So I went to see this in IMAX 3D, a format I’ve never seen before. Expensive – £16.80!!! – but in this case, well worth it.
I grew up with the Christopher Reeve movies. I remember being awestruck by the first two and increasingly disappointed by the subsequent lame sequels. (Smallville has its fans but I’ve seen virtually none of it so won’t comment, but from what I know it looks like they made some interesting and worthwhile choices to make the story work as a small-screen teen drama.) But looking back on those earlier films, as I have done many times since I first saw them, what are their strengths and flaws?
Well the beauty and majesty of Krypton from the early scenes of Superman, founded on a crystalline vision of a moribund high civilisation and elevated further by Marlon Brando’s shockingly expensive but dignified performance as Jor-El, has to be the movie’s stand out feature. That and John Williams’ soaring, iconic soundtrack with its unforgettable and legendary Superman March. Christopher Reeve’s performance perfectly captures the innocence and unassailable moral and ethical integrity of the character.
But OMG, it was long, and in parts very boring. After the impressive creation of the Fortress of Solitude culminating in Superman’s true unveiling, the film rapidly descends into high camp. Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty, fine actors though they are, offer nothing but shallow performances and low comedy. The film’s climax has been often criticised for its sheer stupidity.
In Superman II, Terence Stamp’s General Zod and Sarah Douglas’ Ursa are superb and worthy villains and the fight scenes are impressive for the time. Kal-El’s moral dilemma in that film is well realised as well. But again, too much light relief, plot holes in abundance and an unsatisfying climax spoil the goods. The production disputes leading to the changes in the director’s chair are film industry legend and what could have been a rare thing – a sequel superior to the original – managed barely to hold its own.
Bryan Singer’s 2006 attempt to restore the glory of the original franchise by “forgetting” the subsequent sequels and beginning where Superman II left off, had promise. An improved balance between seriousness and humour, a far more sinister Lex Luthor thanks to Kevin Spacey, and vastly superior special effects are on the plus side. However Superman Returns is one of those moves that is universally regarded as a failure despite having been a financial success, and it failed to relaunch the series (and doomed poor Brandon Routh’s career, though he hadn’t done a bad job in the role). Personally I never forgave Bryan Singer (and actor James Marsden) for abandoning the third X-Men film for this semi-turkey, thereby ruining the climax of the Phoenix saga by handing X-Men: The Last Stand to the execrable Brett Ratner.
So how does Zack Snyder fare with this complete reboot of the Superman franchise? Well, to start with he takes a more sci-fi approach to the red-and-blue demigod. Krypton is stunningly conceived and rendered and its history explored in more detail. Long-term questions about why such a high civilisation had not colonised other worlds are answered – they did, but the exhaustion of Krypton’s resources led to the collapse of their empire and the abandonment of their colonies and outposts (though this is somewhat illogical, as I would have assumed that colonies linked by hyperdrive-equipped spacecraft could have supplied a growing civilisation with all of the resources it needed).
Another nice touch is the adoption of the concept of artificial conception and gestation introduced by legendary comic author and illustrator John Byrne in his 1986 reboot of the comic series, also titled (The) Man of Steel. Indeed, many aspects of Snyder’s vision probably owe a debt to Byrne.
Russell Crowe’s Jor-El is far more engaging that Brando’s aloof, icy portrayal, and indeed the movie’s plot fortunately gives Crowe much more to do. General Zod’s motives are made far more clear, and Michael Shannon gives Zod a menace and violence that even the wonderful Terrence Stamp had not conveyed. Much of Kal-El’s youth growing up in Kansas as Clark Kent is told via flashback, which is how we are introduced to his adopted parents (wonderful, earthy and loving performances from Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent is superb. Yes, a little wooden at times, but I feel the character has that granite solidity, that imperturbability, and what looks wooden is more like Zen.The entire supporting cast is excellent.
The film work overall is amazingly polished. This movie is action and excitement from the word go, unlike its predecessors. Its structure conveys an origin story with grace and economy without making you wait for something to happen. The fight scenes are electric and frenetic, their savagery nearly overwhelming. And this clash of super-beings has consequences – not just a few buses and billboards busted up, the heart of Metropolis itself is devastated.
On the downside? In taking a far more logical, sense-making route into the Superman legend, some small touches are lost. Superman never foils a bank robbery or runs faster than a speeding locomotive. His relationship with Lois Lane doesn’t quite take off. Hans Zimmer’s score, though effectively pulse-pounding in situ, doesn’t scale the iconic heights of Williams’. And it is all very solemn with very few touches of humour to provide relief from what is pretty much unrelenting peril. Christopher Nolan has helped to give this film the Dark Knight treatment, and it works, but his Batman wasn’t known for his jokes either.