Ok. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this that you have some knowledge of comic books and superheroes. Even if you don’t, which probably makes you a liar in this age of the superhero reboots where a Spiderman film franchise can get re-painted and re-canon’d before it’s had a chance to hit the sticky hairy wall of puberty, you’re still likely to recognise some of the names if they’re shouted at you by me in the street. What can I say? Sundays leave me to my own devices.
Anyway, before your Batmans, your Iron Mans and even your Captain Cave Mans (no idea if Chris Nolan has plans for a gritty reboot of him, but I’m not going to miss a chance to coin an idea), is the one that kicked off this caped cacophony back in the first half of the 20th century – Superman. And he’s just been delivered a swift reboot to face. Yes, it’s been the go-to idea with many studio execs when people want to make the next ‘recognisable-hunky-man-punching-bad-men-in-the-face-with-his-justice-fists’ movie. Just about everyone has done it. Even James Bond was put back to a pre-00 agent and had to deal with his feelings. Nothing wrong with it, of course, but just imagine trying to do a film where Roger Moore spends half of his time staring moodily into the distance instead of smirking like a blazer-wearing fop. Maybe you could do it with Connery as he seems to be able to, you know, have some emotions.
But back on track. Keeping up with the trend, Watchmen director Zack Snyder and Dark Knight trilogy creator Chris Nolan joined forces to tone down the red pants and cape on one of the most iconic figures of 20th century fiction. Man of Steel takes us back to the very beginning of Clark Kent’s story. On the distant planet of Krypton, there is a violent coup being pushed due to the fact that the planet has become more hollow than Kristen Stewart and almost as lifeless. Years and years of depleting resources have caused the planet to become unstable and will lead to it’s destruction (don’t ask me for the science). In the middle of this CGI-heavy chaos, Jor-El (played by a permanently frowning Russell Crowe) launches his newborn son in to a pod headed for another less blowy-uppy planet with a whopping great MacGuffin (something about a codex with genetic material for blah blah blah... oh look another building has exploded), because what loving father wouldn’t do that?
After the inevitable $40 million pop, Krypton is no more and we now have a baby flying through space in an unused prop from Independence Day. Crash landing on Earth, luckily in a country without any civil wars or a third world country, the child is fostered by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) in Kansas, USA. What follows is the typical character arc of identity and learning responsibility for his powers, (a la Peter Parker) with Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill – woof!) doing an Incredible Hulk and wondering from town to town as people are unable to understand his colossal strength and ability to do just about anything.
It goes without saying that the film’s narrative is extremely similar to that of Batman Begins. We have the hero (technically) orphaned at a young age, travelling around as he learns about himself and about what he will eventually become. Ok, when I put it that way, it sounds like the most pretentious gap year ever conceived by an Oxford graduate, but even the narrative presentation shares a lot with Begins. We are constantly skipping back and forth to various parts of Clark’s childhood until he becomes Superman and starts joyriding himself about the place. At this point the film goes along in a fairly predictable manner with absolutely no surprises whatsoever.
It’s an impressive spectacle of a film though. Zack Snyder has somehow toned himself down, yet still retained an air of over-the-top-ness. A lot of the flight scenes were shot in that fakey shakey camera to make it look like a supposedly real bit of documented footage. Those shots even do that slight zoom in/out motion every single time. But hey, it looked good and, sooner rather than later, the film starts exploding fight scenes in your face that feature huge buildings being pancaked, armies decimated and large vehicles used as weapons. It’s just a shame it was a film and not a videogame. Still, I don’t think any of the major developers could render Cavill perfectly enough…with those dreamy abs and gorgeous chin.
A few things stopped it from being as grand as the other comic book films we’ve seen recently though. For a start, it doesn’t feel like a big film. Quite a lot happens, but you come away a little unfulfilled. It follows the template for an origin story so closely that you start seeing Clark Kent as being Spiderman or another superhero and you feel that not enough new ground has been trodden to make it feel like a complete film. I also came away feeling that the film could have been more entertaining and less serious, but that’s just nitpicking. A major one for me was Amy Adams playing Lois Lane. Far be it from me to let a single character almost ruin a film for you, but I’ve never encountered such an unlikable woman in a film. At the start she’s introduced as a go-getter journalist who can rough it like the lads, but she quickly becomes a weasel-faced harridan who serves little to the plot other than to provide a little bit of love interest. It was almost like someone got Lindsey Lohan to play Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. Maybe if she wasn’t playing the female lead and a lesser character instead? But in other ways, she seemed a lot more ballsy and a lot less damsel-in-distress-y than most superhero movie love interests.
In all, it’s a fairly ridiculous film, but it’s not the film that’s to blame, it’s the source material. The Man of Steel was originally created by two high school students in the thirties, it’s not Dickens! The whole entertainment factor with Superman is watching him do amazing feats in the manner of a brightly coloured circus sideshow. See how he bends a building in half! See how he freezes a vat of Tizer just by sighing! See how he lowers the interest rate on that loan I took out the other week just by winking at me and touching my bum a bit!
What can you do in this day and age with a character that has no well thought out weaknesses? A fictional radioactive ore?! Why not just make his enemy his invisible friend or say he was created after someone farted against the force of a hurricane?! And someone who seems to be less of a troubled soul and more of some kind of clean cut metaphor for American flavoured justice (It tastes like salty strawberries) is going to have a hard time fitting into today’s trend of fleshing out the man behind the mask/cape/bondage gear/stylish hat.
The issue could be with Snyder’s lack of experience with building up a comic book character. The last superhero film he directed was The Watchmen which had it’s depth and rich characterization laid out beautifully in the original comic – a fantastic example of perfect source material. So in the end, Snyder wasn’t required to spend extra effort in planning when the final blueprints had been available for decades. The film ended up becoming something slightly less compelling than the comic. So when it came to adapting a character that had been adapted to death, Snyder didn’t have much chance at originality. I guess he now knows how Michael Bay feels. However, the film features hyperbolic explosions and lots of ridiculous effects, so maybe Snyder was the loud man for the job. Or maybe there is so much that has been done with Superman that it’s obvious it can’t keep up with the other DC and Marvel characters in the reboot game – with this kind of, seemingly forced, gritty realism that will come to define cinema in the first quarter of the 21st century.