I’ve always struggled to properly engage with the works of Zack Snyder. 300 (2006) was, if anything, an over the top, aesthetic-obsessed cartoon of a movie with next to no purpose other than showing off how sexy its visuals were. Watchmen (2009) could’ve been perceived as a step in the right direction, however the depth and cerebral qualities of Moore’s & Gibbon’s original graphic novel were lost amongst the fetishized aesthetics yet again. Sucker Punch (2011) was the worst of the Snyder bunch; a film primarily functioning as superficial eye candy which failed to properly communicate its underlying themes (though I’ll admit I probably just didn’t “get” this one at the time of viewing).
The thought of Snyder sitting in the director’s chair for Man of Steel was worrying notion from the get go, until, that is, footage began popping up. Promotional teasers and trailers revealed something which looked enigmatic and downright exciting. Forget Snyder’s previous outings; it seemed as though a totally original era of Superman was on the horizon.
The previous installation of Superman hit cinemas back in 2006. Superman Returns was a loose continuation of the original Christopher Reeve’s lineup and was directed by X-men’s Brian Singer. The film tanked and Singer was dropped by studios soon after. It was at this point that Warner Bros decided to discontinue this particular timeline and start from scratch. An inevitable decision in a world of reboots.
Superman Returns wasn’t that bad. It was a huge multi million dollar release which was also a character driven drama piece simultaneously. There was something quite charming about a blockbuster with a $270 million budget favoring character exploration over action packed set pieces. It was also drenched in heavy dressings of nostalgia, which is always great.
However the film failed to return profits, and the death of Returns inevitably paved way for Snyder’s 2013 reboot; a film which would aim to take the tale of Clark Kent back to its roots. Here we were promised to see something new, exciting and different. This was Warner Bro’s attempt to breath new life into the Superman brand, much in the same as they did with Batman eight years previous.
Early box office results pretty much suggest that Man of Steel will not be repeating the same financial disaster Returns did. But never mind the financial figures, what was the film itself like?
Part of it was good, the other part is a sodding mess, and the whole thing gets meshed up to make a an overall weird-yet-kinda-decent experience. There are some truly impressive moments in this film, whereas there are also some seriously sloppy pieces which get in the way.
The first half is by far the strongest. It focuses on Clark Kent wandering the lands; taking up odd jobs and staying under the radar. As he goes about his business, random objects force him to look back upon his childhood. This is where viewers are invited to explore how Clark dealt with his otherworldly powers as he grew up (not unlike that of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins). He struggles trying to control his abilities (see-through vision, heat vision powers, mind reading trickery, all the usual Superman jazz), is aggressively bullied for being different and is hopelessly terrified about who he is and who he’ll one day grow up to be (“did god really do this to me?”).
These scenes are the film’s strongest moments. The idea of Clark growing up to be an outcast is one which absolutely sings here, plus a solid performance from Kevin Costner – who plays Clark’s step father, Jonathan Kent – strengthens it further.
Jonathan knows his son will one day grow up to be a lifeform who’ll change the direction of humanity. He’s convinced the world will ultimately reject his son; for he is different. Throughout a series of flashbacks, it becomes clear that Jonathan is working to help his son control these godly powers; pushing him away from the temptations of using them for darker motives.
Costner chooses the execute the role of Jonathan Kent subtly. He refuses to take center stage and quietly reveals his character’s motives through carefully executed dialogue and facial expressions. Ironically, this subtle, non-center stage, acting results in Costner stealing all of the scenes he’s in. Jonathan loves his son, he doesn’t want the world to reject him and will do anything to raise Clark to be a good man (even when that means stopping him from retaliating when bullies attack and dehumanize him).
Despite all this interesting back-and-forth regarding Clark’s developmental years, it’s the other parts of the film which let the team down dramatically.
One perfect example would be the final act,or the final 45 minutes should I say, where everything just decides to go absolutely bananas. The action is far too overboard. It feels like a head on collision between Dragonball Z and Transformers. Half of Metropolis is destroyed, spaceships and villains fly around earth like characters who’ve escaped an anime series, and there are enough explosions to blind a man from mars. It’s insane and when you think it’s all over, things become even more frantic.
To go from a story subtly chronicling an alien child learning to deal with his difference as he grows up on earth, to *boom! Crash! bang!*, is a bit like having Patrick Stewart sit down to read you a fable on the philosophies of Jean Luc Piccard, only for him to then get up 45 minutes in and start trashing the room with a guitar.
Then there’s the opening scene. On its own, it’s a bizarrely beautiful sequence. In the context of the entire film, however, it’s horribly out of place. Yes, the film’s far fetched and more akin to a comic book/video game hybrid than a realistic portrayal of Superman, yet the scenes with Russell Crowe are on a completely different level to the rest of the story. Everything is ten times as over the top.
You could argue that this huge gap in reality is to do with the fact that the opening scenes of the film are set on Krypton, whereas the rest is set on earth. Nonetheless it’s highly distracting and out of place. We open with a story that’s essentially Skyrim meets Avatar; next up we get those beautiful scenes surrounding Clark and his stepfather; only to then fall into a noisy headache of Dragonball Z-meets-Transformers.
All these different films, tonally colliding into one another. It’s as though it doesn’t know what sort of a film it wishes to be. Is it a fantasy in which Russell Crowe battles alien spacecrafts on the back of a dragon? Is it an exploration of society’s’ rejection toward those who they don’t understand? Or is it Goku versus Optimus Prime? The damn thing doesn’t know!
The sad thing is, this film could have quite easily been brilliant, if only those making it had paid more attention to the tone of the whole thing. What wonders a good rewrite would’ve done. There’s so much outstanding potential lurking within this story that’s drowned out by oceans upon oceans of chaos, tonal inconsistencies and clashing ideas.
Yet despite all its problems and problems, Man of Steel does feel considerably fresh in comparison to a lot of the films within this genre. It’s far from formulaic and is clearly trying to do something new with a franchise which hasn’t been revised for nearly 30 years. Despite the hullabaloo of its execution, it’s hard not to admire what it’s trying to do.
Plus those scenes exploring Clark’s past are great. At least check it out for those parts at the very least.