Film, like all art forms, is a subjective medium. People will take it as they will, to each their own, your favorite movie sucks, mine is the best, and ad infinitum…
The artist has their vision and execution, and whatever turns out is whatever turns out for better or for worse. Some movies become immediate hits, and then die away; others are maligned right out the gate, and find new life a decade later. In the case of Superman, he has had plenty of opportunities to shine on the page, but only a few on the silver screen. Many, especially those who grew up with it, consider the Donner classic to be just that: Classic, and untouchable. Bryan Singer seemed to think so when he took on Supes in the mid-2000s to deliver Superman Returns, a bland, if respectable return to the big S.
In 2013 we were treated, or subjected to depending on your vitriolic stance, to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the heavy metal to Return’s soft-rock ballad. Here they are side by side, or one on top the other because the page makes it that way. Separated at birth? Maybe. But they are polar opposite brothers, each with a beating heart, yet both in need of some therapy.
Back in 2006 we were introduced to this:
I have to admit that I watched this trailer at least three dozen times before I could say, “I’m good.” And that was after the movie had come out. To this day, this teaser is still one of the best. It sends chills down my spine, and goosebumps prickling up. The voice of Brando's Jor El, the mailbox, the hair curl, Martha, the ship, the Daily Planet, Lois on a rooftop, Superman soaring into the light, his cape, Kal El hovering over us all, and rocketing like a meteor to terra firma. It had iconic written all over it.
But let’s be honest, Singer’s song wasn’t nearly as good as that glorious string of sound bytes. The teaser had mystery, rising cadence, mythos, a sense of wonder, and nostalgia abound. The film barely registered those feelings. It merely harkened back to the Classic, while neither improving upon it, nor undermining it. It was safe, and satisfactory.
Forget the rest of the movie, I could simply watch this for two hours and be more than entertained:
In just a few moments, it condenses the opening of the Classic into a visual feast (yes, the planet originally upheaves, not the sun, but I think this works better), complete with Jor El's final farewell. Less is more, and it shows.
The rest is an occasionally entertaining, elegaic poem to Donner’s film with too much homage, and not enough damage. To our hero, that is.
It's Lex Luthor. He's human. Just punch him (you don't have to kill him), and be done with it. True, Lex was moving in the shadows, taking advantage of his relative anonymity, or rather he was as Perry said, "Old news." But Lex's grab for "real estate" never felt big enough, and more of been-there-done-that. True, Spacey was decently sociopathic, and a new Kryptonian continent consuming our land is pretty ballsy, but the final reveal of his master plan comes late. It felt like a red balloon let deflate around the room in a dizzying flight of anti-climactic.
It all felt a bit touchy-feely, with an over-emphasis on Superman's flame, Lois. He had all the parts: Perry, Jimmy, Lois, Lex, cape, S, saving people, going above and beyond, tearing open his shirt in a public place. But it was a rehash, and not much of an improvement. Singer seemed too concerned with being nice to the old Supes that he forgot he needed to be of the times while still being for all times. Most of us couldn't get on board, and Superman Returns became a mediocre, if admirable, entry in the log.
Nothing else is on, I guess I'll watch.
Man of Steel
Then came this in 2012.
Who’s directing this? Zack Snyder or Terrence Malick? Despite many calling foul, that there wasn’t enough action (just a splendid triple-sound-barrier-smashing ascent), and that we would be treated to the same stale rendition seven years earlier, I found it compelling. This was a change for Snyder. Instead of a trailer full of balls-to-the-wall mayhem, we were treated to the low hum of Crowe’s Jor El, lulling us into this world, with Gandalf’s Lament from Lord of the Rings ferrying us along.
I was floating.
Snyder seemed to be concerned with character, the mythos, the nostalgia, the Superman we know, and maybe one we don't. But still, I didn’t get a sense of what the film was about. He was lost, so was humanity, he could right them after he righted himself. Okay, but give me more. (Just not too much, which is the habit these days)
Then came this trailer.
Now we’re talking. Now I get it. The scope, the man behind the S, the stakes, the sounds and the furies.
When I saw Man of Steel (in IMAX, of course) I was thoroughly grounded. Where Singer sailed on an old cutter moving at a virtuous clip, Snyder barreled on a speed boat, leaping waves, and breaking the sound barrier (thrice). Singer emphasized safe and stale reverence, Snyder a bombastic Hero’s Journey to discover Superman’s place and purpose on his adopted world. For the first time in a movie, he was an alien, and everyone thought of him that way. He wasn't a savior yet, but an unknown, a danger, a demon. That fresh approach set up a compelling question. What is Superman going to become?
The first part of the movie asks that over and over again, while Lois searches for this mystery savior-to-be.
And while the first third was a somewhat rickety temporal study into Superman’s origins--two fathers trying to steer their god-like son in the right direction, to the sun, where the rest of us will join--the last 45 minutes are a case study in what is affectionately referred to as "destruction porn."
Snyder emphasized the pounding drum of the gods, all too evident in the hammering score that rarely took a breath so that we could. The gravity hammer is a perfect analogy to the film that it's in, an up and down energy pile driver (with questionable physics) that has momentary pauses between slams. I thought the damn thing was cool, and when Superman must use all of his strength (like he did lifting that Kryptonite continent into space) to overcome the impossible, I was thoroughly impressed. But it only highlights the problem, one just like its predecessor. The whole should be more than the sum of its parts, but all I see are the parts.
Like Returns, it has those moments.
-Jor El saying goodbye to his son while the planet crumbles.
-Clark discovering his origins on the ship, and having a walk down history lane with his original father.
-Any moment with Pa Kent.
-When he kills Zod.
These moments strike me, and I remember them clearly. But like the teasers for both films, they're sound bytes, momentary breaths of wonder, character, emotion, maybe even brilliance. But neither film manages to live up fully to those moments.
As to the killing of Zod: In Man of Steel, Superman didn't want to kill Zod, but he had to. It wasn't murder, it was an unfortunate, but necessary act that rocks him to the core. He doesn't fall to his knees and let out an earth-shattering cry because he enjoyed it. Unlike Reeve's Superman, he didn't do it with a smile.
Remember Superman 2, when Zod and crew confront Superman in the Fortress of Solitude? He activates the Red Kryptonite chamber, but instead it glows on the outside, stripping the criminals of their power. Superman then crushes Zods hand, and throws him down into, what? A teddy bear wonderland of fur and fluff? He killed him. Hell, even Lois pushes that bitch Ursa in. Everyone's killing! The difference was in the violence of the act. A toss into a question mark is far less jarring than a horrific snap of the neck.
I suppose what truly got to me me was the rampant destruction before he did Zod in, and the lip service given to keeping people out of harm’s way. Yes, they are gods battling it out, and it’s going to tear up the city. Mega-destruction doesn't bother me, as long as it has a purpose. But Superman should be seen drawing Zod and the other Kryptonians away from populated areas. A soft little, “Get inside,” to the helpless denizens of Smallville is not enough. If Superman is our protector, where is the protection? It's not simply being in the fight for your life and all others, it's the extra, if not absurd, consideration for all the people. That's what marks Superman's greatness, that he is willing to sacrifice everything he is for all of humanity.
So, time will tell which Superman will last longer, gain more recognition, or be further pushed to the dust bin of could-have-been-betters. Both could have been better. Both could have learned from the other. Snyder brought down the cudgel as if to make up for Singer’s lullaby, but he went too far with all that noise. Everything hits us over the head, relentlessly, and we walk away feeling overwhelmed, rather than overjoyed. Next time out, Snyder, turn the volume down so we can hear the movie’s heartbeat, and our own.