting notion, and in some regards Man of Steel works; but those successes are regularly marred by superficial ‘innovations’ that don’t click. The final result is a standard blockbuster masquerading as something revolutionary; an adequate film that indulges itself, leading to a belief it’s something more, which is ultimately to the detriment of its audience.