Superman Reborn: Revisiting Man of Steel

With Dawn of Justice inevitably dividing audiences, Oscar goes back to Zack Snyder’s first entry in the DC Extended Universe. Is this Superman done right or a total disaster? 

There’s the sense that I’m throwing down a gauntlet to a crowd of disapproving readers when talking about Man of Steel, one of the most divisive superhero films to date. It’s like the Marmite of comic cinema; you either love it or hate it. As for me, it’s a film I very much enjoy and consider good, but there are flaws holding it back from its full potential. So, in this review, I will break down the film into its components and assess how and why it ultimately succeeded in its mission: to bring back Superman.

The story opens with Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), wife of prominent scientist Jor-El (Russel Crowe), giving birth to Kal-El, the first naturally-born child on the planet Krypton in centuries. Jor-El tries to warn the Council of their world’s imminent implosion, but General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a coup and takes Jor-El hostage after refusing to join his side. He escapes and steals the Codex, which holds the DNA of all Kryptonians, and infuses Kal’s cells with that very DNA, later launching his son into space. Zod and his followers are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone for treason and murder, but the planet is torn apart from within, ending all life on Krypton.

Kal-El’s ship crash-lands in Smallville, Kansas, where he is raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) as their son, Clark. When his superpowers, including super-strength and X-ray vision, start to manifest themselves, young Clark (Henry Cavill) grows up living among humans but never being one of them. He journeys across the world from menial job to menial job but never settles in, always doing good wherever he can. Eventually, he discovers a crashed Kryptonian spacecraft in the arctic and learns of his true heritage from the preserved consciousness of Jor-El. The Jor-El intelligence instructs him to perfect his powers and use them for the betterment of humanity, bestowing him the blue and red suit, with which Clark tests his limits and masters the power of flight.

Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) of the Daily Planet starts to unravel the mystery surrounding his appearance on Earth. However, the world is threatened when Zod and his cohorts, having escaped from the Phantom Zone, demand Clark’s surrender and prepare to create a new Krypton in Earth’s place. Clark must decide whether to side with his adopted Earth home or against his own race as they prepare to wipe out humanity.

Each member of the cast brings something to the table. Cavill is by far the best Superman since Christopher Reeve, capturing the character’s nobility, warmth and authority; he simply disappears into the role. Adams’ portrayal of Lois did lean too closely to Lana Lang at times, but her intelligence, warmth and determination came through, and having her proactively involved made her smarter and more independent. Crowe is full of gravitas and heart as Jor-El and gets plenty of screen-time to effectively carry the film. Costner was cast well as the reserved and guarded Jonathan Kent, and Lane nails the character of Martha despite her limited appearances; her interactions with Cavill are very warm and tender. Shannon has a dominating presence as Zod, and is a believably militant war leader who wants to save his race. Antje Trauje is another scene-stealer as the intense and ferocious warrior Faora. Despite his limited time as Perry White, Laurence Fishburne conveys a stern and compassionate figure of leadership. As the younger Clark, Dylan Sprayberry does a decent enough job, especially opposite an acting veteran like Costner. Even the military supporting cast like General Swanwick, Colonel Hardy and Dr. Emil Hamilton get a boost from being portrayed by fine actors like Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff, respectively.

The score by Hans Zimmer is one my new favourites by him in the last five years, ranging from touching and emotional to highly suspenseful. There’s a lot of percussion and loud brassy segments, and it works both in the film’s context and outside of it as well. The emotional scenes are fittingly sad and tragic or have a sublime joy to them. The new Superman theme is a great one for the Man of Steel, and the “Flight” cue still sends chills down my spine, building and building until a magnificent release as Supes takes to the skies.

Man of Steel kept the action quotient high and spectacular throughout, providing a sense of scale and the fragility of civilisation, demonstrating how super-powered beings would fight in reality. Action and destruction is expected from disaster or superhero films, but it seems that Man of Steel was treated very harshly for going overboard in that regard, so perhaps cutting one or two action scenes for pacing would have helped. On a pure spectacle level, this is some of the biggest action we’ve ever seen in a comic book movie. However, the amount of time spent on set-pieces does take minutes away from Clark, Lois and Martha.The handheld camerawork by Snyder has its drawbacks with how the camera bobs up and down during even the slower and more character-driven scenes. Although it was not done to insufferable degrees such as Cloverfield, in which I got motion sickness halfway through. This isn’t plain and simple “9/11 imagery” created just to elicit cheap shock value. I don’t recall any giant spacecraft or energy pulse weapons on 9/11, and the imagery of buildings falling down is the imagery of buildings falling down. It’s a trope that isn’t exclusive to this film alone and is ultimately baseless.

The balance of CGI and practical effects is admirable and they blend together seamlessly. There are a lot of shots of Zod walking around in a CGI metal suit, and it looks consistently convincing. I love the design of Krypton because it does something aesthetically new with the planet and gives a greater sense of culture for the plane’s inhabitants. With the fusion of pulp sci-fi and high fantasy elements, it felt like technology from another world. For me, the slant of heightened reality applied to the science fiction qualities seen on Krypton make the planet feel more real. Overall, the effects and production design are Oscar-worthy. The cinematography from Transformers alum Amir Mokri is a bit of a mixed bag. The Smallville flashbacks have warmth and intimacy to them, along with the forbidding icy grey palette of the Arctic and Kryptonian scout ship. The antiquity and dystopian character of Krypton is complimented by this visual tone. However, once we get to Metropolis, these scenes feel too grey and austere and suggest a more cynical film. The desaturated colours became an issue for me because it feels like an unnecessary departure from Snyder’s usual dark but vibrant style.

Man of Steel is an origin story in the vein of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, but takes on a darker and “more realistic” tone similar to The Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite not being as light or witty as the Donner movies, it’s also not really that dark, but has more of an earnest flavour to it. It’s also quite dry: a bit like an Oscar-bait drama or 70s disaster movie. Snyder also dials back the slow-motion and his style shows a lot of handheld camera work with zooms, as well as slow, tender shots of butterflies or birds in flight that almost feel arthouse in design. Despite this, the film is actually very hopeful and optimistic, but also quite stuffy at the same time, yet that’s contrasted with the sci-fi concepts and high octane battle scenes. This combination of factors means it is a very niche superhero film.

The two styles of Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan don’t really coalesce; one is oil and one is water. But you can see Nolan’s influence in a very Snyder movie. Back when it came out, a number of people accused it of being a Michael Bay Transformers movie due to the excessive action and destruction. However, consider the welcome absence of Bay’s typical racial stereotypes, lazy scripts, lowbrow and racist humour, empty platitudes for morals, and questionable directorial choices. None of these are problems you can realistically lobby towards Man of Steel.

Another divisive element in Man of Steel is the flashbacks. In Batman Begins, they were very organic and well-paced, but in Man of Steel, the flashbacks appear and disappear too quickly and choppily. Still, there is an essential theme to them. We see that, while he has an alien heritage and powers, his adopted family still love him. Furthermore, we see that his unwillingness to give up on people and himself is what keeps him going, as seen when Clark wakes up and sees the whales swimming overhead after remembering his mother’s words of wisdom. Overall, while they could have been implemented much more smoothly, the flashbacks benefit the film’s pacing.

David S. Goyer has never been my favourite screenwriter. He has been attached to a fair number of superhero films that I’ve enjoyed, but he has a habit of overwriting his plotlines and underwriting his characters. Most of Jonathan’s dialogue is spent setting up Clark’s moral philosophy and conversely warning him against making himself known to the world; it doesn’t make him stand-out all that much as a character. Many point to the fact that, because of the rushed pacing and emphasis on action, we don’t really get inside the heads of our protagonists. Ultimately, Goyer is more of a story or ideas man, and while there are many ideas and concepts laced throughout the story, the issue lies in communicating these themes.

Jonathan clearly loves his son regardless of his alien heritage and those scenes between him and Clark were very heartfelt. I know the most frequently used criticism against him is that he advocates that Clark should keep his head down and not help people. It is born out of concern for his son to warn him against showing off his powers, especially in the 21st century. It proves that Pa Kent is just a normal farmer who doesn’t have all the answers. We don’t see them instil the values and moral lessons we associate with Superman. Ultimately, Jonathan is aware that Clark is not yet ready to face the world, and the world is not yet ready for him.

Superman is the ultimate outsider, simultaneously alien and more human than any of us. You can make a dark Superman movie, but Superman cannot be the source of darkness in that story; he has to remain the man of hope and optimism in a troubled world, and the film reflects this. He deals with the same emotions that we feel. Some people want Superman to be as powerful as he is in the comics, without showing him making mistakes and learning from said errors. Whereas Zod is a ruthless elitist, Kal-El is compassionate and altruistic. In this manner, he embodies the hopes and aspirations of Krypton’s people for a better future whilst Zod personifies the authoritarianism and Social Darwinism that drove Krypton to ruin in the first place. Before Clark even puts on the suit, he already uses his powers to help people, such as saving a bus full of kids from a river, saving the survivors of a burning oil rig, stepping up against a surly bar patron harassing a waitress, or healing Lois’ wounds. The benefits of the decidedly darker tone are real stakes for Earth’s survival, tension, as well as having Superman face a bigger challenge than he’s ever faced on film. If Superman didn’t go after the World Engine, any individual saved in Metropolis would be killed moments later. In giving Superman a dilemma, he has to choose between saving a few people in immediate danger or saving the entire world. Without divulging major spoilers, the climactic resolution was a last-resort option, and he was instantly remorseful. It hasn’t resulted in him going down a darker path. If anything, it has affirmed his desire to preserve life.

As gritty and austere as the film is in many parts, I think you have to experience that bleakness in order to appreciate the sense of hope at the end. I was engaged throughout and appreciated the new spins on the familiar Superman mythos. We saw him go up against one of the greatest evils he’s ever faced, and selflessly fight back against violence, oppression and tyranny, standing up for what’s right and important. I see the love of two fathers for their child and a mother unlocking his potential. I see a man taking a leap of faith, and his unbreakable dedication to his mission and his home planet, and I see the ideal of hope emerging through the darkness. I see a man of steel with a heart of gold. And that, my friends, is Superman.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The film released in June 2013, the 75th anniversary of Superman.
  • Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe had met years prior to playing father and son when Henry was an extra in Proof of Life (2000), and received words of encouragement to pursue acting and an autographed picture from Crowe, who was his favorite actor.
  • When Clark is first learning to fly, he is only able to make a few gigantic bounds. In the first few Superman comics in 1938-9, he was not able to fly but could only leap 1/8 of a mile like a high-powered kangaroo. The first cartoons and movies decided that this looked undignified, and made him fly which looks more majestic, even though physics give no logical reason for him to have this ability.
  • Many scenes were taken from the graphic novel Superman: Birthright written by comic book writer Mark Waid.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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