I’ve never actually been beaten to a pulp in real life, so I can only guess what it must feel like. But I think it might feel like watching the final third of Man Of Steel. It’s a reboot – which is a clear, unequivocal vote of no confidence in that last reboot, which only reached one film – and it’s also an “origins” story. That makes it fundamentally a remake of the first Superman movie, a committee-written affair in 1978, but brought to fruition in colourful, then-groundbreaking style by Richard Donner.
Now, it’s at this point that I must declare an emotional-historical stake in the cinematic birth of Superman: it was our big Christmas movie of that year, I was 13, and it came hot on the heels of Star Wars; it felt, for all the world, as if big, blockbuster cinema was ours. (Remember, we’d only had re-runs of the “Ker-Pow!” live-action Batman and the animated Spider-Man on TV.) My friend Neil Stuart somehow managed to get his hands on an official Superman movie programme, perhaps from a screening in London? (I don’t know how, but I do know we looked up to Neil.) He generously gave it to me. I treasured it. I was that kid who would badger my parents for the flimsy tie-in book of each new blockbuster: the ’76 King Kong, Close Encounters etc. I was at the stage in any nerd’s life in those pre-Internet days when the need to find stuff out and see pictures of stuff and, if possible, own that stuff was overwhelming.
My friends and I were caught up in the hype and we were more than ready to “believe a man could fly”, as per the marketing promise. (I had also decreed Gene Hackman to be My Favourite Actor, so I was stoked by the idea of seeing his latest movie when it came out, rather than on telly a number of years later.) I was equally enthused about Superman II in 1980 and Superman III, which my brother and I dashed to see in 1983 as we were confirmed Richard Pryor fans by then. The law of diminishing returns did not diminish our desire to return to the Northampton ABC.
So, every time Superman is rebooted, I recoil a little bit and lose some of my strength, just as I do each time the original Star Wars trilogy is ruined by George Lucas. They’re punching my childhood. That said, I am a grown man. And if a reboot is good, I’ve nothing against it in principle. Batman Begins was truly terrific, the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Although it came way too soon, I found much to admire in The Amazing Spider-Man last year. Conversely, I was unmoved by Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, with some people called Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in it as Clark and Lois. (I never watched Smallville.) I had no objection to Zack Snyder having another crack at the man of steel, as I have an awful lot of time for his Watchmen.
Unfortunately, Man Of Steel is awful. It sucks the life out of the franchise and jumps up and down on any of the first movie incarnation’s charm or humour. (It goes without saying that Man Of Steel is not camp. Even its trademark blue and red are dirty blue and matt red. There are two jokes; I counted them.) This overlong, over-serious, portentous sheet-metal opera seems to have only one setting: eleven. If it was ever satisfactorily wrought, then they must have taken it back in fear and wrought it some more. In the boxing-gloved hands of Dark Knight – and, let’s not be coy, Da Vinci’s Demons – scribe David S Goyer, and the bombast-worshipping Snyder, this new Superman is a charcoal-coloured, bass-note, quasi-biblical apocalypse. And that’s just the opening sequence.
From the destruction of Krypton, we move into a sombre, po-faced re-telling of Kal-El’s evacuation to Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make a good set of adoptive parents, but The Tudors‘ Henry Cavill, who physically fills the part, has little to play with. His son of Krypton gets bullied, learns the hard way not to show his strength and works out how to “focus” the cacophonous hell his super-senses create inside his head, before becoming a sort of itinerant oil-rig worker so that he can seek out a crashed spaceship in the Arctic?
Not 100% sure about what was going on during this bit, which is where he fortuitously meets and reveals himself to an unconvincing Lois, whose pushy reporter Amy Adams has to work furiously to pump any life into. A Superman film shouldn’t be boring, should it? But I certainly nodded off while Russell Crowe was delivering a lecture in holographic form, and when I awoke, he was still delivering it.
But the meat of the story isn’t Clark’s evolution to a super man (they don’t call him that much, and the “S” on his chest doesn’t stand for “Superman”, so there), it’s his never-ending cosmic grudge match with Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who’s a kind of intergalactic thug whose superpowers match Kal-El’s, hence the climactic battle (or “smackdown” as it’s been more accurately described), which goes on and on and on and on and on. And then, just when you think that Metropolis couldn’t take any more of a beating as these two supreme beings punch each other a mile away at a time, it goes on for a bit longer.
Huge, looming spaceships, a honking “world engine”, entire skyscrapers falling onto other skyscrapers, more military hardware than you’ve ever seen before, airstrikes, explosions, everything’s massive, everything’s an attack … Transformers springs to mind; as does the first Hulk, whose comedic bouncing style also seems to have been adopted, and that’s not a good look. (Unless you just want to squeeze as much money out of teenage boys as possible, in which case, why make it 143 minutes long? Cut the gooey stuff and make it all battle and run it in at 106 minutes! Cram more screenings in.)
Like any good reboot, it sets up Clark and Lois as fellow reporters for the ultra-modern Perry White, who’s black, so that further episodes can be stacked around them, but if this is how it starts, with what magnitude of a bang is it going to end? And how long with Man Of Steel III be?
Sometimes I think to myself: I just wasn’t made for these times. Superman certainly wasn’t. (I willingly saw it in 2D, by the way. I can only assume in 3D it’s literally unbearable to be in the same room as.)