An occasional film review by Peter Malone.
Peter Malone represents SIGNIS and was one of our judges for the 3rd and 4th Insight Film Festivals. A full list of Peter’s reviews can be found on the SIGNIS website.
Man of Steel
Cast includes: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne: IMDb
Malone Zone review
There have been many incarnations of ‘Superman’. The word ‘incarnation’ is used intentionally; I shall comment on this later. The comic strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began its life in the 1930s, the period of popular comic strips and comic books. From the 1940s, when actor George Reeves embodied Superman, to 2006 – when the actor’s character was portrayed by Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland – and beyond, there are currently 91 entries in the Internet Movie Database for Superman stories released as film or television productions. There have been animated versions of the character, too – but, in 1978, the world’s attention was drawn to a spectacular Superman movie directed by Richard Donner, starring the then unknown actor Christopher Reeve. Ever since that time Reeve has been the perfect embodiment of Superman and there were three sequels with him taking the lead role. Unfortunately, the attempt to re-introduce Superman as a worldwide sensation, Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, with Brendan Routh as the superhero, was not as successful as the studio had hoped.
Now we have, as they say, the rebooting of the Superman story: Man of Steel, which has been very successful at the box office.
One of the main problems for Superman film is to cast a successful successor to Christopher Reeve. This time it is the turn of English actor, Henry Cavill. He has appeared in a number of films including Woody Allen’s Whatever Works as well as the mythological story, The Immortals. Cavill has a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve, which should satisfy many of fans. This version is very serious, so he does not get much chance to smile or have the Reeve twinkle in his eye.
This version can be described as a prequel to its successors. It actually ends with Clark Kent putting on his spectacles and turning up for his first day of work at the Daily Planet. What has gone before is the story of his father and mother sending him from Krypton to Earth, his early life in jobs around America with flashbacks to his childhood in Smallville. This was the material covered in the first third of 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
In this earlier film, the first section was written by novelist Mario Puzo (The Godfather trilogy: films Part I, Part II and Part III), and was filled with explicit references to Christian theology. Some of the dialogue and imagery in the script derived from the Gospel of John: the unity between God the Father and God the Son, and Jesus being sent to Earth. This section covered the collapse of the planet Krypton and the role of General Zod – the latter featured prominently in the screenplay of Superman II. Now, in this new film, General Zod is the principal enemy.
The 2013 scenes on Krypton, with the father preparing his son for Earth, are reminiscent of the 1978 film, without the detailed parallels with the Christian themes and language. However, it is not difficult to make the same connections given the nature of the script, and the relationship between father and son. This time the father, as with Marlon Brando in the earlier movie, is solicitous about his son: he acts something like ‘God the Father’, confident that people on earth will see his son as a god. As this role is played with great dignity by Russell Crowe – with rounded, articulation of vowels in the style of his Maximus character in Gladiator – Superman’s father does reference an image of God the Father. Even though he dies in the movie, his consciousness can materialise once more. In this way, Russell Crowe appears throughout the film to give guidance to his son, Kal-El.
The film soon shows Kal-El as Clark Kent working in the Arctic, coming to the decision that he wants to use his strength to save people’s lives. When he hears news of a spaceship trapped in the Arctic ice, he travels to the scene, consults his father’s ‘spirit’ and receives an explanation about his life and a commission about his destiny. However, another person who goes searching for information in the Arctic is a reporter from the Daily Planet, Lois Lane, played cheerfully by Amy Adams. Clark Kent cauterises her wound. She learns who ‘Clark Kent’ is by conducting investigative research, and wants to get the story out in the newspaper but is prevented from doing so by her editor, played by Laurence Fishburne.
In the meantime, with the destruction of Krypton, General Zod and his officers are free again to roam the universe, searching for Kal-El who has the code for the rebirth of the people of Krypton in his DNA. Clark Kent thinks it would be a good idea for Kryptonites and humans to live together, but this is not the intention of General Zod. This leads to confrontation and battles: with Michael Shannon playing Zod, it is a mean and deadly confrontation with Superman.
One of my criticisms of the film is be the battles go on far too long. Although these set pieces are spectacular – and, it would seem, there is very little left of New York City, far worse than any 9/11 destruction – the special effects are ‘too much of a good thing’, which halt the pace of the film. The action sequences are awesome, especially collapsing skyscrapers, but I was more interested in the plot development and the journeys embarked on by the characters.
There are flashbacks to Clark and his childhood throughout the film. These episodes show Clark saving people, having to keep his secret, and his foster-father reinforcing the boy’s inner personality by acting in self-sacrificial ways. Our hero’s human parents are played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner.
Now is a good time to explain my earlier reference to the word ‘incarnation’. In the 1978 film, it is clear that the baby Kal-El was a Christ-figure, spoken to by his father in words reminiscent of the Gospel, his vehicle for earth looking like a cradle. The Kents, serving as Kal-El’s foster parents, are a direct parallel with the figures of Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story. After a long period of hidden life, preparing himself for his purpose on Earth, Superman emerges to do battle with evil.
While the references are not so explicit in this current film, it is easy to see that the same process is at work in David S Goyer’s script. In fact, some critics even used the word ‘Christ-like’ in their reviews. What this film does emphasise is that Kal-El – Clark Kent – has the potential to be a ‘messiah’, a saviour of the world. However, the movie projects the thought that the world is not ready to accept him until the time is right. This concept is reinforced on screen by the expression of public fears, such as phobias about the ‘war against terrorism’.
It is also clear that Superman has, so to speak, two natures: one from beyond this world, which gives him great physical powers, and another ‘human’ persona from his life on Earth. The point is made explicitly that both these aspects of character operate in one person. Fans pick up easily on this kind of theological analogy; after all, the film says that Superman came to earth 33 years earlier. Even in our secular age, references like this are not random or fanciful.
This Christ-figure text gave depth to the first part of Superman: The Movie. But then this film moved at right angles in focus to became a humorous comic strip with our adventurous hero battling Lex Luthor.
Man of Steel maintains the incarnation of the two natures in Clark Kent right to the end of the movie. In this sense, together with the confrontation with General Zod and the Kryptonites, the current film is much more serious in tone. My main interest in the movie turned out to be experiencing how the filmmakers treated Superman’s emergence into the world and his acceptance as its saviour.
Product links: Man of Steel (UK only)
Film: Richard Donner, Superman: The Movie DVD (1978), Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty
Film: Richard Lester, Superman II DVD (1981), Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp
Film: Richard Lester, Superman III DVD (1983), Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughan, Pamela Stephenson (Deluxe Edition)
Film: Sidney J Furie, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace DVD (1987), Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper,
Film: Bryan Singer, Superman Returns DVD (2006), Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey
Film: Allen Coulter, HollywoodLand DVD (2006), Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins
Book: Daniel Wallace, Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman (2013), Titan Books, hardback, film tie-in
Book: Daniel Wallace, Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel (2013), Dorling Kindersley, hardback, film tie-in
Book: Greg Cox, Man of Steel: The Official Movie Novelization (2013), Titan Books, mass market paperback, film tie-in
Television: Fleischer Studios, Superman DVD (1941), original cartoon series (2 DVD set)
Television: Lee Sholem, Thomas Carr, Adventures of Superman: the Complete First Season DVD (1952), George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, John Hamilton
Film: Woody Allen, Whatever Works DVD (2010), Larry David, Adam Brooks, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Henry Cavill
Film: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, Immortals DVD (2011), Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff, Frieda Pinto
Film: Ridley Scott, Gladiator DVD (2000), Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris
Film: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather DVD (1972), Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton,
Film: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather: Part II DVD (1974), Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert de Niro, James Caan, Talia Shire
Film: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather: Part III DVD (1990), Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna
Note: These links lead to product pages at Amazon.co.uk. Six per cent of any sales made via these links is paid to Insight Film Festival.
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