In 2009, Jonathan Ross wrote a popular article discussing a scandal over half a century old, and one that may have been nothing more than a smoke with no fire. Much of the furore was quite plainly concerned with a figure who didn’t even exist. This scandal had recently been brought into the public eye in a book entitled ‘Secret Identity’, a book that gave a convincing argument for the shamed, secret career of Joe Schuster and his descent from star comic book artist to pulpy fetish mag illustrator. Why was this just such a big deal? Entirely because Schuster was the co-creator of Superman.
Superman, so-called not merely because of his super strength, but his unwavering dedication to a moral ideal we consistently fail to adhere to even as we admire it, a man from a world so very alien to our own in its perfectness. There is a rigid formula that lies behind the last son of Krypton, one steeped in childish wonder.
So what happens when you take this idea and put it in a world borne out of contemporary concerns; political apathy, climate change and mistrust, as Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder do? Do you still have a Man of Steel? Do you still have a Superman film worthy of the name?
Defining Superman in film seems to have been something Warner Bros. has struggled with for decades. The Christopher Reeves films descended from bright, poppy fare into full-blown camp farce, and after countless aborted projects, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was seen as lifeless in its slavish dedication to Donner’s originals. And they still seem to be struggling. Man of Steel is far from the unpleasant experience a film steered by Zack Snyder and Transformers cinematographer Amir Mokri would suggest, both of whom instead bring their A-game to the table. It’s Nolan and Goyer’s script that falters.
The planet Krypton is dying, whether its bickering council of Elders would believe it or not. Decades of stringent social control and expansion have taken their toll on the planet’s core, forcing the authoritarian General Zod (Michael Shannon) to wage a coup against the Kryptonian rulers. Amidst all of this, Krypton’s first birth by natural means has occurred, and the boy’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is determined to protect his son from both the planet’s destruction and the decisions that led to doom. Kal-El is sent to Earth with all that remains of Krypton, and Zod to the Phantom Zone, intent on reclaiming his people’s legacy.
Man of Steel thus follows the fundamental origin story of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) with a slightly more downbeat, ‘modern’ edge, at once going through the motions and attempting to give them a contemporary spin that will endow this childhood figure with a sense of maturity. Clark is a drifter, unsure of his place in the world. Zod is a brutalist warmachine; the unhappy product of a society that no longer values its people.
Superman’s symbol has been reinterpreted as a Kryptonian badge for hope – something, it is implied, he brings to a tired and forlorn Earth. But really, that perfect world Superman hails from isn’t Krypton, and it never was; it’s the Metropolis we all hold so dear. Superman’s mission may be to make the world a better place, but thematically speaking, it is the glittering, idealised New York he inhabits that makes him.
This cynical edge worked for Nolan and Goyer in their Dark Knight trilogy, sitting in resonance with Batman’s fundamental character traits whilst still allowing for a more detached questioning of what it means to be don a cape in a hostile world, and what that says about the man behind the mask. With Superman however, there’s no room for cynicism – the material demands to be treated with the same earnestness it extorts, and as a result you’re left feeling that Nolan’s dealing with materials he feels himself somewhat above.
Yet Man of Steel still manages to hold its own, through a combination of stellar performances from all involved, and Zack Snyder’s own moments of straightforward love for the material. Zack as long been hailed as the geek’s director – often disparagingly – but here his love of the source material is what helps give the film something of the heart it so desperately needs. There’s a clear adoration for the character in the lens if not always in the script, and when things do get heavy, Snyder and Mokri’s camera-work stays on the right side of chaotic, with the blows feeling real, and the Kryptonians conveyed as suitably otherworldly in their strength and agility.
Much has been said of the relationship between Lois and Clark in this film, so much so that it seems pointless merely regurgitating the same old points. Amy Adams and Cavill both work admirably with what they’re given in screen time, and they, along with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, do a strong job at injecting the film with much of the human touch it so desperately needs, but the bloody-minded desire to make this a “serious” comic book movie starts to tip the film into that po-faced realm many accused The Dark Knight Rises of heading toward.
Man of Steel is a highly enjoyable film, and I do recommend seeing it. But if you’re expecting Nolan and Goyer to do for Superman what they did for Batman, you’re going to be disappointed. They can see the darkness in Bruce Wayne, but they can’t see the joy that lies behind Superman. Thankfully, everyone else involved in the film can.