Indy Datta only saw the new Superman film last night, so this review will be small, and we can’t promise it will be perfectly formed.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is, in almost every way, the epitome of the contemporary fantasy comic-book blockbuster, assembled with enormous skill and craft – but also witless, repetitive, thoughtlessly cacophonous, artlessly pretentious. There’s an hour of throat clearing exposition before anything of any interest happens. The plot, on pretty much every conceivable level, makes no sense. Film and director seem needlessly cowed by the source material (the crazy Snyder grandiosity of 300 and Sucker Punch is entirely absent, and yeah, I miss it), yet also simultaneously Nolanishly embarrassed by its inherent silliness (the one time a character says the word “Superman”, it’s an inadvertently delivered punchline). Henry Cavill, in the lead, is given little scope to be anything more than a sixpack on a stick.
Not unusually for superhero movies, it’s down to the villain to save the day.
Michael Shannon’s General Zod has something that few movie villains of any kind have, and certainly few superhero movie villains – a credible motive for his villainy. He doesn’t just want to see the human world burn – he wants, more than that he needs, to see Krypton reborn from its ashes, because that’s the only thing he was born to do. Kryptonian society (in this film at least, feel free to enlighten me about comic book canon in the comments) selects the destinies of its children before they are hatched in vitro, and so the only thing military-man Zod is capable of caring about is protecting that society. On Earth he may have the powers of a god, but he is paradoxically a god without free will.
Kal-El, on the other hand, has been given the gift of free will by his Kryptonian father (Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe channeling Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition), and in a neat quasi-inversion of the story of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, he was, uniquely for a Kryptonian, conceived in his mother’s womb. When you set his journey to becoming Superman against Zod’s story, it becomes slyly subversive – the story of a god refusing his godhead for the love of man, and the man within him; the story of Christ coming down off the cross to serve mankind as a man. The subversion carries a kick as the Superman mythos has arguably always been about viewing American exceptionalism as a form of divine providence. Man of Steel limns the limits of that providence, and by extension the limits of American exceptionalism: this is a fiction in which real moral authority comes from choosing to want to be the same as everyone else.
Of course, these are fragile insights, because most of the last act of the film consists of animated avatars of Zod and Kal-El knocking living fuck out of each other, while collaterally laying waste to downtown Metropolis. It’s spectacular to watch, of course, but the very scale of it is symptomatic of our jadedness as an audience: it’s a long time since a bit of green-screen could make us believe a man could fly. And as noted above, the cinematic destruction derby is blandly workaday, lacking the vigor and vulgarity of Snyder’s most audacious films (the crude 9/11-mongering doesn’t quite fill the gap), or the virtuosity of a maestro of CGI concrete carnage like the Michael Bay of the most recent Transformers film (what?).
But even amongst all the empty sound and fury, there are moments where the moral subtext resonates like crystal, and it’s all Shannon’s work. His portrayal (actually, his inhabiting) of Zod is diametrically opposite to the imperious camp of Terence Stamp in the Christopher Reeve Superman films – he’s dogged, ferocious, heartbroken and righteous. It’s unmistakeably Shannon, and just one more reason why he’s just about the best thing in Hollywood films right now.