In the latest comic book "reboot", Zack Snyder goes for dark grandeur, but ends up with something closer to Michael Bay
"Remember Brandon Routh from that godawful Superman movie? Jesus Christ! Thanks for getting our hopes up and taking a giant sh*t on us!"
-- Sir Patrick H. Stewart
Yes, everybody remembers that "godawful" movie. But looking back, I don't believe Superman Returns was so much godawful as far too reverent to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, the one everyone remembers. In desperately trying to recapture the magical essence of Superman '78, director Bryan Singer basically remade it, with better special effects, a hammier Lex Luthor and a more attractive but too young Lois Lane. There is such a thing as getting too close to your inspirations, and that's exactly what Singer did.
Hence we watched the character become clouded out by the mythology that stemmed from the connection between film and inspiration; to many, Christopher Reeve is Superman/Clark Kent. Perhaps a bigger problem for Singer, and for any Superman film post-Reeve, is that Superman '78 was truly a film of its time. You can't just take a hero out of the pre-Reagan late seventies and plant him in the postmodern noughties as if virtually nothing has happened. Superman Returns, at best, is little better than a comfortable nostalgia pill. Instant, easy satisfaction, with little lasting value.
Enter Zack Snyder, who along with Christopher Nolan and new lead actor Henry Cavill, has created a titular Man Of Steel more in keeping with our times. Stripping down the icons Donner and Reeve so expertly cemented in our heads, Man Of Steel reboots Superman as the equivalent of Back To The Future with a self-knowing Marty McFly in an apocalyptic wasteland. It's clearly aiming for dark grandeur, but to these eyes it is mostly the Michael Bay version of Superman, with enough massive set-pieces and epic camera work to obliterate serious contemplative thought. And is that a good thing? Only if you can't wait for the next Transformers sequel.
I've never been the biggest fan of Snyder. Even in his most notable work – Dawn Of The Dead '04, 300, Watchmen – he comes across as a weak visualist who needs both comic book lore and his cast to bail him out and create something memorable, even watchable. Perhaps, on reflection, him and Christopher Nolan are more alike than either Snyder or Nolan fans would care to admit – Nolan has only really touched greatness through his Dark Knight trilogy, and its negative effect is being felt in the numerous imitators it has "inspired", and continues to "inspire". Including – especially – Man Of Steel.
It would, admittedly, be unfair to judge Man Of Steel too heavily in the context of the Superman films that precede it. And on its own, it's very successful as an origin story, moderately successful as a surface chronicle of Clark Kent/Superman's inner fears and foibles, and dependable as far as summer action flicks go, with just the right amount of effective heroes and villains. Praise must go to Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe (as Jor-El), Kevin Costner (as Jonathan Kent), Laurence Fishburne (as Perry White), and, to a slightly lesser degree, Amy Adams (as Lois Lane), who step into the iconic roles without feeling burdened by their predecessors. Michael Shannon is not so fortunate as chief villain General Zod. Saddled with one-dimensional sidekicks who recall Ursa and Non from Superman II in all but name, he’s unable to escape Terence Stamp's shadow. Put him in the Tom Hardy (see Star Trek: Nemesis) and Benedict Cumberbatch (see Star Trek: Into Darkness) school of "excellent actor defeated by screenplay", though to be fair, the conviction in his line delivery is enough to clarify Zod's slippery amorality, if only fitfully so.
For all its attempts to move forward, Man Of Steel is continuously looking back. Choosing to straddle that maddening line between reality and fantasy, like so many "smart" and "gritty" blockbusters do, flesh and blood characterisation becomes short changed in a cartoonish oasis of retro madness. Reducing the cheesiness of Superman is all very well, but not at the expense of giving one nothing to remember except corny symbolism and moments lifted from 300, Batman Begins, TV's "Smallville" and, of all films, Independence Day.
Be grateful, at least, that Jor-El doesn't shout "THIS – IS – KRYPTON!" before he imprisons Zod in the Phantom Zone. And that Cavill and Adams, at least, will have another chance to express themselves in the (hopefully much better) sequel.