Sean K. Cureton

Man of Steel and the Relevant Superman

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on June 17, 2013 at 4:34 pm
Man of Steel Review

Warner Bros. Pictures

Man of Steel
Directed by Zach Snyder
1 1/2 out of 4 stars

Man of Steel is the sixth major motion picture adaptation of the seminal and iconic DC Comics character Superman, and the third iteration of that superhero within film franchise history. Superman first graced the silver screen in 1978, with Christopher Reeve donning the red cape and blue suit, and Gene Hackman taking on the role of Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor. The 1978 Superman was the first in a series of four franchise films, which include the 1980 seminal classic Superman 2, 1983’s abysmal Superman 3, co-starring an astoundingly miscast Richard Pryor, and 1987’s ridiculous and oft-forgotten Superman 4: The Quest for Peace. Where the first two Superman films were lighthearted, romantic adventures with a wide appeal and strong grounding in the Superman mythology established by DC, the second two films in this first motion picture franchise lost sight of the mythology and adventure inherent to the Superman story, becoming lost in a mire of attempted pop-cultural relevancy and pretended socio-political consciousness. And yet Bryan Singer’s second iteration of Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns didn’t fare that much better, possibly suffering from too much of a penchant for mythology and romantic derring-do. With such a history of Superman as he has appeared in film in mind, Zach Snyder’s third attempt at translating the great visitor from Krypton in Man of Steel becomes all the more interesting in terms of any hopes for reinvigorating the character with a sense of contemporary relevance and staying power.

Unfortunately, Man of Steel is not quiet the breath of fresh air that Superman so direly needs for his current image in the minds of cinephiles. Snyder’s Man of Steel is, unfortunately, yet another tired, beleaguered, action romp, filled with an over abundance of explosions and dizzying fight sequences, sure to send even the most exuberant fan into a state of despondency and motion sickness. While certain performances, such as those offered by Russell Crowe as Superman’s father Jor-El, and Amy Adams as the infamous reporter and love interest Lois Lane, are lively, often carrying entire scenes on the weight of their dramatic presence, the film that surrounds them is sub-par and frenzied to the point of near-incoherency. Snyder is more likely than not to blame for this, as his track record betrays him to be a director of big budget comic book adaptations that divorce their source material of any underlying story, opting for the sheer thrill of orchestrating elaborate special effects sequences which are more often than not nauseating rather than thrilling. Regardless of such an opinion, Snyder’s relative success with such films as 2009’s Watchmen, as well as the run-away, 2006 blockbuster smash 300, point to the continuing career and relevancy of Snyder in mainstream Hollywood films, Man of Steel more likely than not included.

With such a view of Man of Steel in mind, as well as the current state of affairs in terms of adapting Superman to the silver screen accounted for, one question comes to mind: why is Superman, an iconic figure in his own medium, so incompatible with the cinematic one? Is Superman, like Marvel’s Captain America, simply too idealistic and archaic for the contemporary consciousness to fully swallow? Or is his story too innocent and chaste for an audience that longs for the morally ambiguous and sexy comic book superheroes, such as Batman and Iron Man, both of which are superhero characters who have recently made the leap to contemporary cinematic narrative effortlessly, and to great critical success. Superman is no doubt the ideal man and hero, but is he the same kind of hero that we want or even care for any longer? As popular American morals and ethics have changed since Superman’s initial creation and appearance in 1938, perhaps our interest in him has changed as well, creating a gap between his story and the one that contemporary audiences want to see him take part in; a story, moreover, that he can never hope to fit into, no matter how much Snyder’s new film attempts to mold Superman’s character to the new American consciousness.

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel can thusly be seen as being in dialogue with Christopher Nolan’s vastly superior Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan, in fact, wrote the original story for Man of Steel before backing down from the project and letting Snyder take control of the new franchise in his stead. Snyder is obviously inspired by Nolan’s dark modern fairy tale that is the Dark Knight Trilogy, and at times Man of Steel comes close to achieving some of what makes that trilogy so effective. Unfortunately, Snyder’s debt to Nolan doesn’t progress beyond aesthetic admiration, leaving the film philosophically stagnant and emotionally vacant, where Nolan’s trilogy was intellectually charged, filled with character and plot driven tension. It’s hard to say why Man of Steel should be seen, probably because Snyder had trouble crafting a story for the Superman character that matched the tone and dramatic urgency that flows through Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman character. It’s also hard to put the blame entirely on Snyder’s shoulders, as it might just be the case that the patriotic flair and moral righteousness of the Superman character is just not current enough to match the tastes of a contemporary movie going audience eager to grapple with a world that is fraught with the same kind of moral ambiguity and ethical ambivalence that plagues our own. Maybe we just don’t need Superman anymore.

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