In earlier reviews, I’ve bemoaned the critical mass at which the comic book movie has now reached: forever with its foot stuck in the dirt of 9/11 debris, unfailingly concerned with on-the-nose commentaries of terrorism and contemporary conflict. Following a screening of Iron Man Three, I turned to a fellow critic and expressed a (naïve) wish for Man of Steel to arrive and conclusively turn the tide on the spate of stale, pale imitators that smash their way to box-office records, no questions asked. The trailer for Superman’s reboot – the second in seven years – was as close to promising as one could have hoped. A naturalistic, meditative take, showing Clark Kent, calm like a breeze, move through his adopted hometown of Smallville before erupting into the clouds with as much grace as can be attributed to a superhero of this strange era.
My hopes were lowered significantly upon the unveiling of extended trailers. I remembered precisely who was at the helm of this juggernaut, and why there was little reason to trust in his artistic instincts. Zack Snyder, crown prince of hollow artifice, who blessed us with such nauseating feats as 300, Sucker Punch and the bloodless adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, had been tasked with bringing Superman away from Lois Lane’s window – his favoured port of call in 2006’s Superman Returns – and back into the hearts and minds of movie lovers and fanboys alike. Zack Snyder, a director whose films drive forward in one singular, persistent gear, a pretence to genuine emotion barely concealing their overwhelming urge to douse the set with gasoline and set it ablaze.
The film begins and ends on scenes of incredible destruction. Superman’s home planet of Krypton is obliterated in the opening minutes, but not before an audacious military coup led by General Zod (Michael Shannon), which forces Kryptons Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) to send their baby son Kal-El to refuge on Earth. The film starts as it means to go on, with Crowe and Shannon grimly posturing against each other. In a recent interview, Shannon noted how, when filming HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, he would be told to show up at a random intervals, film a scene, and then leave again. Strangely, this indication of detachment from the material hangs over Shannon in Man of Steel, as he over-eggs a Zod whose sheer determination to salvage his home planet finds him coasting on the one note of which Snyder’s direction plays.
The halls on Krypton and the coup that invades them have been compared to the Jedi Council in Attack of the Clones, though when taken with the rest of the film’s usage of its locales, the planet evokes another Disney property – of the Marvel variety. Never mind the climactic Metropolis battle echoing last year’s Avengers scrap throughout New York City; it’s in the lazy set design and reliance on CGI that places Krypton alongside Asgard, as well as the battle between aliens and military in small-town Smallville (see also: The Iron Giant), that freakishly bring to mind memories of that similar otherworldly superhero icon: Thor. Indeed, the entire narrative treads a little too close to the Asgardian’s experience to escape comparison, and with Thor: The Dark World releasing later this year, it would seem Marvel have a healthy lead in eking out a credible story on the trials of a god walking among mortal men on earth.
But how does Snyder tackle such potentially meaty subtext? Early scenes display, in a very literal sense, the extent to which Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent is a fish out of water on the grounds of humanity. Look at this boy exhibit superhuman strength as he singlehandedly lifts a school bus out of the river. Observe his ability to stare through his teacher’s chest and behind her ribcage. Nowhere is the struggle to belong explored with substantial weight or any degree of understated emotion. Cavill is almost a non-player besides his function as a malfunctioned action figure. The closest element of feeling is found in Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive Earth father played with a gentle presence by Kevin Costner. Other notable Superman characters are treated as side-notes, from Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White – kept on ice for future instalments – to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), yet another heroine who means nothing at all outside of what she signifies to the lead protagonist – which isn’t exactly clear in itself.
Snyder has mercifully toned down his garish colour palette to attune with the film’s claims to a gritty naturalism, and this benefits the film’s many fluid action scenes. Characters punch each other from one end of the street to the other, the camera following each swift movement with all the attentiveness of a videogame conflict. Indeed, Zod’s minion Faora (Antje Traue), when kitted up for combat, resembles the ninja incarnation of Raiden from the Metal Gear Solid series. The camera’s commitment to the flow of carnage is doubly impressive in consideration of this film’s cousin: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, criticised for its weak presentation of combat (among many other things). Nolan’s films lock out their viewer’s gaze because of a refusal to move the camera; his scenes are assembled as a collage of fixed, rigid shots, afraid of risking any virtuous mobile flourishes.
Man of Steel’s lucidity is refreshing, then, but as with all things an overstuffing is tantamount to assault, and that’s almost exactly what the film descends into for its closing hour. The action appropriates the sledgehammer tone of the film’s emotive first half, kicking poignant promise into dust as Superman and Zod rough it out all over Metropolis. Their bodies careen off every building, sending almost the entire city crumbling to the ground in a scene that patently evokes memories of 9/11 – as just about every disaster movie since that terrible day feels obligated to do. There has been much written about Snyder’s – and, as a consequence, Superman’s – neglect to the human scale of devastation unleashed in this climactic battle, and I won’t touch too extensively upon ground already well-tread.
However, there is one moment during the selfish tiff between Superman and Zod that flat-out astounds. Brought to ground level, Zod attempts to burn a fleeing family with lasers from his eyes as the Man of Steel restrains him in a headlock. Superman is painfully desperate that this small handful of people be spared despite playfully obliterating the lives of possibly thousands of others just moments before, their human faces obscured behind anonymous grey skyscraper surfaces constructed of computer pixels. The scene reminded me of a well-known quote from Stalin, made familiar to me at a young age for its inclusion in a Marilyn Manson song: “The death of one is a tragedy; the death of millions is just a statistic.” The shock expressed by Superman at the sudden manifestation of actual humans in peril redefines the destruction that preceded it. Enough has been said of every superhero’s personification of US foreign policy and exceptionalism – enough to neglect mentioning the obvious all over again. But in Superman’s case, he is less a militaristic arm of the state than a ground level ignoramus. Ironically, he is one of us after all: one of the many who choose to neglect tragedy until it is portrayed with an individual human face. Snyder’s hero is ultimately a microcosm of the film itself: inward-looking, though to the tune of narcissism.