Man Of Steel (2013)
When the news first broke that Warner Brothers had engaged the talents of Christopher Nolan to reinvigorate their flagging Superman movie franchise as a consultant I was immediately reminded of an incident in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comic, an episode late in his acclaimed run where the omnipotent biogod is holding an entire city to ransom through his superpowers of flora and fauna after his girlfriend is arrested for lewd conduct – its erm a long story. Exasperated and embarrassed the city authorities turn to a certain Lex Luthor as a consultant whom is paid the then princely sum of $1 million a minute for a fifteen minute consultation, he pitting his uberintellect to provide a unique solution to their particularly thorny problem, hey it was the 1980’s when a million bucks was actually a lot of money. I wondered if Nolan’s midas touch would also elicit the same fee, given the phenomenal success he has made of the Dark Knight Batman movies and his collaborations with both screenwriter David S. Goyer and composer Hans Zimmer who also both return for this new take on the iconic immigrant myth, with potential kryptonite being administered to superfans with the appointment of widely derided Hollywood Zack Snyder to occupy the directors chair. Nolan’s executive summary bullet points can probably be summarised thusly – ‘Play up the Christ imagery, and source the origin with alien eugenics. Cast an unknown in the lead so there’s no baggage, and surround him with respected character actors to give the tale a densely thunderous gravitas. Populate with plenty of vaginal and phallic imagery to reinforce the quite literal DNA of the film, remove the humor and decimate the planet in the final act’. The film seems to have birthed some conflicting responses, from those who loathed its portentous seriousness and distinct lack of tounge in cheek humor, unaccepting faux seriousness and brooding hero occupying the cape and tights, with internet wags quickly christening the film ‘The Clark Knight’ due to its conflicted and nebuolous take on the Superman origin story. I fall squarely in the other camp as all these alleged inadequacies are exactly what I liked about Man Of Steel and having seen it twice now it genuinely soars, Nolan has achieving something superheroic – he’s made me consider a Zack Snyder film as one of the years best, as to date this is the best blockbuster of the year.
With an agreeably lengthy opening context setting prologue we’re on the remote planet of Krypton where the first child in centuries has been born without the assistance of their advanced genetic melding technologies, welcome to the world Kal-El son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer). Engulfed by a disintegrating planetary core due to the depletion of their planets natural resources Jor-El senses that their doom is near and he must make one desperate sacrifice if he is to save his people, especially since the chaos is being exploited by General Zod (a snarling Michael Shannon) who stages a desperate coup d’etat as their sterile civilisation crumbles. Defeated and unrepentant Zod and his insurgent allies are sentenced to genetic remodifiction in the chilling phantom zone shortly before the planet implodes, but hope rests in a small ship sent earthward with its biblical cargo, the slim hope of uniting the Earth with another star-crossed species through the example set by one man, his scrupulous purity and steadfast decency a shining example to all. Invested with a conflicted uncertainty by newcomer Henry Cavell the iconic Clark Kent is restlessly searching for his place in the world, imbued with a sense of moral decency from his surrogate parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent has been conditioned to shield his phenomenal talents as the world is simply not ready to face an answer to the eternal question to whether we are alone in the universe, and as a species we tend to react to the unknown and powerful with fear and mistrust. Nevertheless Clark’s extraterrestrial secret is under threat from dual camps, with the feisty Lois Lane (the usual adorable Amy Adams) on the trail of this mysterious man who conducts impossible feats of heroism and strength, and the discovery of a submerged alien artifact in the frigid North Pole may just invite some unwelcome guests to our modest spherical little collection of oceans and animals.
I’ll admit it, I had my knives out for this movie when that first teaser trailer hit last year but a generous portion of humble pie has now been digested, as this visually assured and breathlessly entrancing reboot of the Superman myth is a fantastic achievement, and as blockbuster tent pole movie making it’s one of the best achievements of the past few years. I admired the structure which relies on flashbacks peppering the film from Clarks difficult and confusing childhood puncturing the present day investigation of a strange structure nestling by the North Pole, the activation of a millennia dormant scout ship unfortunately heralding the arrival of a squadron of extraterrestrial fascists – so it goes. Initially this grips more than the usual birth, arrival, childhood and adolescence linear model of origin stories, particularly when it gives a skilled screenwriter the chance to join up their themes and notions into a pulsing, organic whole. There’s just nothing that Snyder and his production team got wrong for me, the design is deliciously fantastic with those aforementioned phallic and vaginal designs underpinning the themes of birth and evolution, the SFX spellbinding, with a particularly rousing score from the consistently stunning Hans Zimmer who must be the most brilliant big movie composer currently drawing breath. John Williams score for the 1970’s are widely renown for their stirring arrangements, I’d argue that Zimmer goes one better with this soaring, epic orchestration clearly the aural signature of one extraordinary man’s realisation of his celestial destiny – fantastic.
Superman of course is a peculiarly American immigrant myth and metaphor, and recently some cultural theorist types have also alighted on the specifically Jewish nature of his experience given the lineage of Clark Kent’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, Man Of Steel delves deep into the Christ iconography with Snyder positively ladling on saviour motifs and Christian imagery, the son of a god sent to our mortal realm in order to save us from ourselves. Now being a portentous, pretentious sort with delusions of grandeur of his own I like to see that reflected in my movies, so this solemn, epic and brooding update on the myth is exactly what I wanted to see, that’s the temperature I wanted them to take if they were going to win over someone whom has never been particularly entranced with the character, and recasting him as some sort of saviour with notions of grace birthed from the implosion of a degenerate civilisation which has lost its core fecundity feeds the cultural imagination, as our real world heroes and bearers of such fragile concepts as ‘hope‘ are exposed as the moral frauds we suspected the system always eventually engenders.
The entire enterprise rests on Henry Cavell’s broad shoulders, as the conflicted Clark he has a certain distance from the audience which is entirely plausible, it’s perfect for the role in fact to keep him slightly ‘off’ and isolated from the rest of humanity whilst also looking suitably the part when he finally dons the costume and cape. There is a slight malfunction with the tepid chemistry between Lois and Supeman as Cavell and Adams don’t seem to be a natural on-screen click, but maybe this will be developed in ensuing episodes in the franchise where the romantic banter can receive more attention.As expected Shannon gets his teeth into the juicy role of Zod, averting the usual presentation of a egomaniacal psychopath by simply presenting a man whom by genetic lottery has been assigned s the role as implacable and corrupted defender of his species, and Shannon invests him with a slight psychological edge that you don’t normally get with scenery devastating supervillains. Amy Adams does her best with lines of the quality of ‘I’m a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist goddamn it’ which she offers to her editor Perry White (Laurence Fishbourne) presumably as a test to make sure he hasn’t developed early onset Alzheimer’s – presumably as her editor he is quite aware of her journalistic award portfolio – and Costner excels himself as the world-weary yet wise Pa Kent who sets Clark on the path to righteousness.
There is something faintly ludicrous about the whole enterprise however and I’m sympathetic to some of the complaints being quite scathing of the moral aversions presented in the film(particularly a very late perversion of a moral code which is a little difficult to accept) but my inner fanboy who is nourished on some of these comic-book & SF hybrids instead has won this internal tussle as I simply loved the energy and excitement of two superhero guys punching each through numerous skyscrapers, creating oceans of disintegrated masonry, fields of crumpled steel foundations, lakes of shattered glass and ash smothered veldts of smouldering ruins, it’s that spectacle of catastrophe which somehow taps into our collective unconscious which repels some and seduces others, as Metropolis seems to be visited by a panoply of 9/11’s with Superman in this iteration seeming to have very little consideration or care for the notion of collateral damage. As for Snyder whatever his faults (which are legion) he is a keen visual stylist, and somehow he’s been kept on the leash to deliver the story in a involving and fulfilling fashion, his usual speed cranking technique has thankfully been left to rot in the directors bag of tricks, he instead making judicious use of the ‘punch zoom’ manoeuvre which Roger Deakins invented for Wall-E and was popularised in the likes of Battlestar Galactica. Another small complaint comes from the SF / Superhero / blockbuster trope of having some alien constructs blasting streams of azure energy into the planet’s core as a deux ex machina which is now simply exhausted, from The Avengers to The Transformers movies can’t we please move on to some other planet threatening, genocide igniting alien architecture?
In terms of Easter Eggs and subdued references to ancient comic lore and even the films own decade spanning production history there is plenty for the fans to delight in, from the obvious references to LEXCORP on vehicles and more intriguingly Waynes Enterprises satellites spied in the films closing battles, to Executive Producer Jon Peters finally getting his Polar Bear at the Fortress of Solitude – context here. In terms of the inevitable sequel I suspect that a certain hirsutely challenged supra genius will be getting some of those lucrative contracts to rebuild Metropolis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he stumbled across some staggeringly powerful Kryptonite tech amongst the ruins, maybe even some sentient artificial intelligence which he tampers with for his own nefarious ends, which then ends up going ‘manic’ in the ‘brain’ if you catch my drift. Bring it on for 2016, they’ll be hard pressed to beat this superbly entertaining, lofty aspiring blockbuster, ‘welcome to the planet’ indeed;