(Zack Snyder, 2013)
I could make a solid argument that Alan Moore's Miracleman is the most influential Superhero story of the last 40 years or so. Every "revisionist" story that followed - including Moore's own Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - was influenced by the approach Moore took in Miracleman, where he explores what it would be really like if an actual superhuman being existed in the real world. Moore is an intelligent writer, and he investigates this idea quite thoroughly in the series, especially the incredible final issue. But he is also a great writer of genre stories, and Miracleman includes Nazi scientists and alien races, and incredible battles between superheroes. This is perhaps the aspect of the series which has permeated the comics mainstream most in the decades since Moore wrote his stories in the 1980s. He creates one particular issue in which two beings with superstrength brawl in the streets of and skies above London. They punch each other through walls, as superheroes had been doing in the Marvel and DC universes for decades. But Moore thinks about the consequences. Here, they destroy half of the city. Thousands are killed as buildings crumble and concrete shatters. The story, while tremendously exciting, even exhilarating, is also sickening in the scale of its violence.
Watching the third act of Man of Steel, that Miracleman story was the first thing that came to mind.
Critics generally dislike superhero movies. The genre is seen, and not without reason, as catering to the lowest common denominator of summer audiences, following formulas and overusing cgi in pursuit of overly familiar story arcs and character stereotypes. Critics certainly don't take superhero movies seriously, and when a filmmaker does - like Christopher Nolan, in his Batman trilogy - he gets slammed for his presumption and ambition.
Well, Christopher Nolan produced Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and it somewhat resembles his Batman films in its tone of brooding moral seriousness, and in the massive scale of its action. The aim here is to make a Superman film for a modern audience, which means losing some of the joy and wonder which are undeniably a part of the Superman mythos; this is Superman stripped of some of the apple pie sweetness crucial to the appeal of the classic reading of the character.
But then, as a character, Superman is great enough to withstand multiple readings and variations. Snyder and writer David Goyer - also familiar from Nolan's Batman films, and the Blade trilogy in addition - streamline and excise in order to find the character best suited to the tone they are working in. They also work extremely hard to avoid the problems that so many superhero films encounter - lets call it origin story syndrome. Oh, this is an origin story, but they get Clark into the red and blue outfit relatively early on, then follow a non-linear path through their story.
There are roughly three different sections. It starts off, as Richard Donner's Superman The Movie did, on Krypton, where Superman's biological father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is desperate to get his newborn son Kal- El off the planet before it is destroyed. At the same time, General Zod (Michael Shannon) is organising a coup, and we see the clash of wills and philosophies between the two. Zod kills Jor-El and is imprisoned, but not before promising to find Kal El, escaped across the stars. Krypton is visualised as a prog rock sci-fi rock planet, studied with ornate metal skyscrapers, roamed by lizard creatures on foot and by wing, and both Crowe and Shannon do solid work in this section, the strength of which establishes Man of Steel as more of a science fiction film than a superhero one.
When it gets to earth, Snyder skips around. Borrowing some tone and imagery from Terrence Malick, we see Clark as a little boy in Kansas and as a lone drifter across North America as an adult, and the best scenes in the film are mostly in this section, many of them focusing on his relationship with the human parents who found and raised him, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Costner is especially good here, those old Gary Cooper comparisons making sense again for the first time in years as he presents a father filled with fear for his son the God, and what his powers might mean for him as a person. What they mean for him as a child is pain; unable to handle the sensory overload created by x-ray vision and super-hearing, unable ever to use or even hint at his immense strength against the bullies who torment him, young Clark is a mess.
Henry Cavill does a good job with the adult version of that character, presenting him as conflicted about himself and his place in the world and yet as essentially good. He is the product of the Kents, utterly American; modest, serious, full of integrity. Cavill is brilliantly cast - Superman should have the sort of square-jawed but bland handsomeness he possesses, he should project strength but never seem all that interesting, he should carry a hint of melancholy at the immense burden his isolation forces him to bear. Cavill does all this, and he makes the emotional scenes work. We sympathise with his god, because his problems are so human.
Those problems arrive with the coming of Zod and his followers to Earth, ushering in the third - and worst - section of the film. Thats not to say it's bad, exactly. There are a few early thrills once Clark is in the familiar costume. The first time he flies and finds himself rocketing, whooping, above the earth.
The moment after his first battle with the Kryptonians when a squad of soldiers lower their guns in a sort of quiet awe. The way Snyder defiantly has him assume a Christ pose as he floats momentarily in space. But most of that final section is devoted to destruction. Snyder embraces post-9/11 disaster porn imagery with an enthusiasm that would embarrass Michael Bay. He does it very well, orchestrating some really impressive visuals and a few fun genre moments amidst all the numbing chaos. But it is hard to forget that while Superman is punching villains in the face - this film has more punching in it than most boxing films manage - thousands of innocents are probably dying as cities topple and explode around them. This is where Miracleman is relevant.
It also raises the issue of the essential characterisation of Superman. It is one thing to dispose of some of the mythology - and by the end, it is clear that that has only been tweaked - but another to change what is quintessential to how the character works. Superman helps others. He saves people. He does not kill, he does not let them die. That is an issue I can see troubling many fans of the character, and explanations about how this is a story of him as a rookie don't really suffice as an explanation.
It seems odd to criticise this film for having too much action when the worst thing about the Christopher Reeve Superman films is that they don't have enough - though they have not aged all that well in other ways - but it isn't the quantity of the action here, its the repetitive nature of much of it. Snyder makes some smart choices with the shooting. He mainly sticks to a single camera, keeps the editing quick and only lets it slip into incoherence to suggest the figures are moving too fast and hitting too hard for the human eye to follow. But he omits some of his better known stylistic tics like speed ramping and hyper slo-mo when they would have worked beautifully with this material, and the result is a movie that feels a little like he is trying to be somebody else; a little bit Christopher Nolan, a little Terrence Malick, a bit Michael Bay.
That is the thing with Snyder - he is one of those modern directors with such a confident, dazzling sense of his own talent that you do feel as if he could so almost anything. He gets so much so right - he textures scenes brilliantly, his pacing is faultless, and he has a painterly sense of colour and composition, all of it edited to within an inch of its life. Yet there is something frustratingly off about his sensibility, for me, something almost ineffable. It all seems entirely obvious, artificial, perhaps even soulless.
So Man of Steel ends as a massive cgi slugfest, and after that rather dazzling - and surprisingly emotionally effecting - first hour that comes as a bit of a disappointment. But it is still mostly satisfying, brilliantly made and nicely acted, and finds a way to make Superman work in the modern world. Credit for that must go to Snyder, Goyer and the cast, but also to Hans Zimmer, whose bombastic score is rousing enough that I never missed the singular genius of John Williams work for the character.