The problem with Superman, as a dramatically compelling character, is that he lacks dramatic tension. While figures such as Batman or James Bond can be put in physical and life-threatening danger (no matter how unlikely that ultimate outcome is), Superman is, by definition, impervious to the same measures of mortality. He simply can’t be hurt by terrestrial (or extra-terrestrial) means. His vulnerability, then, must be measured by the affects upon his environment, and the people he cares about. While Zack Snyder’s movie is high on property damage, it never makes us care very much about the people in Kal-El’s life – Lois Lane, John and Martha Kent, Jor-El, Zod – and despite CGI evidence to the contrary, it’s this crucial lack of heart that fails to make us believe this Superman can fly.
‘Man of Steel’ recounts the origins of Kal-El (Henry Cavill), last son of Krypton: a story that has filtered its way into the cultural psyche with pseudo-religious profundity: part Moses parable, part Hercules reworking. If you’re at a loss, grab the nearest five-year-old, who’ll readily tell you of baby Supes’ escape from the dying planet of Krypton, home to a race of super-advanced aliens – of his adoption by the homespun Kents, of Smallville, Kansas – of his slow discovery and refinement of otherworldly, god-like powers – and of his eventual donning of blue tights, a red cape, and the mantle of earth’s protector. (He’s also superfriends with Batman, has a Fortress of Solitude, and frequently naps in space. All in all: pretty cool.)
While his relationship with BFF Bruce Wayne is skipped over for brevity’s sake, director Zack Snyder’s ‘Man of Steel’ hits all these familiar beats – wrapping them in a narrative propelled by one of Superman’s greatest foes, General Zod (Michael Shannon) – but somehow reduces them in both importance and scale.
While much attention is lavished on the conflict leading to Krypton’s destruction, precious little is given to Kal-El’s formative time with John and Martha Kent. Audiences versed in the most basic of Superman mythos could site the importance of the Kents upon the young Kal-El (embodiments and distilleries, as they are, of Superman’s all-American persona), but the film takes their importance very much for granted. Both Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are reduced to a series of speeches and pontificate platforms, sprouting not-entirely-logical rhetoric to mould young Kal into the Superman to come. They never feel like a cohesive married couple, let alone a family, and Kal’s childhood (seen in fragmentary, non-linear flashbacks) fails to explain the adult we come to know, or provide any great insight into what makes him tick.
In fact, the focus in ‘Man of Steel’ is very much on Kal rather than Clark, playing more upon his alien origins than previous films have dwelled. This seems a strange, counter-intuitive choice that the film never really fully explores. While it goes to great lengths to stress Kal must choose between his human and alien allegiances, the issue of his "humanity" is all but taken for granted. We never see why he empathises with humanity, merely the outcome of when he does. And since the outcome of his decision is never in any doubt (he wouldn’t be Superman, after all, if he didn’t side with us), the film’s dramatic centre carries no weight – reduced, in the end, to a standard "save the city from the doomsday weapon" scenario straight out of the Richard Donner classics.
A dark colour palette is no substitute for genuine drama, dimensional characters, and emotional stakes.
While comparisons to ‘Batman Begins’ may seem unfavorable (given that film’s execution, tone and overall quality), it’s one the filmmakers actively invite. Chris Nolan acted as producer and story-consultant on ‘Man of Steel’, and the film often feels far too indebted to Nolan’s signature vision for a darker, grittier superhero universe that frankly does not marry with Superman and his world. Screenwriter David S. Goyer (also of the 'Dark Knight' trilogy) has gone out of his way to make Kal-El into that series’ version of Bruce Wayne – a soul-searching, menial-working, beard-bristling hero reluctant to assume the mantle – to the huge detriment of the character’s internal (as well as thematic) logic. Misery does not equate to profundity, and it too often comes across as a lazy rehash rather than a genuine dramatic choice.
While purists will certainly decry the many changes made to the Superman oeuvre, it’s hard to believe general audiences won’t feel equally challenged by this fiercely contemporary (read: monochrome, epic, and 3D) take on the classic character. There’s nothing wrong with re-imagining a character or franchise – ‘Batman’, ‘Star Trek’, and ‘Bond’ have gone through several successful iterations – but a contemporary take will only take you so far. In the language of cinema, a dark colour palette is no substitute for genuine drama, dimensional characters, and emotional stakes.
Icons, by their nature, are constant, remaining familiar even as they change. Here’s hoping that ‘Man of Steel 2’, already in development, can return more of the familiar to our most iconic of super superheroes.