It’s fair to say that Superman’s outings on the big screen over the years have been to varying degrees of success. Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) were both, generally speaking, excellent works – expertly navigating the fine line between the wondrous and the kitsch in a conceit about a man clad in blue lycra, with a red cape and a Herculean “S” emblazoned on his chest. The films featured iconic John Williams scores; the first film’s opening Krypton scene with Marlon Brando and Susannah York was a sumptuous visual feast of lighting and design (something that might have inspired future Man of Steel producer, Christopher Nolan); Christopher Reeve got the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy bang on, and Terence Stamp provided one of the great, camp supervillain performances.
But while pretty much every other superhero conceivable has received some form of cinematic injection of life in the intervening 40 years, Superman has been allowed to stagnate. The Reeve iteration spluttered to an ignominious death with two woeful mid-’80s sequels, and Bryan Singer’s reboot Superman Returns (2006) was immediately tagged as a critical and commercial failure, though many commentators now cast this Brandon Routh anomaly in a much more favourable light.
Man of Steel (2013) had something of an uphill struggle when it hit our cinemas four summers ago. Audiences were awash with popular superhero sagas (and blockbuster franchises, in general) at various stages of their runs, and it’s fair to say that the overwhelming millennial fanbase may have found the religious overtones of a messianic outsider with unambiguous, teutonic powers far less engaging than the very adolescent and angsty concerns of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne respectively. The fact that Christopher Nolan, fresh from his genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy, was only on board as producer, and that the unheralded Brit Henry Cavill had been cast in the main role, all led to a feeling that Man of Steel was going to have a struggle on its hands to convince audiences and critics alike.
The opening stretch of Man of Steel certainly doesn’t go very far to alleviate those concerns. Charting Kal-El’s birth and subsequent flight from the dying planet of Krypton, the film is subsumed in some of the crappiest CGI imaginable, echoing the Star Wars prequel trilogy at its worst. The scene where Michael Shannon’s General Zod ambushes the Krypton government is leaden and wholly unconvincing, and the escape of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) from said ambush, thanks to some naff dragon, conjures unflattering imaginings of some execrable NeverEnding Story/Star Wars mashup.
Man of Steel doesn’t get much better when it hits planet Earth. The opening reveal of Kal-El as a grown man is sheer farce: there is absolutely no subtlety or buildup regarding his powers, as he’s immediately thrust into an epic saga of saving men on a burning oil rig, replete with walking through fire and lifting the whole rig out of its moorings.
So far, so bad – but then something strange happens. Man of Steel suddenly becomes a meditative and cerebrally structured film. The flashbacks juxtaposing Kal-El’s reconciliation of his powers with his present-day crisis of conscience over assuming the mantle of humanity’s saviour (the “Superman” moniker is never directly mentioned) is stellar stuff. It’s clearly got the whiff of Nolan about it. All his films have used fractured chronology – often in very short, jagged cuts – to suggest the way the past informs the present. It’s almost as if Man of Steel’s structure acts as a microcosm for both the profoundly philosophical and the profoundly thuggish dialectic at the heart of the Superman legend. It’s Proust as written by Jerry Bruckheimer; In Search of Lost Time wedged inside the grammar of a brutally philistine action movie. Man of Steel manufactures a very strange sensory experience – a militaristic tone poem – and Zack Snyder’s material direction and Hans Zimmer’s pulverising score are fitting emblems for such a reading.
The adult Clark Kent receiving counsel from a priest merges lyrically to a scene of his younger self being bullied while reading Plato (an ingenious touch). And then there’s the key sequence where Clark receives his crucial final “lesson” from his father – which, incidentally, is a cracking little cameo from Kevin Costner. While the adult Clark is ruminating at his father’s grave, a flashback reveals the cause of his father’s passing. It’s all very figurative, but it’s a quite brilliant concept, as Pa Kent is sucked into a void in front of Clark’s eyes. It comes moments after one final argument over Clark’s responsibilities, with his surrogate father demonstrating the very selflessness needed to be a hero. It’s a scene that takes dramatic licence to its extremes, but it’s a staggeringly clever visual metaphor, and Snyder – in a very loud movie – slows and quietens his diegesis right down here to communicate an abstract and moving idea.
Man of Steel‘s other great asset is Henry Cavill. Sure, he may have been neutered and diluted amid the later, wider narrative canvas of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but here he is an assured and convincing centre of attention. He looks the part, with his suitably old-fashioned, classically heroic physique and facial features. It’s obviously implicit in the character, but it’s refreshing how Cavill eschews camp and is undemonstrative; a world away from the zany neuroses and tics of the majority of other superheroes and their alter-egos.
In addition to Cavill and Costner, Man of Steel features an array of experienced Hollywood pros – Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane – who seem to “get” the ethos of the production. Their unfussiness and subservience to the plot mirrors Snyder’s industrial, yet plaintive, ambience. Compare this to the showmanship and lustre of the ensemble in Christopher Nolan’s last Batman work, The Dark Knight Rises (Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman), and you see the difference. At the centre of all that is good about Man of Steel is Cavill, and he is a fitting icon for this in many ways unusual film, which deserves much greater critical appreciation than it has currently received.