I remember the exact point in my childhood when I stopped wanting to be Superman.
You see, my parents had been trying to help me overcome a spell of poor health by supplementing my diet with ginseng soup. Healthy, perhaps. Tasty? Hell, no. I absolutely refused to take that vile stuff, so they had to resort to conning me. My dad told me that if I drank enough of it, I’d be able to fly over the front wall of our garden. Just like Superman. Being a thoroughly naïve child, I believed him. So every day, diligently, religiously, I’d chug down bowls and bowls of the bitter concoction. You can tell where this is going, but do bear with me.
One fine day, I figured it was time to test my new powers. I stood before that humungous, insurmountable (5-foot) wall, hands on hips, with a red table cloth tucked neatly into the nape of my t-shirt. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and leapt with all the might that my herbal-fuelled muscles could summon… and up, up and away I went, into the blue sky! Or so I thought. What really happened was I crashed my dumb ass right into the wall, and earned a whole bunch of cuts and bruises in the process.
I didn’t cry; I was way too worked up. I stormed into the house, demanding to know why it didn’t work. It was then that my father broke the news: Superman was just a movie and man was never meant to fly.
I couldn’t comprehend. What did he mean “just” a movie? Wasn’t all that stuff real? And did I drink all that crap for nothing?? I was hurt bad and they knew it. I think it broke their hearts to realise a little of the innocence had died in me, along with my dreams of flight.
They acted quickly. My mom made me my favourite toasted cheese & Marmite sandwich, then sat me down to gently rub Tiger Balm into my wounds. My dad did what he’d normally do when he wanted to make up for something. He took me to the movies. We watched “Superman II”, as he figured the best thing for me was to try and rekindle that lost flame. But halfway through I fell asleep, more due to the exhaustion of the day rather than any rejection of the film. I do remember being cradled in my father’s arms, with the light of the overhead projection flickering in the cool darkness. By the time the movie had ended, all felt right in the world again. I discovered real superheroes that day. My parents.
I guess I’m telling you this story because that’s what “Man Of Steel” is to me. Beyond the bold retooling of an iconic property, the ambitious scope and the massive action, this is a loving tribute to parents, especially fathers. It’s no big secret either. In a recent interview, screenwriter David S. Goyer revealed: “While I was writing the script, I became a stepdad and a dad, and my own dad died. I never thought that my own experiences would find a way into something like this.” Director Zack Snyder’s dad is happily still around and is a familiar sight on the set of his son’s films. Snyder Sr often declares to anyone who’ll listen how proud he is of his boy, and Snyder Jr admits this film is his way of returning the compliment.
And what a compliment this is. Previous iterations of the Superman origin story on the big screen have touched on the whole parental aspect, but never to this extent. A sizable portion of “Man Of Steel” involves Kal-El/Clark Kent’s biological and adoptive parents. Their scenes are the basis for the film’s most important themes, of what really defines Superman. Unlike many other superheroes who were born out of guilt (Spider-man) or rage (Batman) over the loss of their family, Superman had it good. Right from birth, he’s been immersed in love, kindness and morality. Our Earth’s yellow sun made him super, but as Goyer and Snyder demonstrate it’s his parents — both sets of them — who made him the man he is. And that’s the part that resonated most with me.
It’s not easy to find emotional truth in a giant CGI-filled action blockbuster, but here the writer and director nail it. The scene on Krypton where Jor-El and his wife say their final goodbyes to their infant son put a lump in my throat. And I love every scene between the Kents and young Clark. They’re just simple dialogue exchanges yet have a sweet, poignant power to them. These quieter moments are what I will seek out in future viewings. This is the beating heart of the film, and that the filmmakers have managed to give one to such a well-worn property and make it feel vital again is something to applaud.
Seems like Goyer (and to some extent producer Christopher Nolan) set out to explore another aspect of Superman’s duality. Nurture versus nature, with his nature being a thinly-veiled Christ metaphor. In case you didn’t know, his family name “El” comes from the Hebrew word for God (Elohim). So, Kal-El is literally the son of God. Where Jor-El is all for free will to ensure Kal-El realises his full potential, Jonathan has raised Clark to hide his true nature. It gives us a small but refreshing insight into where Superman’s dual identities stem from.
The cast is a good part of the reason why all this works. Russell Crowe connects as Jor-El in a way the detached Marlon Brando version never did/could. He is sagely and earthy, and in his scenes with his adult son he channels Obi-Wan Kenobi via Maximus Decimus Meridius. Kevin Costner is even better. His Jonathan Kent is a surprisingly complex man with flecks of grey to his otherwise upstanding moral code, and it’s not just due to the words on the page.
When asked by a pre-teen Clark if he was supposed to let a busload of kids die just so his identity could stay a secret, the way Costner says “Maybe” gives us a good sense of just how torn Jonathan is between protecting his own child and teaching him what’s right. I really like Diane Lane as Martha Kent too. There is a lovely scene where adult Clark tells Martha he’s finally discovered where he really came from, and Lane plays it with such a subtle tinge of heartache.
The other choice I appreciate them making, casting and character-wise is for Lois Lane. Amy Adams does tough and smart real well, so it’s good that her character is written that way for once in a “Superman” movie. Gone is the so-called savvy journalist who can’t even figure out her caped boyfriend and her bespectacled colleague are the same guy. This Lois is far more clued-in in every way. Her romance with Supes is a bit rushed, but at least there’s genuine chemistry with her leading man.
Speaking of whom, that’s what it all boils down to. Englishman Henry Cavill is asked to carry the weight of the world’s most recognisable superhero on his relatively inexperienced shoulders, not to mention an entire studio’s franchise aspirations. And I’m happy to say he pulls it off with aplomb. He’s got the chiseled handsomeness and ridiculously buff physique right out of the comic books. That’s a dime a dozen. Where he really impresses is how completely he manages to own the role and convey its innate virtues without making it feel expected or cliché. Now that’s rare.
While this is a star-making turn for Cavill, arthouse fixture Michael Shannon comes close to stealing the whole show as main villain General Zod. Nobody does crazy quite like this guy and when he’s in full-on scenery chewing mode, Shannon is superb. His character is given a solid motivation for doing what he does, and towards the end you might even find yourself sympathising with him a little.
Themes and performances aside, there’s also some brilliant visual storytelling early on, where you get so much with so few words uttered — a feat they fail to repeat in the exposition-heavy 2nd half. My favourite section has got to be the 18-minute opening on Krypton. The filmmakers have gone for what they call a post-technological look and while it’s slightly derivative of other styles by artists like HR Giger, it’s a pretty striking vision of Kryptonian civilization. I dig it a lot, right down to the weird particle-based mechas and the winged creatures used as transport. I’d gladly watch an entire film set on Krypton.
The 2nd half of the film is a more hit & miss affair, and I suspect it’s got something to do with Warner Bros wanting to make up for the action deficiencies of “Superman Returns”. The studio is probably pleased that their director appears to have put every cent of the budget up there on screen. Snyder set out to show us exactly what happens when gods do battle, and on that front he has over-delivered. With every earth-shattering smackdown or heat vision blast, cities are leveled and landscapes altered. This is Hollywood’s aptitude for larger-than-life destruction and spectacle at its most jaw-dropping. While most of the action is thrilling, the problem is it all gets somewhat samey after a while. Plus, the CGI is cartoony in places. I kinda miss the inventiveness and clarity of Snyder’s fight staging in “300”. Still, I can’t complain too much since someone has finally captured the full magnitude of Superman’s strength and speed.
The score also does its part to make Superman iconic again. Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Nothing can top John Williams’ “Superman” theme music. Nothing. Now, knowing that, Hans Zimmer still manages to do a pretty admirable job. His theme is different for sure, yet retains the sweeping grandeur and that noble feel. It’s a shame the music gets turned by overzealous sound editing into an anonymous wall of sound during the final action extravaganza. Watching it in IMAX certainly did not help matters, as the volume is always calibrated way up. While we’re on the subject of technical flaws, I have to call out Snyder’s decision to shoot using handheld cameras. In theory, it can make for a more immediate, realistic experience. The way they’ve used it here, it’s just distracting. In more than one scene, the camera is so jittery it totally ruins any emotional impact. That’s a shame, because when it’s not busy having a seizure the cinematography can be beautiful, like a Terrence Malick film.
“Man Of Steel” is a good — not great — superhero film, though parts of it flirt with greatness. As much as it has benefited from the collective creative input of Goyer, Nolan and Snyder, their respective idiosyncrasies have also hurt the finished product. Goyer comes up with smart ideas, like making this a sci-fi story of First Contact, but he is prone to sloppy dialogue and narrative. Nolan has very sharp instincts for finding the essence of a character, but his insistence on bringing “gravitas” to a superhero movie can rob it of a sense of fun. Snyder is brilliant at doing action, has a keen eye for design and is an underrated actor’s director, but tends to over-indulge that fanboy side of him that takes things too far.
Still, I have to admire their intent to give us depth and dazzle in near equal measure. Even “The Avengers”, as awesome as it was, ultimately veered towards surface delights. I cannot think of another work within this genre that has gotten so up close and personal with the human aspect of its superhuman subject (No, “Watchmen” doesn’t count, though full marks for you if you thought of it). This is an origin story in every sense of the term and although the way it goes about it may not be for everyone, there’s no denying that in time this will be looked upon as THE definitive version of the Superman mythos. I already do.
Above all else, “Man Of Steel’s” biggest accomplishment is in making Superman an aspirational figure once more. I can imagine my own kid someday wanting to run around with a red table cloth tucked into the nape of his tee. When I got back from the screening that day, my dad asked how the movie was. I could’ve given him a straight answer, but I couldn’t resist.
“As good as ginseng soup,” I replied, flexing my muscles.
The look on his face was priceless.