Superman returned to the screen again this year, and this time he flew.
In the middle of this year, Man of Steel, despite some shortcomings and the perceived under-performance of Superman's previous cinematic outing, exceeded the stellar expectations of the studios and in many cases fans and critics too.
Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and Director Zack Snyder, who detractors had already condemned before a single frame of this film was ever shot, bring their absolute best games to this film. In my opinion Costner actually gives his most moving performance ever, knocking it out of the ball park better than he ever did in Field of Dreams. The catch in his voice when he reassures the frightened young Clark with the words “you are my son” is perfectly pitched and his final scene could well be Costner’s finest moment on screen.
But as always, responsibility for the film’s ability to soar lay upon the ludicrously-broad shoulders of its lead actor. Christopher Reeve will probably always be the definitive screen Superman for me, but Henry Cavill is now a very close second.
Particularly before the explosive final act, he seems to have an ability to convey precise thoughts and emotions with the barest minimum of expression and body language, (the same understated approach, incidentally, which Christopher Reeve took with his own portrayal). What some have critics mistakenly called ‘wooden’ is actually the conveying of a larger than life icon with skilfully judged subtlety and restraint.
When I heard that the film’s mission was to make Superman more relatable, I shuddered, with visions of a quipping, smirking Dean Cain passing before my eyes. But Man of Steel does succeed in giving us a title character who we can, and want, to get behind. We are able to engage with an alienated refugee who gradually discovers that his ‘curse’ might also be our blessing and by the end of the film rejoice as he symbolically claims a new persona, complete with friends and a sense of purpose, which is more important than the simple ‘secret identity’ of old.
With Christopher Nolan’s close involvement, many also predicted that this would be a ‘Superman Begins’ and in many ways it is, but not in the grimy, gravely-voiced, winged-rodent sort of way which they meant.
In 1978 Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew out of his Fortress of Solitude, fully-formed after a decade of intensive tuition from a hologram of Marlon Brando, on how to be the world’s greatest hero.
In Man of Steel, Cavill is shown the suit, and then turned loose to make his own mistakes. This includes a spectacular sequence which begins like a scene from ‘80s comedy series The Greatest American Hero - something I hoped to never see in a Superman film, but it kind of works. On persevering: a hurtling, cape-fluttering world tour encourages us to share his new-found exhilaration – this is a very human Superman, learning on the job.
This fresh and welcome approach does unfortunately have the side effect of there being no ‘big reveal’ for our title character – there is no equivalent of the “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” scene from Superman the Movie. Take a couple of minutes to watch it now, and if you aren’t grinning by the end, then your brain might just have become disconnected from your heart.
Unlike Bryan Singer’s well-intentioned but misjudged 2006 effort, Superman Returns, Man of Steel sets out to tell an all-too-familiar story, a true modern myth, but in a fresh new way. If the beautifully realised and exciting Krypton ‘prologue’ doesn’t already signal this approach, the sudden cut from young Kal’s ship entering our atmosphere to the adult Clark working on a present day shipping boat does. We all know the Moses-inspired legend by heart, but this film wisely breaks up the linear narrative and explores ‘corners’ in the story we haven’t seen before.
With the arrival of Zod and his army the film then appears hell-bent in ensuring that the criticism of ‘not enough action’ levelled at Bryan Singer’s film, can never be applied here.
The ear-drum shredding, wildly-kinetic mayhem which fills the second half and literally levels an entire city is a guilty pleasure. It feels a little like a venerable ‘gentleman prize fighter’ of yester-year stepping into the ring and comprehensively wiping the floor with the current bunch of cinematic caped-wannabees. It’s chaos on a scale not seen before, a true ‘clash of the gods’, but the apparent disregard for we poor mortals left to flee between the toppling buildings does leave a slight hint of sourness. In 1980’s Superman II, (the direct inspiration for this colossal confrontation), Reeve’s Superman quits the big fight when he realises that he can’t protect hundreds of innocent bystanders from collateral damage, and draws the Kryptonian super-villains away from Metropolis.
Similarly, Man of Steel’s final resolution of Zod’s threat is undeniably shocking, although I’m not going to give it away here. It is a good thing that we are shocked and the toll it takes on our hero shows that it almost costs him his soul.
Both these points have been addressed by scriptwriter David Goyer, and his answer is also what makes this film so unique and engaging. This is a newly-minted hero, (the name Superman is only heard three times in the entire film) and he still has much to learn. He doesn’t always know what to do, doesn’t have the decades of experience and wisdom we associate with the character yet. And this in itself makes his cinematic future fascinating to contemplate.
But I do have a slight niggle that the only successful on-screen Superman stories to date: the first two Reeve films, have both been used up by Man of Steel. And I also feel some disappointment that the next film will see him share the screen, grudgingly, with a new Batman.
I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but for now I’m thrilled to have seen my favourite superhero return to the screen for his 75th anniversary, and make us all believe a man can fly once again.