June 14, 2013 by bck1402
Directed by Zack Snyder
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Where the cinematic adventures of Superman are concerned, I would think that most of us hold the 1978 Richard Donner “Superman” (The Movie) as the template. Not just for Superman on screen, but for most super-hero movies that followed. While Donner delivered a movie for the ages, it was really down to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the title character that sealed the deal. An unknown at the time, Reeve embodied Superman so completely that he never truly escaped the shadow of that cape. Every other actor that followed was measured against him. The movie industry at the time did no favours to the three sequels that followed, each with a diminishing budget that ultimately resulted in the well-intended but unfortunately severely hampered “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace“. The treatment of cinematic sequels has changed a lot since then.
What faith the fans had in Bryan Singer when he took the reins on “Superman Returns” was squandered with an interpretation that served to remind us of how great Donner’s film was. The stars were seemingly stuck in a weird realm of playing their characters straight and camp at the same time. The only version of Superman that seemed to succeed was on the small screen. Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher played up the romantic angle in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, while Tom Welling delved into Superman’s past without even putting on the suit or taking the name in Smallville.
When Christopher Nolan managed to successfully bring Batman back to the big screen, the hopes for Superman’s return were high. Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, In The Line Of Fire) dabbled with a Superman/Batman movie for a while, a concept logo which could be seen in the background of the Will Smith version of “I Am Legend” (see pic). George Miller (Mad Max, Babe, Happy Feet) aimed larger with a Justice League movie. Both projects ultimately ground to a halt.
After three movies of increasing success, Nolan was asked to help guide Superman’s return to the big screen, based on an idea by his Dark Knight scribe, David Goyer. The announcement of Zack Snyder being chosen to direct the movie must have been met with some trepidation. Me? I was curious.
Snyder’s handling of the material shows a lightness of touch with a deft hand. Gone are his action visual flourishes and the emotional moments hit their marks. That’s mostly due to Kevin Costner’s performance as Jonathan Kent. While Russell Crowe might be the bigger name here with his God-like apparition dispensing necessary exposition or dispensing the bad guys with a wave of his hand, it’s Costner who holds the ground with heart and soul, building the moral center of Clark Kent. It’s Costner who manages to elevate every scene he’s in without stealing them, and in doing so, becomes the gem of the whole movie long after the credits roll out the film.
Goyer’s choices are interesting here. The Superman mythology (and probably that of most stories of this nature – see Superman Returns, The Matrix or Disney’s Hercules as examples) does have some religious undertones. Read into that what you will. The opening sequence on Krypton takes us on a different tack from most of what’s come before. It also gives us an angle into General Zod’s motives for his action, as well as the MacGuffin that has Zod chasing baby Kal to Earth. It’s credible and it works well enough within the context of the film. Especially so in the final moments when Zod has all that he works towards taken away from him, and he becomes the forceful power that Superman has to stop (see The Matrix Revolutions).
It’s not so much that, where the story is concerned, that I’ve seen it all before, but I couldn’t help draw parallels to 2009’s Star Trek. When Jor-El fights to ensure his son’s safety, sending him away with the hopes of a better future for his people, it hit the same emotional buttons as when George Kirk fights to ensure his wife and son survive the Romulan attack. When the key exposition scene arrives to explain the villain’s motives, replete with flashback device, it brought to mind Kirk and Old Spock in the ice cave. The battle of Smallville felt similar to the destruction of Vulcan, and the battle over Metropolis reeked a little of Nero attacking Earth. When it came to taking out Zod’s powerful ship, our heroes decide to use unknown technology to create ‘a singularity’… which might have been one step too far in the Trek direction. But it served its purpose to have Superman and Zod go head to head for the final smackdown… which had its own problems. At least, for me.
The problem with bringing Superman to the big screen has to do with his purity. He’s the ultimate boy scout and even if that history is tweaked here, it’s an essential part of his nature to do the right thing. In this day and age, the ‘right thing’ is a gray act. We seem to accept ‘collateral damage’ as an excuse for executing wanton destruction and there is a lot of that here. So much so that the battle over Metropolis might do more than just bring up 9-11. The thing is, once Zod makes his plan clear, the movie is one huge slugfest to the end, and that’s almost just over half the back-end of this movie. It’s one thing to have the spectacular fights and action, but this is Clark just only becoming Superman and going up against Kryptonian soldiers bred for war. It’s about one-sided as it gets. He even tells the residents of Smallville to “Get inside, it’s not safe out here.” That very quickly becomes a moot point as the super fisticuffs wreck just about every other building in sight. Collateral damage indeed.
And no, we don’t see any bodies nor Superman fretting over potential lives lost or the massive amount of damage. That’s just with Smallville. When the Metropolis battle kicks in, we do see people die on a massive scale, but due to the actions of the bad guys. When the barrage of super-knockdowns continue (to the point of battle-fatigue) and building after building get toppled over, the deaths seem a moot point again. It gets very obvious that, as Zod puts it, the only way for the destruction to stop is for one of them to die. And therein lies the moral quandary that even I struggled with in writing my own stories. Should my character kill the bad guy? Should Superman kill Zod?
Where the comics are concerned, it is an issue that had been dealt with and it resulted with more than just a moral quandary for the hero. Some heroes, be they in film, TV, books or even comics, do it. They kill the bad guy because the bad guy has it coming to him.
In this day and age?
Maybe its just naiveté but Superman is meant to reflect an ideal.
In Superman II, we don’t really know what happens to Zod and his crew. We just know that they get de-powered and dropped into some icy chasm in the Fortress of Solitude. They might have survived, they might have died, but that’s a choice left to the audience. The ideal remains intact, for the most part.
Man Of Steel, as a movie is very layered. It’s not just a hero’s journey but it is the same kind of journey for all of us- to find our place in the world. To learn of our own skills and apply them in a way to help others. To find the way to a better world. But there is the emotional journey here as well. In that respect, the movie soars and scores. Even without the heroic anthem created by John Williams that has accompanied almost every Superman incarnation (in one way or another) since 1978.
The action might be a bit muddled where geography is concerned. Things happen so fast at times, I don’t see how 3D can even keep up. Otherwise, it is a technically ambitious film at times. The drama works well, the characters are embodied rather than just played and the cast is surprisingly strong. When the inevitable sequel rolls around, I would think they might have to go small and personal. Going bigger than this would doom the entire planet (!) not just one small town and one big city.
And yeah, I definitely wanna see it again on the big screen.