After much deliberation I recently acquired the "Man of Steel" DVD and ever since, I can't stop wondering if there is anything more frustrating about today's Hollywood than its inability to come up with a decent Superman movie. When I first saw the second entry of the original series in 1981, I remember leaving the theater convinced that I had just witnessed the dawn of a series that would last as long as the Bonds (so much for that prediction!). It has now been a third of a century of total misfires ("Superman III"), low-budget travesties ("Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"), productions perpetually frozen in studio development, well meaning flops ("Superman Returns") and now Zac Snyder's "Man of Steel" (2013), the subject of this piece. We are currently living in a golden age (try "mindless explosion") of comic book film adaptations and for better of worse, Superman is the jewel of that particular crown, yet these days it feels like the next "Green Hornet" will have about as good a chance to be great as any Superman of the near future.
Was there ever as sure a thing as "Superman Returns" (2006) when it opened seven years ago, at least in theory? Here we had the pairing of talented, comic-book proven director Bryan Singer ("X Men" series) with seemingly the right material. The casting felt just right (Brandon Routh looked just like a young Christopher Reeve), the reverent approach to the earlier movies appropriate, the high-70s Tomatometer most telling. The end result however was the most unexpected of blunders, one where it's particularly difficult expressing what precisely went wrong. Maybe it was the "sick kid in peril routine", maybe it was all that digital water and ice, maybe it was reverence turning into plagiarism, I don't know. At least we soon after got the announcement that seemed most likely to cut the bleeding once and for all: Christopher Nolan would be producing the next Superman movie.
Down here in Mexico we have a saying: "comparisons are spiteful" and that might indeed be the case but I think it wouldn't make much sense to judge "Man of Steel" without comparing it to the Christopher Reeve entries. After all, it is basically a consolidated remake of "Superman" (1978) and "Superman II" (1981).
I do believe "Man of Steel" got some things right. I enjoyed the new origin story dealing with how little Clark's super-natural powers almost drive him crazy and how other Krypton visitors are later affected as well. I liked the way Louis Lane puts together the clues that lead her to find Clark Kent. I also loved the idea of showing how Superman first learns to fly, without ignoring how in the original comics he was mostly limited to leaping from building to building. Further, I didn't mind that the movie gave Clark younger (and better looking) parents than ever before, but I had serious issues with Pa Kent's (Kevin Costner) demise scene. If there's a cinematic cliché that I've always detested, it would be the one where a protagonist risks his life by going back to a dangerous situation in order to save a pet (think of the dog in "Twister", the white rat in the "Abyss" and the foul mouthed parrot in "Deep Blue Sea") This, however, must be the first time a character actually dies in the process, a dubious honor that now belongs solely to Costner.
The first problem with "Man of Steel" is that the Krypton portion of the story is nowhere near as good as that in the earlier entries. This version of Superman's home planet doesn't reflect the intelligence of a super-advanced civilization and it isn't remotely as intriguing. What's worst, it looks like a complete rip-off of the world displayed in the last third of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (including the insect-like creatures and some Avatar-like flying dragons). This Krypton's "phantom zone" and space-ship concepts aren't nearly as interesting as those that preceded them and they look uncomfortably similar to those in Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (2005) and in "Independence Day" (1996).
It's rather obvious that the filmmakers decided to get the most out of Russell Crowe's performance, but the Krypton section isn't exciting or original enough to justify postponing the fun stuff with Kal-El's arrival on Earth. Crowe's performance as Jor-El must constitute some kind of record for participation in a plot by a dead character. True, his Marlon Brando counterpart also got to tutor his son thanks to Krypton's crystal technology, but making Crowe's ghost an intrinsic part of the action is stretching believability a bit too much. Additionally (spoilers ahead!) in the latter stages of the movie it's very difficult to grasp or believe Zod's thirst for revenge on Superman when in this version it turns out he was the one who murdered his father. Maybe the anger should have gone in the opposite direction.
Regarding the film's appearance, I have a hard time understanding what the point was for presenting a comic-book movie, in washed out, dark tones. This technique made all the sense in the world for a War World II feature like "Saving Private Ryan", as that movie gained the feel of a period photograph and avoided looking like a slasher piece with such an abundance of blood. In the case of "Man of Steel", all that this approach accomplishes is giving Snyder's film a signature look in tune with his previous "300" (2006). There's a feeling throughout that he's trying to hide something behind the extra darkness, as if his state-of-the-art special effects weren't good enough and had to be camouflaged. The best proof of this technique's failure comes when watching the DVDs "Making-ofs", where I was struck just how much better looking the same scenes are when shown with regular colors.
I also didn't care very much for the use of shaky-camera techniques in some sequences, particularly when Superman first gets off the ground, one of the rare instances in the movie where there is some sense of awe and wonder. The characters in "Man of Steel" are able to fly and launch one another much faster than they ever did in the Christopher Reeve films but this is seldom for the best as it's almost impossible to focus ours eyes at the right place. My impression is that the filmmakers went for a visceral and more realistic look by assigning the camera the point of view of a spectator of sorts who's doing his best to keep up with things like Superman's unpredictable flying patterns, but the fact is it never seems to be pointed at the right place and the images are almost always blurry.
The film has other problems. Even though I always found something a bit off about the original Lois Lane, I have to admit that Margot Kidder got the part just right. She was perky, she was audacious, and it was always fun watching her trying to figure out Superman's identity. In contrast, Amy Adams may overall be the better actress but here she often appears uninterested. Further, "Man of Steel" represents the first time that composer Hans Zimmer has come up with something monotonous and repetitive, a far cry from John Williams' sublime score. The Daily Planet's offices are also a disappointment as they look nothing like we would expect from a working newspaper and they give the impression that the filmmakers were able to save some money by borrowing an existing office. Additionally, if there was ever a character that should have benefited greatly from today's digital effects, that should be Superman, but that is seldom the case in this movie. When the earlier entries came along, I used to wonder whether their special effects, which seemed incredible at the time, could ever advance to a point where the flying protagonist could be shown interacting more directly with his background The technology is clearly there in "Man of Steel" but it is often wasted on such cartoony shots as those with Superman being chased by giant Matrix-like tentacles.
"Man of Steel"'s biggest sin, however, comes on what should have been its crowning moment: the anxiously awaited confrontation between Superman and Zod. The problems in this sequence derive from the quickness of the Kryptonians' every motion and from how convoluted the action is, seldom allowing us to appreciate the proceedings. Case in point: it took me a second viewing to figure out that Zod's female assistant was actually killed in a plane crash, but the news of her demise didn't matter all that much since I never became emotionally involved. There's an additional caveat here: much of the fun and suspense in the older movies came from the reaction to the unbelievable events by the extras who populated the story (think of the secretaries rushing to their window to see Superman flying by) or by placing them in peril as well. This is seldom the case in "Man of Steel" where there hardly ever seem to be any individuals in the middle of the action (not even the IHOP product placement scene seems to have any customers).
Sadly, the future for Superman doesn't look all that hopeful. I can't see any reason for teaming him with Batman except to try to copy the success of "The Avengers". We have to remember, though, that Superman belongs to the same studio that once tried to put Nicolas Cage in this particular role; that gave the Batman films to Joel Schumacher, the Terminator films to the "Charlie's Angels" director and now "Man of Steel" to the guy who made "300". Somebody there ought to start treating Superman as the Holy Grail of comic books that it is. God bless Richard Donner, the only director who has been able so far to make one of these movies the right way (or two, if you consider the fact that he made most of "II"). He's currently in his eighties so it is hard to see him being pulled out of retirement, but he sure is looking more and more like a genius with the release of every new Superman film.