A savior, who fights
In the big summer blockbuster, Man of Steel, the Superman origin story has been rethought. Hollywood blockbuster script writers draw on so many stories, it’s not surprising that this time the child from Krypton seems like Jesus. The plot hasn’t been changed but this aspect is just hinted at more in the scenes. The baby Kal-El is sacrificed by his father high above and sent down to Earth in futuristic swaddling clothes as a double saviour — of humankind, and of the fading Krypton world. It’s at the age of 33, like Jesus, when his great sacrificial role is bestowed upon him. Even as a child those around Kal-El, now called Clark Kent, know that he is not an ordinary mortal but a special being with marvellous powers destined to save the world. This is what his earthly father (the warm and humble Kansas farmer Kevin Costner) keeps saying. Up above there is a war between the forces of good, represented by Kal-El’s Kryptonite father, Russell Crowe, (not, alas, as memorably other-worldly as Marlon Brando in the 1978 version), and evil, embodied in Zod, the role handled by Michael Shannon. Despite his demonic intensity, Shannon isn’t quite right either. His skill as a hyperactive neurotic ill suits him to play a declamatory Satan. If you’ve watched him in Revolutionary Road or Take Shelter on screen, or Bug or Mistakes Were Made on stage, you’ll realize he’s wasted here.
But watch the grown up Clark Kent, and you’ll know that the handsome, hunky Brit Henry Cavill is the perfect new Superman. He makes the movie work, and he’s ably supported by Amy Adams as Lois Lane, now freed of ditsyness and a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, whose platonic romance with Clark begins, in this version, with full knowledge of his special powers, long before Clark goes to work on The Daily Planet. We’re not going to see Clark working at the Planet. That just begins in the last scene.
Though it is a titanic battle of Good and Evil, Biblical texts are less of an influence when the epic battle with Zod comes along, and as Kal-El, AKA Clark Kent, must unleash his full powers against Zod, the New Testament is less important than borrowings from such current box office material as Thor, Transformers, and, top gun in the field, The Avengers. Man of Steel has to go somewhere, but this is in the nature of an elaborate, battle-rich prequel whose grandiose action sequences have little of the human interest of, say, the new Spider-Man series reboot with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
It’s full-on science fiction, as well as a war of the gods, inter-planetary war fought out by proxy between two supermen, with the usual supporting players of street crowds, cops, and minor characters. Zod wants to take over Earth and turn it into a replacement of Krypton, over not just the dead bodies but mountains of skeletons and skulls of the human race. Clark/Kal-El may be a Krypton boy, but he grew up in Kansas, imbued with a strong moral sense, and he has to save Earth for the Earthlings.
Before that, the film has jumped from Krypton down to a twenty-something Clark, with flashbacks to show him repressing his special powers, but sometimes forced to utilize them, like when, as a mere schoolboy of nine (Cooper Timberline), the bus runs off a bridge, and his classmates are threatened with drowning. But these are just quick sequences, the grown man looking back. This is the writer’s way of avoiding a lengthy slog through Superman’s childhood and too much time spent away from Henry Cavill. That’s not unwise, but the only trouble is it makes this seem an origins story that’s a bit reluctant to dwell on the earliest of those origins.
It has to be admitted that the machinery of Krypton is a bit of a mess, its dark biomorphic gadgets over-complicated standard issue variations on the imagery of H. R. Giger. The way Crowe keeps coming back to deliver lengthy speeches despite being dead is a bit confusing. As in the latter part of Thor, I kept wondering why the hero who is saving mankind has to destroy so much real estate, in this case prime locations in Manhattan, in the process. Are the other four boroughs going to take over, the way Krypton was going to take over Earth? Moreover, isn’t it a bit odd that as Zod and Clark, now in red cape and unitard (the “S” stands for “harmony”: did we know that?), crash deep holes through skyscrapers, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, and others of the newspaper staff, hover on the street, in piles of gray rubble, commenting on the action, yet never harmed? Isn’t it a bit odd that so many buildings are partially demolished, yet we see no human casualties? Couldn’t Superman have kept the fighting outside of town? But this is a Transformers kind of battle sequence. The destruction and the unharmed characters is a received current convention of the genre. You see it in Branagh’s Thor too. The promise of the earlier story is sacrificed to provide a great show of spectacular action, a titanic conflict we know very well who is going to win.
Obviously the writer, David S. Goyer, is following a formula rather than being true to the origins story of Superman, turning the second half of the movie into the most advanced and expensive high-speed CGI-assisted violence and nothing more. But still and all, Man of Steel does maintain an epic feel. The humanity gets rather buried in the grandeur as time goes on, but the grandeur is always there.
Man of Steel opened in the UK 14th June 2013.
DIRECTOR: ZACK SNYDER
WRITER: DAVID GOYER
STARS: HENRY CAVILL, MICHAEL SHANNON, AMY ADAMS, ANTJE TRAUE, RUSSELL CROWE, KEVIN COSTNER, DIANE LANE, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, HARRY LENNIX, CHRISTOPHER MELONI, MICHAEL KELLY
RUNTIME: 143 MINS APPROX