Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which now flounders in a weird limbo, was underrated. A more soulful, romantic film far less fixated on realism than Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins a year earlier, it evoked the innocent wonder of the Richard Donner original. Yet Returns still felt like it was stifling Superman’s godlike if humble nature; the extent of what he could do could now finally be realised with modern effects, but Singer held back.
The die-hard Returns haters have oversimplified Superman in thinking that wreaking havoc on villains and property was fundamental to his character and rueing Singer’s rejection of it, but the character’s potential still felt stifled. A more energetic, muscular, grand Superman film felt possible in today’s cinema, so when a Returns sequel withered and a reboot was announced, we assumed that this is what we’d get, and we got excited.
Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan have now given many of us what we wanted, and we might have been wrong.
For most of its second half, Man of Steel is an orgy of destruction and action that assumes more means better, and it’s numbing to watch. This is pretty common in action cinema today, of course, but Superman has traditionally been about more than violence. For Man of Steel to descend to that unsubtle, blunt level of spectacle with such relish is disappointing. Snyder does explore the more graceful, resonant parts of the Superman mythos earlier in the film, but any lasting impressions are obliterated by the sensory onslaught that follows.
But let’s start at the beginning. Some have been complaining that this is another reboot, but come on, Superman’s origin hasn’t been told on the big screen since 1978. This isn’t The Amazing Spider-Man. I applaud Bryan Singer for avoiding another origin story in Superman Returns and finding a creative way to continue the earlier films, but that connection is part of why it didn’t catch on culturally. There are several generations of kids who’ve never seen Superman’s beginnings told on screen, and Snyder’s take is completely separate from every other. There’s not a single nod to the earlier films, and Man of Steel feels nothing like them. This was a valid endeavour.
The key differences are aesthetic. Snyder either gives us a grounded, documentary-style look, or he’s more visually adventurous than the original films. His Krypton is dazzling and unexpectedly audacious: it’s a Mœbius comic come to life. He shoots these scenes handheld, however, in contrast to the ornate beauty of Krypton’s design. The camera chases the action rather than omnisciently documenting every moment. The contrast is jarring but perhaps ingenious: it’s still hard to tell. This witnessing approach to the action continues throughout the film, so instead of the beautifully constructed tableaus we’re accustomed to in comics and animation, sequences are often a jumble. Snyder’s intention is no doubt to approximate the sensory confusion we would feel if we actually there, running and jumping and flying.
But to assume this is effective when we’re sitting still in a cinema seat is misguided. The action in Man of Steel is a cacophony that captures the chaos of such impossible feats, but sacrifices our comprehension of them. The camera is always moving, hyperactive but usually lagging behind. Complaining about this has become a cliché in film criticism, but only because the technique is endemic and continually thwarts our desire to see what we know modern effects are capable of showing us. The effect is exhausting, choosing to overwhelm us with the intensity and scale of superpowers rather than be awed by them. Man of Steel almost questions why we would enjoy watching godlike power be unleashed.
This may explain the film’s ambivalence about the scale of the destruction that Superman and the Kryptonians cause. Although we pointedly never see any civilians killed by collapsing buildings or falling debris, the destruction is so vast and sudden that mass casualties are guaranteed. And when the fighting appears to be over, with a city in ruins around them and who knows how many dead, Lois and Clark kiss and banter about it being their first. Man of Steel both rejoices in its havoc and doesn’t seem to understand what it means.
When property isn’t being pummelled into submission and the story and characters are allowed to breathe, Man of Steel is more balanced. Henry Cavill was an inspired choice for the role, but he isn’t given enough time to fully embody Superman or Clark Kent. He has the statuesque presence you expect of a near-god, but the humility and puppy-dog eyes of an outcast raised by down-to-earth, moralistic farmer parents. Cavill has a warmth and charm in his scenes with Diane Lane as Martha Kent and Amy Adams as Lois Lane where he just nails the character. He’s an adult, unlike the boyish Brandon Routh, but he conveys the idealism and innocence of Clark. That Cavill virtually disappears for an hour of the film as he and his CGI double fight Zod (an ideally cast Michael Shannon) and his cronies is a shame, given what we’ve glimpsed. Cavill handles the action well, and it was undoubtedly fiendishly laborious for everyone to film. But these scenes don’t draw on the qualities he was cast for. The final scene is an archetypal Clark Kent moment, but Man of Steel has drifted so far from the simple charm of Superman that seeing Cavill in that context is strange, just as it’s hard to imagine most of the Batman mythos being compatible with Nolan’s vision of it.
So the massively praised Nolan approach to superhero films has again distorted and reduced an iconic character. As compelling and handsomely produced as the Dark Knight films were, Nolan’s understandable focus on setting them in ‘our world’ rather than a stylised version of it undermined the mythic scope and gothic allure of the Batman universe. Before Batman Begins, explaining how he got those amazing toys seemed fresh and sensible. Only in hindsight do we realise that suspension of that disbelief has been fundamental to why we enjoy superhero stories, even in live-action. To explain and justify every element saps the vitality and imagination from the genre.
And now Man of Steel, about a superpowered alien being, has taken this ‘make it real’ approach. Here, it’s a double-edged sword. Introducing Superman into ‘our world’ helps us grasp how stunning his arrival would be to us. He is not just proof of alien life, but has the powers we would associate with a god. When he first appears to a group of assembled soldiers and gracefully descends from the sky, we appreciate how unfathomable it would be as he challenges our notions of reality. A more fanciful aesthetic would diminish that sense of awe; we might empathise less with viewpoint characters who didn’t live in ‘our world’.
The downside is the deliberate mundanity of much of the film that’s necessitated by this approach. Smallville is an anonymous rural town that isn’t even named in dialogue, the Daily Planet a dull newspaper office: they are backdrops rather than vivid environments, just like Nolan’s Gotham. Even Lois Lane is just some reporter, because Adams isn’t allowed to imbue her with much spark or personality, so even her bond with Clark feels unearned. These iconic elements of the Superman mythos are withered because they have been repurposed as standard, real-world elements of a recognisable world for Superman to arrive in. This impacts Man of Steel as a film, not just as a Superman adaptation: several key parts of the film are dull and uninvolving. The settings don’t absorb us and the characters don’t compel us.
They might if they had room to breathe. Snyder seems torn between the measured pace of the character-based scenes and the chaos he wreaks elsewhere. The shots that led to that surprising, Malickian teaser trailer are all here, allowing us to contemplate Clark’s world. A decaying butterfly flutters in the wind. Young Clark plays with a cape in the yard as his parents watch. Clark floats underwater watching two whales swim overhead. If half the action had been replaced with more dialogue and evocative character moments like this, Man of Steel could have satisfied everyone. But the misunderstood spectre of Superman Returns seems to have led Snyder and Warner Bros. to overcompensate, smothering a straightforward, character-based story that might have inspired some wonder with chaos and destruction whose impact is barely acknowledged.
The ideal Superman film that would satisfy the most people sits, unmade, somewhere between Superman Returns and Man of Steel. Zack Snyder has certainly delivered a more widely appealing one, but it’s not the ultimate film we had been hoping for. Spectacle cinema now seems unable to embrace majesty and vision, tempering them with plausibility to appeal to the most demographics. This leaves us with a film like Man of Steel, stunted but still yearning for those heights. Perhaps the excess of these films will finally wear us out and we’ll make it known, and future films might finally allow us to see the wonder of these characters, literally and figuratively.