Our disagreement mirrored the reaction to this surefire blockbuster – because the first wave of reviews, mostly written by comic-book aficionados (people like this young woman), have been over-the-moon about Man of Steel, whereas the second wave, written by jobbing reviewers (people like me), have been much more mixed. Clearly there’s something here that resonates with Superman fans on a deep level – whereas non-fans or casual fans (I guess I fall in the second category, having liked the first two Christopher Reeve films back in the 80s) may be less enthused. The final hour especially – which is wall-to-wall spectacle, with three (3) successive action climaxes – is something of an endurance test.
What is it that thrills the fanboys (and fangirls)? Maybe it’s tone. This is a humourless film, along the lines of director Zack Snyder’s breakout hit 300 (albeit without the fascist overtones); the dialogue teems with ‘Behold!’ moments, including both “Release the World Engine!” and “Surrender the Codex!”. A brief bit of light relief, when Lois Lane (Amy Adams) asks Superman (Henry Cavill) about the ‘S’ on his clothes, is notable for being so unusual – and indeed the word ‘Superman’ is spoken only once, our hero known exclusively as Kal-El (on Krypton) or Clark Kent (on Earth). The film’s air of seriousness is bound to resonate more with viewers who take this stuff seriously.
Actually, let me rephrase. It’s not that I don’t take Superman seriously, as a viewer; it’s more that I don’t automatically take him seriously. The onus is on any new version to make him come alive – and Man of Steel mostly falls short. This is Superman as Sexy Hunk, going conspicuously shirtless (“I just think he’s kind of hot,” admits a shamefaced female soldier). This is Superman as Gentle Doctor, looking at Lois with infinite sadness as he prepares to cauterize her wound: “Hold my hand. It’s going to hurt…” This, above all, is Superman as Jesus with a touch of Gandhi, called on by the shade of his father Jor-El to be a symbol of “every person’s potential to be a force for Good”. “Guide them,” implores Jor-El, “give them hope” – and indeed the aforementioned ‘S’ isn’t an ‘S’ at all, but some kind of ideogram meaning ‘Hope’ in Kryptonian.
Flashbacks show Supe as a child and younger man, overwhelmed by his powers then slowly learning how to focus and restrain himself. He never fights back when provoked – partly because his super-strength would cause real damage, but also because non-violence seems to be part of his creed. Yet the virtuousness, in itself, was never the most interesting part of Superman. The drama lay in having to hide his light under a bushel, forced to pose as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent (which Man of Steel elides till the very end, and even then Lois isn’t fooled by his disguise) and his fish-out-of-water persona as a clean-cut hero in a cynical world. Man of Steel skips all that, concentrating mostly on Earth vs. Krypton. Zod wants to replace the former with the latter, so what will our hero choose? Earth raised him, Krypton birthed him. Earth (literally) gives him strength, but Krypton is (literally) encoded in his DNA. It’s not a very strong dilemma – since, after all, Clark has no real attachment to Krypton – but at least it’s a dilemma.
The final hour has no dilemmas, or much in the way of character. First we have the mayhem of an alien-invasion movie (or the climax of The Avengers) – the Army fighting Zod with planes and choppers, with Superman also in the mix – then, after Metropolis gets pounded for a good 20 minutes, comes a second action climax (our heroes trying to destroy Zod’s spaceship by dropping another spaceship on top of it, a half-hour sequence with 9/11 images and frantic cross-cutting to minor characters), then, when you’re ready to go home, comes a third action climax, a mano-a-mano showdown between Supe and Zod.
Man of Steel takes overkill to new levels. Even those who find the first half psychologically strong must concede that the last hour is just vapid spectacle and special effects – and there’s so much of it! My take is simple: the Superman story has been done to death (Smallville ran for 10 seasons), there’s nothing left to say about it, so the film disguises its basic hollowness with bombastic sound and fury. The fans’ take (represented by that angry 19-year-old) is that Man of Steel enriches the Superman mythos and gives the big guy gravitas. Time will tell who’s right or wrong – but the fans are the target audience, and they come in numbers. It’s hard to argue with a $125 million opening weekend in the US alone. Still, we have to try.
DIRECTED BY Zack Snyder
STARRING Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams
US 2013 143 mins