After an unconscionably long wait, I finally get round to watching Man Of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013).
As this is a review, let me disclose my prejudices up front. Zack Snyder is my favourite director. His 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009) and Sucker Punch ( 2011) are all among my current favourite films and the first two are definitely in my top twenty, so Snyder can do no wrong in my eyes. Man Of Steel also had important input from another of my favourite film makers, Christopher Nolan, who directed The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010) and Memento (2000). In the case of Man Of Steel, Nolan wrote the story.
There is no doubt that the two men and their team have pulled off another major success with their re-booting of the Superman franchise. The special effects are supremely brilliant, the acting is first rate and I’m pleased in a schoolboyish way that Henry Cavill, with his superb good looks, athleticism and well-mannered charm is British.
Overall, Man Of Steel is the kind of big budget special effects comic book movie than even great filmmakers like Ridley Scott can only aspire to.
None of the makers need me to tell them they have produced a brilliantly successful film – the box office receipts alone do that job. But this is a critical review, and so I must put my prejudices and my immense enjoyment aside for a moment in order to point – constructively I hope – to the film’s weak points.
Superman is no spring chicken. He is older than most people alive today (he first appeared in 1933, some 83 years ago). Almost everyone has grown up knowing of the character and his story – the dying planet Krypton, adoption by Ma and Pa Kent, his alter ego Clark Kent, nosy Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, and, of course, his super powers: able to leap tall buildings, faster than a speeding bullet, his x-ray vision, and his fatal weakness for green kryptonite.
As well as hundreds of magazines, the story has been recycled in ten major cinema films as well as several TV series. Because his story is so well known and the basic outlines of his story so well established, there is very little scope for true originality without causing upset among millions of fans worldwide. In this respect, Man Of Steel is not an original science fiction film like, say, Alien (1979) or Avatar (2009), but is a retelling of a much loved traditional tale, like the Iliad or the Odyssey. You are free to embroider: you are not free to tinker with the canon.
Spoilers from here on
Nolan has done a superb job of refreshing the tale without fundamental change – adopting his trade mark non-linear storytelling approach. Some of the essential strands he keeps until late in the story – Clark Kent doesn’t join Metopolis’s greatest newspaper until the final reel when, in this retelling, Lois already knows his true identity, and greets his arrival in the office with the brilliant line “Welcome to the planet”.
Nolan also addresses much more realistically than ever before the likely reaction of people on earth discovering that they have an alien among them. But despite these original touches, when Zack Snyder starts peering through the lens and calling “action”, there is little he can do other than call upon tropes from other recent successful SF reboots.
And so we have the destruction of Krypton by fire which starts like the Necromongers attacking a victim planet in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and ends with an explosion like Alderan being blown apart by the Death Star in Star Wars (1977). We have General Zod who closely resembles Nero, the vengeful Romulan in J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek (2009), and his baddies arriving in a ship that is strikingly similar to Nero’s ship in the same movie.
Nor is that all, for when General Zod launches his attack on earth it is with a gigantic drilling machine borrowed from the same movie. And the effects of this destructive machine on Metropolis (New York) is strangely similar to the effect of the massive alien ships in Independence Day (1996). There also seems to be a little (in my view bad taste) borrowing from actual scenes from 9/11 as city dweller try to outrun the clouds of rubble caused by the alien ships destruction.
There is plenty of satisfying urban destruction in the fight scenes, but we have seen it all before in other outings for DC comics characters – the cars that tumble through the air, the skyscrapers that crumble, the petrol stations that explode – notably in Avengers Assemble (2012).
There is even a flashback to Pa Kent’s death at the hands of the tornado from Twister (1996) or was it Tornado (1996) while others seek refuge under a road bridge.
Nolan and Snyder have used all these tropes cleverly and in original ways. In the tornado scene, for example, it is to drive home Clark Kent’s burning need to conceal his identity as an alien being, even if it means allowing a loved one to die. But when all’s said and done, an SFX tornado is still only an SFX tornado.
But perhaps what I’m voicing here is really criticism of myself for becoming so easily jaded by the sight of so much digital destruction and green-screen mayhem.
I’ll happily award Man Of Steel the full five stars and 10 out of 10 for entertainment value. But I just can’t bring myself to add that elusive 11 out of 10 and an extra star for outstanding originality.