My Superman fixations have been well documented in recent times (MAN OF STEEL MAGNOLIAS via OUT magazine). My loyalty to the characters and franchise is wholly down to the work of director Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz and the pitch perfect roster of support characters and key creatives. 1978’s Superman The Movie is still the comic-book film template, the film that all subsequent superhero adaptations ignore at their peril. The apex of talent on that one film has proved to be such a fragile recipe – composer John Williams and arguably his best score, photographer Geoffrey Unsworth, designer John Barry, editor Stuart Baird, production artistry and a tone-perfect cast (Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Susannah York and that Brando upstart). With The Godfather’s Mario Puzo on early writing duties, the same film’s Oscar winning lead and Gene Hackman in a career-best decade, Superman The Movie was the Gone With The Wind of its day – a massively expected event picture a whole industry was relying on to work.
So it is with much trepidation when a new Superman movie lands. Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns was far more successful than the deriders of hindsight will allow, but its faults (pitching Lois Lane as a resource-less apple pie mom, a soulless Gentleman’s Club of a Daily Planet and the Australian locations never quite feeling American) are so ungainly because Superman The Movie and its 1980’s follow-up Superman II got it so right.
So thirty five years after producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind proved to Hollywood that they believe the box office will fly, comes Zack Snyder and Warner Bros’ Man Of Steel.
The Superman story is the benchmark of all superhero tales, the piece of Kryptonite hidden under the barn every new comic book franchise holder quietly visits during the night. The origin elements of the story are the defining ingredients of all superhero films. Spider-Man’s Peter Parker is merely a junior Clark Kent. Iron Man’s Tony Stark is just Lex Luthor with the right principles. Alfred the Butler, Uncle Ben and Aunt May are just Martha and Jonathan Kent. And for every Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) and Natalie Portman (Thor), Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is still the prototype. Donner’s Superman The Movie set a distinct three-act structure, translating the sometimes loose beats of an iconic comic book into very different ones of cinema. But when Man Of Steel intrepidly – and quickly – kicks that structure out the school bus, one initially balks. A key image of Superman’s star pod hurtling to a Smallville earth of midnight barns and crickets instantly cuts to gap-year Clark. Whilst the Jesus analogies of early Clark are not ignored (fishermen, sacrifice and a crucifix-limbed meditative ‘drowning’), already Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are playing with the formula. The star pod crashing to earth is now a later motif with an accidentally earthbound Lois Lane ending up in a Smallville cornfield. The mid-point motif of a city-bound Clark nabbing a job at the Daily Planet and the eye of Lois Lane is now a closing beat with a knowing “welcome to the Planet” handshake vanquishing any need to spend a whole film outing Kal-El. And the key beat of Clark embracing his future at his earth father’s grave is kept back to show a visual of a boy playing with some cape-sized red laundry. Like that cape, Man Of Steel is about re-stitching the formula. And one that could prove to be the first superhero movie reboot of recent times to be the standard.
Whereas the recent Star Trek Into Darkness sees director JJ Abrams naively reheating story peaks from other director’s works whilst overlooking the necessary character interaction and grace in-between, Man Of Steel is savvy enough to re-point the motivations of the Superman motifs. General Zod, the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s snowy base and Jor-El’s Letters From Krypton are all re-purposed to rich effect. No longer incidental but vital beats of Superman lore, they now push the drama forward. If a Superman film has a strong actress such as Amy Adams pitched as Lois Lane, it gets away with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El giving her the guided tour of Krypton’s relics rather than his son. If Kevin Costner wants to echo his Field Of Dreams sincerity as Pa Kent, if you build it memorable scenes loaded with homespun wisdom will come. And if a school bully is normally in place to get his comic comeuppance at the hands of a burgeoning Clark Kent, here they become lifelong allies quietly keeping Superman’s vital secrets without fanfare.
Man Of Steel is a superhero movie with all the cynicism removed. Under Snyder, the American army and key government figures are neither gung-ho Republicans of old or corrupt meddlers, but a straight-thinking, rule-bending ensemble prepared to work with Superman from the start. Bar a clumsy nod to Superman being “American” because he grew up in Kansas, this is also a politics-free caper. Excluding some online snitch with the Watergate-nodding name of Woodburn, there is no White House grand-standing or scoop-obsessed news anchors here. Washington is very absent – perhaps as the speeding bullet momentum of Goyer’s screenplay wants to present a world seeing all this happening before its governments grasp what the Uncle Sam is going on. Even Lois Lane and the Daily Planet are back using notepads, stills cameras and going out into the [corn] field. There is also a refreshing lack of cyber-tapping and reliance. Though who needs references to the world wide web when the protagonist can span the globe quicker than a cute kitten viral?! This is in no way an over-reverential nod to Donner’s 1978 interpretation, but school teachers seen in flashback sport big 1970s lapels and hair, the Daily Planet’s newsrooms are returned to a busy Woodward and Bernstein press room glory and Metropolis is New York again, not the downtown Sydney or Toronto stand-ins of Superman Returns. Likewise Hans Zimmer’s score is a nod to the linchpin work of composer John Williams but – like Goyer’s script – assumes we don’t need every step of the way recreated for us as before. Zimmer’s Krypton theme is majestic stuff as are the urgent, discordant Bernard Herrmann strings and the hellish, bombast of the brass which all soon scatters into the homespun lyricism of Smallville. To not use Williams’ famed Superman Theme and get away with it is one of the film’s triumphs.
Visually the production is sheer Kryptonian. Whilst the actual Krypton is pitched as a quasi cousin of Avatar and John Carter of Mars, the crystalline imaginings of Superman The Movie made more sense for what is meant to be a dignified and scientifically minded planet. The Council of Krypton loses all sobriety and scale under Snyder’s handheld camera fixation, becoming a sort of stitch-punk Gallifrey. But the drama is in place. The death of Krypton is still a strong fanfare to the story, even if the subsequent talk of a sought-after “Codex” and planet-restructuring data is somewhat hazy; and the HR Giger influenced trappings a tad purloined from Prometheus.
What is more successful is – again – how Snyder and Goyer use what is already there. In the Man Of Steel, the laser eyes, X-ray vision and acute hearing become both a painful talent for Superman and a useful safeguard against the vacationing villainy. The ‘puberty’ of finding you can hear and see everything is lent a Shyamalan flourish as schoolboy Clark suffocates under a sea of voices and overheard gossip. And the red eyed laser work looks truly painful as Superman should have clearly gone to SpecSavers.
With its genesis possibly traceable back to 1980’s Superman II, the New York superhero bun fight has become a horrendous cliché. With scant finesse, the likes of The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, Pacific Rim and Transformers all clearly hope and pray the canvas of New York will somehow add story gravitas to these comic book cage-fights. They don’t. The falling masonry merely fills out the teaser trailers a year before and loses the audience on the night. Hollywood’s besieged cities is so 1996. Snyder is ever so guilty of that here with a tad too much of Michael Shannon’s Zod and Kal-El bitch-slapping their way through various tower blocks, apartments, more tower blocks and Sears’ coupon day. But a last minute reprieve for the audience sees a nearly defeated Zod cut a Shakespearean shadow in a final wrestling match full of that re-purposing Snyder has brought to the franchise – with Zod making an impassioned and understandable plea to Kal-El before his neck is snapped.
There is scant usage of landmarks in Man Of Steel. This is about destroyed gas stations, mid-west agriculture and interrupted museum tours, where a shop owner locking his store is more pressing than showing the Statue of Liberty face down in the Hudson. This is a summer actioner where story motivation navigates the fireworks. We see a pilot losing control of a Metropolis fighter jet. We cut to Daily Planet characters on the ground as the crashing jet slices a building. The building soon totters and slips, trapping a Planet reporter Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White is not sure he can help. The film does adopt a slight 9/11 psyche (unavoidable alas if you want to set any biblical-sized mayhem in a populated city – and Superman The Movie made great visual play of the Twin Towers). But the panic is indirect and apolitical, reduced to Perry White and his new diamond earring running for cover with spectacular and lumbering fright.
The film does have its confusions. Back and forth wranglings between various pods, ships and pointy lasery hardware becomes as confusing as seeing Richard Pryor skiing down a skyscraper in 1983’s Superman III. And did Snyder really suggest the criminal Zod and his goons are sent to the purgatory that is The Phantom Zone in what looks like free standing vibrators?! You wouldn’t catch this Superman fan kneeling before Zod if he was coming at me in one them. Antje Traue’s Faora is a weak Xerox (or Xena) of a hench-bitch crying out for a decent scene or two with Shannon’s Zod to show more of his predilections. Not that Shannon even needs the support as he snarls and spits his way with aplomb.
This is also a comic book film which is not joining the dots to a bigger forthcoming project we don’t need to know about yet or – worse – an effort like Snyder’s previous Watchmen (2009) that excludes anyone in the audience who is not remotely savvy with the source material. Marvel’s recent Captain America and Thor occasionally feel like stepping stones, stalling for time until the money shot of all those heroes together hits the screens and fan forums regardless of whether the divergent characters work as a whole. Despite the epic and relentless pyrotechnics, Man Of Steel pauses. It may well have benefitted from more breath-catching moments, but when Henry Cavill finally “comes out” as the man of steel to the baying press and army officials stand clear for the return of the wit, control and diplomacy Christopher Reeve bestowed on the role forever more. Cavill is from another era of matinee idol grace and poise with eyes you can go flying in and a jawline that demands its own sequel. And what a treat it is to see superhero casting pitching its two leads in their thirties rather than a Twilight-friendly twenty something. This is not a naïve Superman afraid of love or loving; or even new to it. This is a man of steely conviction whose first encounter with key love Lois Lane sees the latter on her back with him demanding he gives her new gash a good cauterizing (stop it). And in losing the cloying Dawson’s Creek angst of Kate Bosworth’s Lois in Superman Returns, Amy Adams returns the role to one of rule-breaking, improvised and East Coast sass. The bond between the pair has to totally work. It was the spine of the early Superman films and well revived here. Lois Lane is every human on earth Superman has to protect. By ditching the “she doesn’t know” motif from the start, Snyder and Goyer let their romance play out until the most earned screen kiss seen for a long time. Not that they were involved, but Man Of Steel is indeed Salkinds of wonderful. “Welcome to the Planet” indeed Mr Kent.