As Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel begins, there is no blast of John Williams’ legendary, iconic theme to precede events on Krypton. Even in a reboot that’s obviously different to the 1978 Richard Donner version, this just feels wrong. Almost like a James Bond film without the James Bond theme. I appreciate Snyder is trying to make a complete break from the past, but I am sure you could make a scientific case that it is impossible to come up with a better Superman fanfare than the one composed the great Mr Williams.
Music score quibbles aside, let’s focus on the positives for a moment. Man of Steel is, if nothing else, the most action packed Superman film to date (even if the characters seem oddly reluctant to use the word Superman). The sheer volume of trashed buildings, cities and vehicles ensuing from Superman’s fights with the supervillains is nothing less than astonishing, not to mention exhausting. There is no question that in this respect, and in the visual effects department, this is far superior to everything else in Superman’s cinematic canon.
And yet – great special effects do not necessarily make a great film. Somehow the fact that the CGI revolution allows filmmakers to tell absolutely any story they want means the audience is all too familiar with such spectacle. Without a great plot it becomes numbing, exhausting and tedious. A cursory glance at the films of Michael Bay confirms that truth. To be fair, Synder’s work is much better than that, but David S Goyer’s screenplay lacks a certain something. It lacks wit, charm, warmth and a sense of wonder. The Donner/Reeve Superman films may look dated now from a visual effects perspective, but they are light years ahead on heart. Is it really too much to ask for a bit more humour? I actually think I laughed more times in Schindler’s List than the whole of Man of Steel.
The sombre, serious tone is established immediately during the Krypton scenes, wherein the usual business of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his son Kal-El to Earth to escape destruction is given some fresh spin that I won’t spoil here. In these scenes, we’re also introduced to the villainous General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his followers, who are set to crop up later to give Superman big problems. As before, on Earth Kal-El becomes Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), who we’re first introduced to as a man drifting from job to job trying to find his place in the world, whilst keeping his powers a big secret. Flashbacks reveal his childhood, growing up with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Coster and Diane Lane).
Frankly this is the best part of the film. Incidents where Clark is traumatised by his powers and finds it difficult to get used to them add a dash of much needed emotional resonance. Both Martha and Jonathan play a key part in this, and I wish there had been a bit more with them. Upon discovering he is from another world, Clark says to Jonathan “Can’t I just go on pretending to be your son?”, to which Jonathan replies to the effect of “You are my son, but you owe it to yourself to find what your other father intended for you in this world.”
From a spiritual perspective, this is a very key line. All of us have a father on Earth, who sooner or later will be taken from us, but we also have a Father in heaven, and need to discover our purpose. It is also interesting to note that the Christ allegories which have always been present in Superman are dialled up to 11 here. There’s even a scene in a church where Superman stands next to a stained glass window depicting Jesus. Superman’s black and white morality is present and correct, although there is a critical choice he makes in the climax that will have fans debating whether or not it is out of character.
As far as casting is concerned, the film is mostly spot-on. Cavill makes a great Superman. Lane, Crowe and particularly Costner are excellent in their roles. Shannon is OK, but not as fun as Terence Stamp’s take on the character. In fact, he is somewhat upstaged by his assistant Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), a character from the comics upon whom Superman II’s Ursa was based. Elsewhere Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane fail to make much of an impression, through no fault of their own. They are great choices for their respective roles, but the film doesn’t given them enough to do. As for Lois’s relationship with Superman, compared with the chemistry between Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve, any candle of romance here is almost entirely snuffed by endless gusts of action.
In summary, if all you want from a film is spectacular visual effects and industrial quantities of action then Man of Steel certainly doesn’t disappoint. My eight-year-old absolutely loved it and immediately declared it the best Superman film, so clearly Snyder has done something right. I on the other hand had mixed feelings. Character and plot takes too much of a back seat, in spite of some fine casting. And they really, really should have used John Williams’ theme, even if it was just at the start.