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Home » Movies » “Superman,” the Movie: Is It Any Good?

“Superman,” the Movie: Is It Any Good?

Zack Snyder, the director of the new “Superman,”(2007’s “300”) teamed up with Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) and screenwriter David S. Goyer to film (yet another—the 9th ) version of the Man of Steel, ‘Superman” with British actor Henry Cavell (“The Tudors,” “The Immortal”) in the title role. Jon Peters—(long-ago love of Barbra Streisand—executive produced.

Snyder, talking with Carson Daley on Daley’s show, predicted that this would be “a Superman you haven’t seen” saying that, “You don’t have to work too hard to get the subtext.” He laid out the symbolism: Biblical allusions, the adoption motif, the immigrant “stranger-in-a-strange-land” theme, which fits because the original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were first-generation children of immigrants. In real life, the British-born Cavell is only thirty years old, but it is specifically stated that Clark Kent is thirty-three as Superman, the supposed age at death of Jesus Christ in Christian theology.

Des Moines-born Brandon Routh of the 2006 film is gone from this reboot. In all fairness, I thought they were both fine at filling the suit, but Routh was soundly criticized as being too meek and mild in his 2006 appearance.

I did not expect much, after seeing the “Superman” trailers. But anything Michael Shannon does, I want to see. He is one of the most talented actors working today…a young Sean Penn. (See “The Iceman” for a superb tour de force performance this year).

Here are my impressions of the film.

Russell Crowe as Superman’s father Kal-El.

Russell Crowe in the role Marlon Brando once portrayed as Jor-El, Superman’s real father, channels Richard Burton and gives the role, complete with holograph flashback appearances, some gravitas. There’s a semi-amusing conversation between bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Kal-El (Russell Crowe) where Crowe says, to Shannon, “You’re talking about genocide” (in claiming Earth for Kryptonians) and Shannon sarcastically responds, “Yes, and I’m debating its merits with a ghost.”

Clark Kent’s earthly parents are well-played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. His love interest, Lois Lane, is Amy Adams. The “bad guy” is General Zod, played by today’s version of Bruce Dern,Michael Shannon (“Take Shelter,” “Mud,” “The Iceman,” Oscar-nominee for “Revolutionary Road”). Laurence Fishbourne is Perry White, Lois’ boss at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Christopher Melloni (“Law and Order”) is the military hot-shot who eventually comes to accept the fact that Superman is there to help, not hurt, mankind.

Michael Shannon as General Zod in “Superman.”

The idea that the inhabitants of Krypton have abused and, therefore, destroyed their own planet is paramount, with a nod to Earth’s global warming and our own abuse and misuse of Earth’s non-renewable core minerals. Krypton’s core has been plundered. This has led to a dying planet. (Relocation to other planets as a solution isn’t as far-out as it sounds; physicist Stephen Hawkins has suggested it may be the answer to Earth’s problems.)

Comments on the current state of our democracy: “These lawmakers with their endless debates will be our end,” says General Zod. (Agreed). We can also sign on to the line, directed at the rulers, “You’re a pack of fools. Every last one of you.” Kal-El, Superman’s father (Russell Crowe), just before sending his baby boy off to Earth (a la Marlon Brando in the 1978 version), before Krypton self-destructs says, “Make a better world than ours.”

“Superman” (2013) on set.

Later, Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s Earthly father tells his young son, “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is—good character or bad—that man is going to change the world.” There is a “fundamental belief in the power of each person to be a force for good.” Even General Zod’s statement (“I have a duty to my people and I will not allow anyone to prevent me from carrying it out.”) has to be pondered in the wake of eight years of the second Bush administration. (Rumsfeld and Cheney with more hair and a better physique?)

The over-riding idea is “Can you imagine how people on this planet would react if they knew there was someone like this out there?” Followed by the comment,” People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” We do get the message, loud and clear, that “You are not alone. [At one point, it even is beamed onto television sets by the evil General Zod.]

Another theme touched upon by the screenplay is that freedom of choice is too precious to be taken out of the hands of individuals and decided for them by others in power. Children on Krypton are born in a large Genesis Chamber and destined to be worker bees or leaders from birth. Choosing your own future is not an option. This concept of free choice disappearing is not unique in science fiction. It was touched upon in last year’s “Cloud Atlas.” It’s been in circulation as long ago as George Orwell, and on film in Ethan Hawke’s 1997 film “Gattaca” and twenty years prior in “Logan’s Run” (1976). It’s certainly surfaced in politics and, most recently, in the spirited debate about the Patriot Act and how it has led to an invasion of citizens’ civil rights.

Observations: 1) All the Krypton planes are modeled on insects. They resemble dragonflies or regular house flies. There is a scene straight out of “Avatar” where Russell Crowe hops aboard a dragonfly and flies around.
2) There is a “gunfight at the OK Corral” mood in a face-off that star Henry Cavell has with the seemingly unstoppable gang from his home planet of Krypton. The Krypton Crew reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.” They take a licking but keep on ticking. (Credit to Timex)
3) The movie was filmed in Plano, Illinois, and also in California (Edwards Air Force Base), with Vancouver (water tank) and Wellington, New Zealand (special effects) mentioned prominently in the credits. I was just in Wellington, New Zealand. The town is so small that, from the looks of the numbers of people who worked on the film, (presumably technical hold-overs from “The Hobbit” films), it must have provided employment for around 2/3 of the town’s population.
4) Amy Adams knows that Clark Kent IS Superman from the get-go.
5) Zack Snyder went for “energy, realism and speed” in the flight sequences involving Superman. He wanted it to seem as though it was difficult to capture modern-day Superman in flight, whereas in the previous films, he was on wires. Hand-held camera, shaky composition. Whatever that effect required. My companion found this offputting. I admit I was not particularly impressed with close-up scenes of the Man of Steel holding his arms out and grinning as he flew. However, it is different from previous Superman filmed versions, whether they were television shows or movies. (“Superman” has, after all, been filmed in ’52, ’78, ’80, ’83, ’87, ’93, ’96, and ’06, which is nine different filmed versions of the old comic book—original copies of which, in mint condition, would now go for more than $2 million!)

During an interview on Carson Daley’s late-night show, Snyder admitted that they made star Henry Cavell put on the original, 40-year-old Christopher Reeves “crusty old suit” for his try-out, and nobody laughed when he suited up. Cavell added the information that he trained for ten months to get in shape: two hours a day for four months, followed by six months of non-stop training while shooting.

Director Snyder declared that Superman is “the first Superhero and the most elemental…He’s basically a god on Earth.” But Snyder also emphasized that, “like all of us, he’s trying to find his place in the world.”

That, for me, was one of the more difficult tasks in following the story. When the film opens on a boat fishing in deep water with Cavell aboard, I was scratching my head and saying, “I guess we’re not in Kansas any more.” I also enjoyed the line, uttered by Superman, when he says, “I grew up in Kansas. That’s about as American as it gets.” (Nod to President Obama’s great great-grandmother, who had Wichita, Kansas ties).

Clark is shown in a variety of job settings, including his stint as a fisherman (which leads to a Deep Water Horizon-type rescue), a job in a bar, and a final scene where he comes aboard as a reporter at the Daily Planet, which leads me to believe that the film-makers had already decided this was to be a franchise that would have sequels. (Apparently, nine is not the magic number of film remakes of the source material.) All the jumping around was sometimes difficult to follow, but it did add to the theme of Superman trying to find himself in life and in our world.

There are some lines that made me laugh. “You know they say it’s all downhill after the first kiss” was one (after Lois and Clark finally kiss). I also enjoyed the star-struck female highway patrol officer who tells her commanding officer, “I just think he’s kinda’ hot.”

I was also struck by Henry Cavell’s (“Tudors,” “Immortals”) facial resemblance to a young John Travolta once he suits up. (Prior to that, not so much.) His vocal timbre was good as the Superhero. Eye candy in his “S”suit for sure. (We learn that the “S” means “hope” on his planet of birth.)

I wondered about the “suiting up for the big fight” sequence with General Zod. Michael Shannon seems to have a vastly superior suit, with the equivalent of armored metal studs, facemask, etc. Superman has—well, you know what Superman has: a red cape and tights. Zod reminded me of a Stealth bomber while Superman is piloting a small puddle-jumper.

I said to my companion, “Superman needs to get a better suit.” It was at that point that General Zod, for reasons that are not clear (and certainly not in character), divests of his superior armored array and helmet and decides to battle Superman mano-a-mano, (i.e., wearing only tights) which leads to a computer-generated fight that would fit well into films like “Fast & Furious 6.”

Some purists decried the violent battle between good and evil (as represented by Superman and General Zod). They didn’t like the extent of the fight (it’s quite over-the-top) nor the way it finally ends. I thought it was inevitable that the duo have this face-off. The end (which I won’t reveal) did not seem uncharacteristic or “wrong,” to me. I admit I am not a comic book purist, although I think I probably threw away one of those $2 million plus comic books at some point. Typical.

To me, the climax and denouement just seemed like the natural progression of an increasingly violent society with more blood and more violence at every cinematic turn, whether on television or at the movies. (Hasn’t anybody but me noticed how “The Following,” “Hannibal,” “Dexter” and “The Walking Dead” have helped turn the dial up about twelve notches on the amount of gore, violence and brutality that will be tolerated on television in 2013? I’m beginning to feel like Tipper Gore in her album-labeling days. Please don’t make me have to square off against the likes of Frank Zappa in a Senate hearing, because this is obviously the kind of game-box violence, gore and mayhem that today’s audiences not only enjoy but DEMAND for a commercially viable venture.)

Just as some say that the Republicans of old could never get elected today (let alone nominated) by the Republican party, I would point out that the violence levels, especially on television, of yesteryear, are gone forever as “the times, they are a’changin.’”

So why criticize the production team for recognizing this reality of modern audiences? Didn’t anybody pay attention to the violence level in “The Dark Knight Rises?” And we all know where THAT led.)

So, my take is this: it’s not as good as this summer’s “Star Trek” movie, but I liked it better than “Ironman.” It is NOT the “C” that Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty gave it. Perhaps Nashawaty was just having a bad day at the office.


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1 Comment

  1. Nicholas Ordinans

    Thanks for your detailed thoughts and impressions of ‘Man of Steel’, but I’m afraid I was thrown by your title “Superman,” the Movie: Is It Any Good?

    For me, ‘Superman – the Movie’ will always be the 1978 Richard Donner production starring Christopher Reeve, which I still enjoy revisiting now and then.

    As, for ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’, a more suitable title might have been, ‘The Rip-off of Khan’ .

    Oh dear, whatever happened to originality? Did it finally die with the birth of CGI? No wonder I feel so old. And not just because I did work for Richard Donner whilst he was filming the Krypton scenes for ‘Superman; at Shepparton Studios in Surrey, England :)

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