Superman is not an easy character to get right. He’s too perfect. Think about it, every other superhero has some major flaw or weakness or, at the very least, they have a limit to their powers. Spider-Man is bullied by, well, everyone, Iron Man has a heart condition, Batman watched his parents die and has more psychological issues than you a shake a batarang at but Superman, he’s just perfect. Or is he?
This is the key issue which Man of Steel tries to address. How do we weaken Superman, how do you ground him in reality? It is a task which the film goes some way to dealing with but which it ultimately struggles to convincingly address.
To answer my first question, Superman isn’t perfect. His powers may be on a different level to our other spandex wearing friends but Superman, let us not forget, is the last of his kind. His is the ultimate immigrant story. Created by two Jewish men at the start of WW2 who knew a thing or two about alienation and immigration, Superman represents that most important American dream, that no matter who you are or what you have faced before, you can achieve greatness. Superman, the last son of Krypton and an alien in the most literal sense is constantly fighting a battle to save a specifies that he isn’t actually part of. He spends almost all of his time proving his worth to humanity in the hope that he can be accepted and feel like he belongs. So he’s not perfect, he’s just as flawed as the rest of us.
I mention all of this as it is what Man of Steel focuses on incredibly closely. To ground Superman in realism they have brought these issues to the forefront and no more so than in the fight against Michael Shannon’s General Zod. The fight becomes less about the saviour of earth and more a fight for Kal El’s soul. Is he human or is he Kyrptonian? Which world will he chose to save? It’s something the film achieves very well and had this been adhered to closer Man of Steel may just have been one of the greatest Superhero films of all time. As it is, some elements hold it back from quite hitting the heights that it should.
Firstly, the ‘realism’ issue is something the filmmakers have discussed at length but when a film opens with Russell Crowe riding a 4 winged dragon, it’s pretty hard to fully believe that this thing exists. More importantly, if you’re going to use logic and science to explain how Kal El’s powers manifest then you’re going to get tied into knots and plot holes that nobody could escape from. For example, a significant plot point revolves around Clark’s adaptation to our atmosphere and his rejection of a Kryptonian atmosphere. So, if atmospheres are so important, how does he breathe in space…?
The fact that I was left wondering something like this is a symptom of making Superhero movies too real – if you’re trying to explain everything to me then I need everything explained. The Dark Knight Rises suffered similar issues as fantastical things happened in a real world making me question the very logic of the whole thing thus creating major plot holes. The tagline for the original (and still in my opinion best) Superman film was famously “You’ll believe a man can fly.” The key word there is believe and by trying to make Superman real you remove the element of belief and create fact. You can’t question belief, you can question fact.
I apologise if that all seems a little philosophical for a review of a film featuring a man dressed in a cape but most ‘dark’ superhero films, especially one about Superman, raise many of these reality/belief questions. This is especially true of Man of Steel which takes the God/Jesus imagery associated with Superman to a different level (play a drinking game of how many pieces of religious iconography are used throughout the film and you’ll be on a drip by the time the credits role).
From an action perspective however the film goes all out. Everything explodes and I mean everything. It is epic to extreme proportions so who knows where you go for Man of Steel 2 as bigger doesn’t seem to be an option. The action sequences and flying sequences are spectacular and watching Superman and Zod hit each other feels truly visceral, as it would when 2 super powered beings smack 7 shades of Krypton out of each other. Hans Zimmer’s score really adds it and he should be commended for that. If anything, he had the hardest job here with John William’s epic original Superman theme forever in the background of our minds.
I did feel at points that the explosive nature of the action all went a little too far though and I became a little confused as to why Superman seemed to destroy as much of the city as he saved. Personally I would have liked to have seen the CGI explosions toned down a little as once they start about an hour in, they don’t stop. However, this is a personal gripe and one which most audiences won’t take any issue with.
On the whole then, Man of Steel is an excellent reintroduction for Kal El. Snyder and co should be commended for trying to do something different and for creating a Superman that does feel relevant now. There are numerous issues with characterisation and plot holes however which truly hold the film back from being as great as it could have been. The explosions and noise can only mask some of these whilst some are still left glaringly obvious. As a summer superhero blockbuster and the birth of DCs new cinematic universe though Man of Steel ticks all of the boxes. If anything, it’s just nice to see Superman really fly again and gee whiz sonny boy, does he fly!
Reece Lipman is a freelance filmmaker and writer who specialises in low budget short films and music videos under the banner of Shimmer-Man Productions. Reece has also performed at the Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival and has a dangerously nerdy fascination with pop culture. He can often be found trying to convince people why Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who are the greatest things that have ever existed and wakes up most mornings wishing that he was Joss Whedon or Edgar Wright. You can read more from Reece on his website or you can follow him on Twitter (@ReeceLipman).