In Defense of Man of Steel
To begin, I would like to state that although I have read some of the early Superman comics, I am by no means an expert on the character of Superman. However, my goal in this review is to convey my personal interpretation of Superman as a character, and to defend against the unreasonable backlash of Zack Snyder’s recent adaptation of the comic.
I did not grow up on the Christopher Reeve Superman films. I had the opportunity to watch them in more recent years but I was never quite satisfied. Certainly the appealing John Williams score is glorious and iconic but overall it wasn’t a Superman I related to. In Man of Steel the image of Superman doesn’t show up until the end of the film. It is an origin story that manages to unite the existential light of his humanity with his god-like powers. Zack Snyder managed to re-invent a character that had, in the film format, lost his luster.
The importance of Clark Kent
Because it is an origin story, we get to learn who the character of Superman truly is and what he feels. Through the flashbacks of his upbringing on the Kent Farm we get a look at a lonely, isolated child, who at all ages seems to wrestle with the fundamental existential question regarding his origins. And, to me, the film does an excellent job conveying this existential crisis. As we get to know Clark as an adult, still struggling with questions having to do with his true origins, we see him undertake an endless journey across the American landscape. It is at this moment that we are finally given a glimpse of the man in man of steel.
The iconography of the film
One of the most impressive achievements of the film was the balance found between respecting the iconography of 75 years alongside Snyder’s own personal vision. Almost every shot could have been a comic panel. Snyder managed to create his own incarnation that still emulated the most iconic themes most commonly associated with the character. Naturally we find the combination of the Jesus/Moses origin story that is strikingly shown in the opening and peppered throughout shots of the film. The fight scenes also showcase the Herculean godlike status of the hero that has never really been showcased to the same degree. Every physical action is beautiful and the iconography shines through the text. The action scenes manage to elevate themselves to an art form that expresses the immensity of his power and status as a superhero.
The film spends a significant amount of time on Kal-El’s original planet Krypton. We get to glimpse at the doomed society and why it fell. We learn of a Kryptonian culture that is reminiscent of medieval society infused with advanced scientific knowledge. The heraldry and idea that the Superman “S” stands for Hope was derived from Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright. It ties itself with the idea of Superman as a savior. Krypton continues to play a prominent role throughout the film, not only through the villain General Zod but in Kal himself. The movie makes a point of focusing on the importance of his alien heritage. His adopted father emphasizes his alien nature not to ostracize him but to remind him of the importance of his place on earth. As the film specifies, the character symbolizes an intergalactic ambassador as well as a protector. Krypton is not a long dead planet, it is the source of change for all humanity.
Many films manage to create spectacular villains that have become ingrained in pop culture, such as Darth Vader, the Joker and Hannibal Lecter. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to the villains being given more heft than they deserve and the heroes being overshadowed. Man of Steel manages to avoid this: the villains have a clearly defined purpose and are given the right amount of gravitas and screen presence as sub-plots to the film’s title character. Fan favorite Faora Ul has short bursts of screen time where she is given some of the films best one-liners and action scenes. Antje Traue, a relatively unknown German actor, clearly has fun with the role and is given the right amount of time to shine. Michael Shannon’s Zod is a different take on the Kryptonian general then Terrence Stamp’s in Superman II, but he nevertheless manages to be one of the most charismatic villains to watch this year.
By action I don’t simply mean fight sequences. Every physical action in the film, with the help of CGI, is enhanced and feels visceral and stirring. Thanks to the camera work and the look of the film, as well as the sound editing, the action manages to be the most thrilling seen in a super hero film in quite a while. The inventiveness of the action sequences made me feel like a child again, in absolute awe and excitement. The flying sequences on their own are already exhilarating but watching the aerial combat is the most fun I have had in theatres for quite some time. Snyder manages to create the best example of what an insane anime fight would look like in a live action reproduction.
Hans Zimmer had one of the hardest jobs for any working composer today: create something different but as iconic as the John Williams score for Superman. He created a new theme that has supplanted the original score from my mind. I will always be moved by the original, but the fact that a new theme was able to affect me at a similar level was a great accomplishment. Hans Zimmer is by no means a perfect composer as many of his themes are derivative and uninspired but with the Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel he created something great. The main theme, called What Do You Want to do When You Aren’t Saving the World on the soundtrack listing is a worthy successor to the original, and fitting for this day and age.
Man of steel, to me, was the superman movie I always wanted to see. It managed to get me even more interested in a character that I had always liked. The mix of humanity and intimacy with Clark Kent coupled with the epic proportions of the film make it one of the best blockbusters of the year. It definitely isn’t for everyone and does differ vastly from any single incarnation of the character but that is precisely what makes it so great. It manages to distill essential traits of this legendary comic book figure while also creating a new filmic interpretation. Zack Snyder cements his position as one of the best comic book movie directors. After having absolutely nailed the adaptations of Watchmen and 300, he tackled one of the hardest characters and pulled it off successfully.