Flashback: ‘Man of Steel’

DC’s cinematic universe began with a fresh take on the world’s first superhero…

Man of Steel flight

Superman takes flight in ‘Man of Steel’ (c. Warner Bros).

 

Year: 2013

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Zack Snyder / written by: David S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan)

What’s it about?

Transported to Earth as his home world is destroyed, the infant Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a kind farmer and his wife. As an adult, Clark struggles to find his place in the world until he discovers his true heritage and sets on mastering his amazing powers…

Retrospective/review

With Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failing to connect with audiences and plans for a sequel abandoned, the summer of 2013 saw the release of Man of Steel – arriving just in time for Superman’s 75th Anniversary. Whilst Superman Returns sought to be a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s seminal Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel would take a slightly edgier and more modern approach in an effort to make the iconic superhero more relatable. The film would also be seen by Warner Bros. Pictures as the first entry in a Marvel-style shared universe (once unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, but now officially branded as ‘Worlds of DC’) featuring DC’s stable of comic book characters.

Enlisting The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan as a producer and to craft a story with screenwriter David S. Goyer (who previously worked with Nolan on his Batman films), Man of Steel was built from an intriguing premise – what if Superman existed in the real world, today? How would humanity react and what would a man with incredible abilities choose to do with them? Given the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Warner Bros. naturally felt a similar take was needed for Man of Steel in order to make Superman a more identifiable and dramatically engaging character for a contemporary audience without intentionally alienating existing fans.

Directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is a Superman film for more complex and troubled times whilst still conveying an underlying sense of hope and providing the blockbuster spectacle viewers had come to expect in the wake of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It may have become divisive, but it works rather well and favours that Nolan ‘heightened reality’ over the family-friendly fantasy of Superman: The Movie.

The story is solid – there’s the traditional opening on Krypton (depicted as a more organic Star Wars-esque world in comparison to the cool crystalline aesthetic of Donner’s Superman), its ultimate destruction and the baby Kal-El escaping doom to arrive on Earth. Shifting to some thirty years later, Kal-El is now Clark Kent, a drifter who finds himself lost and without purpose but often faced with the urge to help those in need. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of Clark’s struggles to reconcile his abilities with the life of a normal person. Searching for answers, Clark ultimately discovers his origins and embarks on a journey to master his gifts and utilise them for good, but the arrival of Kryptonian survivors, led by the militant General Zod presents an unexpected threat to Earth and its people and throws an inexperienced Superman into a dangerous conflict.

Man of Steel Zod

General Zod: a formidable foe.

The cast is equally as good. Henry Cavill has a firm grasp of the central role and provides a grounded and very human portrayal of the man who will become Superman. Amy Adams is impeccably cast as the Daily Planet’s star reporter Lois Lane, bringing dramatic weight to the requisite qualities of professional drive and personal strength. As General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers a powerful and formidable antagonist whose threat is further enhanced by Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul. The casting is made all the more impressive by the inclusion of Russell Crowe, who succeeds Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The action is exciting, especially during the film’s final act. Some have found themselves at odds with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, but it both shocks and enthrals in a way that’s realistic and entertaining. It’s also seemingly a response to the reception of Superman Returns which many felt was too slow and lacked action and physical conflict. Zod’s death has also proven controversial, yet it’s arguably one of the film’s most emotionally effective and powerfully acted scenes. Henry Cavill’s performance in that particular moment is gripping – his gut-churning yell grabbing the viewer and making you feel all the anguish, frustration and regret of the situation.

Man of Steel Lois & Perry

Laurence Fishburne joins Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as Daily Planet Editor Perry White  (c. Warner Bros).

The production design is accomplished (particularly in respect of Krypton), the costuming superlative and the effects are great, all captured beautifully via Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Zack Snyder’s kinetic direction. A real highlight of Man of Steel is Hanz Zimmer’s wonderful score – atmospheric, emotional and exciting it’s one of Zimmer’s finest providing themes that enhance the visuals greatly (especially during Superman’s exhilarating first flight). As classic and unforgettable as John Williams’ Superman theme is it would feel out of place here and not fit the world of Man of Steel.

Ultimately, Man of Steel establishes hope as Superman makes it known that he’s here to help. The events of the film would end up driving the titanic clash of 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but as it stands, Man of Steel is highly underrated and a superbly executed redefinition of Superman for modern times.

Geek fact!

Man of Steel cleverly incorporates a Christopher Reeve cameo with a brief glimpse of the actor’s face inserted into Henry Cavill’s performance during Superman’s battle with Zod’s Kryptonian World Engine.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

It’s a Classic: ‘Superman: The Movie’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Y-you’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Superman 78

The unforgettable Christopher Reeve as the iconic Man of Steel (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1978

Starring:  Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Marc McClure

Directed by:  Richard Donner / written by:  Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman & Robert Bento (story by Mario Puzo)

What’s it about?

Fearing his world is on the verge of destruction, an alien scientist sends his young son into space.  Arriving on Earth, the infant Kal-El grows up to discover he has great powers and becomes humanity’s greatest hero and protector…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Just as Superman himself celebrates the 80th Anniversary of his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (courtesy of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), 2018 also marks 40 years of director Richard Donner’s Superman – more commonly known as Superman: The Movie – the character’s first major silver screen outing.  Whilst parts of the film might now seem a bit camp when viewed in these more complex times, the film’s spirit is non-the-less timeless and Superman remains a landmark achievement that set the standards for which comic book film adaptations continue to strive toward.

Superman opens on the doomed world of Krypton as the warnings of the planet’s imminent destruction from Jor-El, one of Krypton’s leading scientists, are ignored.  Sending his baby son into the depths of space as Krypton crumbles to its death, Superman moves into more traditional comic book fantasy as the infant Kal-El arrives on Earth where he is found by the kind and loving Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Kal-El is subsequently raised by the Kent’s as their son Clark, who in his teenage years discovers his true origins and abilities and embarks on a journey to utilise his gifts for good as champion of truth, justice and ‘the American Way’.

It’s a first class production, with a strong story – from The Godfather’s Mario Puzo no less – and screenplay (which received uncredited re-writes from Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz), coupled with epic visuals and a cast which includes cinematic legends Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman – all brought forth confidently under the masterful direction of The Omen’s Richard Donner.  John Barry’s incredible set-design and the pioneering special effects add further to the majesty of Superman.

A huge part of Superman’s success is down to Christopher Reeve, whose performance as Krypton’s Last Son is unforgettable.  Reeve embodies the core principles that drive the iconic hero with strength (both emotional and physical) and believability, whilst conveying strokes of vulnerability that humanise the character.  Likewise, his quirky portrayal of the bumbling, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent is fun and endearing.

Margot Kidder is the quintessential Lois Lane for the era, plucky, headstrong and determined and has great interplay with Reeve, whether it’s in scenes with Clark Kent or Superman.  The supporting cast is bolstered by memorable performances from Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet ‘Chief’ Perry White, Marc McClure as budding photographer Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent and of course an introductory role for Terence Stamp as General Zod, who would return to cause trouble in Superman II.

Marlon Brando (who received top-billing along with a hefty $7 million fee), through his scenes in the grand, almost Shakespearean opening act and his later appearances as a hologram in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, delivers his portrayal of Jor-El with nobility, intelligence and an inherent goodness – qualities that, along with his upbringing by Ma and Pa Kent, would inform the character of Superman.  Gene Hackman brings an enjoyable measure of menace to Superman’s nemesis and self-proclaimed criminal genius Lex Luthor in an amusingly pompous performance.  His evil deeds are aided by the incompetent Otis, played by Deliverance star Ned Beatty.

Any discussion about Superman: The Movie would be remiss without mention of John Williams’ legendary score, indisputably one of the all-time greatest motion picture soundtracks – without which the film would simply be incomplete.  Williams’ soaring, spine-tingling Superman theme is obviously the highlight and one of the most instantly recognisable and celebrated pieces of film music.

35 years later, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel would thrust Superman into the modern era with a more layered and introspective approach but there will always be a certain kind of innocence and magic that comes with Superman: The Movie and its legacy continues to endure.

Standout moment

A helicopter accident leaves Lois Lane dangling from atop of the Daily Planet building, about to plummet to the ground.  As crowds gather on the streets below, Clark Kent decides he must take action…Superman swoops in to save the day.

Geek fact!

Richard Donner would revisit Superman: The Movie for a 2001 ‘Special Edition’ which restores eight minutes of footage originally cut from the theatrical release.  An overlong (at 188 minutes), yet interesting 1980 TV version was recently released on home video.

If you like this then check out…

Superman II : director Richard Lester takes over for an inferior but fun sequel that pits Terence Stamp’s Zod against Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel.

Superman Returns : Bryan Singer’s love letter to Donner’s Superman has its flaws but is seen as a spiritual successor and worth considering as a tribute to the classic 1978 original.