Scene & Heard: ‘Man of Steel’

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Writing about Man of Steel now, even in the wake of that Comic-Con announcement, feels almost belated. Until the revelation that Superman would be teaming up with his comic book cohort Batman for the sequel, it seemed that buzz had died down on the film (and unsurprisingly so, as it turned out to be a very ordinary experience). I’ve seen more discussion of Man of Steel than of any recent superhero movie, most of it stemming from the film’s decision to root a hero traditionally associated with joy and hope and optimism in a kind of gloomy, brooding, troublesome mire. Much like Prometheus, the film had terrific ideas, interesting themes, and a strikingly different take on a much-loved (if often considered cursed) property. The problem was that, like Prometheus, it never got around to doing anything with them. The barely-concealed attempt to replicate the brooding atmospherics of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy seems doubly reprehensible in hindsight, as it’s likely the notion of a team-up was mooted long before Man of Steel came out. What was distracting about the film at the time now seems like a deliberate attempt to root the two in the same murky universe, one where goodness and hope seems less an inherent part of the titular hero and more of an elusive ideal.

It’s disappointing to see the makers involve a newer incarnation of Batman so soon after the conclusion of Nolan’s towering series, but it does at least open up the possibility that the second film will fare much better than the first. Even with a wealth of source material, there are limits to what Superman can achieve on the big screen, owing mainly to his invincibility. Knowing he can withstand basically anything would tend to strip a film of a great deal of suspense and dramatic potential, especially if it bore the same shoddy writing and poor execution that so mired Man of Steel. It may be that the only thing that uplifted Kal-El’s latest reboot was the beautiful work of Hans Zimmer. Where the story itself was shoddily translated, forfeiting most of its more compelling themes in favour of wooden dialogue and overblown action sequences, the music brought power, resonance, and heart. It, more than anything, captured the genesis of the 21st century Clark Kent.

Man of Steel is a textbook reboot in that it is deeply preoccupied with Kal as a person, not a figure. He is not yet the hero or the symbol but a very ordinary man struggling with what it means to be extraordinary. In spite of all his powers and abilities, he’s been raised to be mindful of what he can do, his adoptive father choosing to ground him in the cold harshness of reality and the nastier implications of revealing his powers to the world. Combined with his not knowing his true identity or origin, this feeds into an intensive introspection, a kind of constant inner search that manifests outwardly as loneliness or isolation. Clark comes across as a distant, reserved figure to those he encounters, but inwardly he is alive with wonder and longing and an inexorable need to figure out who he is. The film conveys this poorly, offering us glimpses of heroism and discovery but ultimately rushing him into the suit upon the discovery of the downed spaceship. It’s an internal conflict much better teased out in the music, as Zimmer offers a broad, tentative score largely comprised of fleeting moments and illusory feelings with only occasional forays into grandiose or epic. The music is far less concerned with celebrating Kal than it is with nurturing him, capturing his youth and hesitation as well as the sense of wonder and curiosity that accompanies his evolution into Superman.

The deluxe edition of the score includes a 28-minute “Original Sketchbook” setting out many of Zimmer’s original ideas for the film. All the hallmarks of the piece are there – its nascent, even childlike moments, its thoughtfulness, intermixed with revelations of triumph and elation as the young hero is finally freed to embrace who he is. Just as in the film, the Krypton’s dying throes provide an early climax. The planet is realised onscreen as an austere, bleak world that seems long devoid of light and beauty even before it meets its doom at the hand of an imploding core. Rather than lace the moment with bombast, Zimmer marks Krypton’s passing with an elegiac, heartfelt theme. “Goodbye My Son” is an intensely personal piece, focusing squarely on the pain of Kal’s parents in giving him up but also the promise he embodies for their kind. It is never entirely poignant, though it is easily the most affecting piece on the soundtrack. It shades its mourning with quieter moments and subtle hints as to the hope and symbolism Kal carries with him. On “Krypton’s Last”, the piece comes full circle when, in a burst of spectacle and triumph, the craft carrying him reappears in our solar system and powers on to Earth.

The score makes frequent use of an echoing, ghostly female vocal in these parts. It brings a piercing sadness to “Goodbye My Son,” but is more often employed to voice the awe and mystery of Kal’s journey towards self-discovery. “Look to the Stars” interweaves the vocal with beaming crescendos of light and resonance, bathing his quest in an angelic aura that makes obvious allusion to the film’s Christ metaphor. Yet, it conveys so much more than that. Pieces such as this and “I Have So Many Questions” underline the chasm that exists between Kal and the people of Earth. He is, for obvious reasons, very much alone, and no matter how much he discovers about himself there will always be a side to him that stands apart. The ghostliness in the vocal seems to mirror this solitary stance, but lends it a somber, noble air that’s completely in keeping with the responsibility he feels for his adopted home.

The most memorable piece of the score is easily “Flight,” when Kal’s theme becomes Superman’s. It is telling that the one moment the score is truly elated and sublime is when the young hero takes his first steps in the suit and leaps into the air. “Flight” is significant for a number of reasons, not least its dramatic departure from the tentative, childlike feel that pervades the earlier parts of the score. At this point in the film, Kal has found the Kryptonian spaceship buried under the ice and encountered the manifestation of his father. As such, it is not just a celebration of him unleashing the powers he’s kept hidden for so long, but also a liberation from ignorance – namely, his not knowing anything about his true identity. The piece is jubilant, rapturous, and momentous, a sincerely moving tribute to the freedom and joy he’s coveted and finally found. It’s also inherently hopeful. There’s a purity to it, a thrill of confidence in the electronic instrumentation that seems to represent a more emboldened outlook. As becoming Superman allows Kal to embrace his strength and honour, this is very fitting.

However, Kal’s is not the only story told in Man of Steel. One of the few things I thought the film got right (although this could just be the Michael Shannon of it all) was General Zod. Zod is a complex and engaging figure – far from the stereotypical one-note villain, the film paid arguably more attention to developing his back story and motivations than it did the hero’s. He is less an all-out antagonist than a tragically fallen hero, in that his intentions to save his race are pure but his methods dramatically less so. Zod’s themes embody those shades of grey. Whereas many of Kal’s pieces are similar in tone, the music for Zod is as complex and nuanced as he is. Most of it is compiled in the helpfully-named “General Zod” from the extended score. This switches dramatically from primal to poignant, echoing the pain and loss that drives his actions. He is a figure who inspires respect but also fear, someone for whom malevolence and honour are uniquely entwined. “I Will Find Him” references this as its solemnity implies respect and authority, though there is a consistently dark and menacing undertone. The celestial voices of “If You Love These People” animate the urgency and desperation of both his and Superman’s struggles – one struggling to save his race, the other for Earth. It is here, when hero and villain are at loggerheads, that the score is at its most cinematic and aptly so.

Given his stellar work here – and his earlier work on The Dark Knight trilogy – it seems likely that Zimmer will be at least invited to return for the Man of Steel follow-up. Depending on the direction they go with the Batman character, it may necessitate a wildly different take, though it would be fun to see the music reference Nolan’s now classic incarnation of the superhero. The richness of the two characters’ history ought to give the composer plenty to play with and, building on this, Superman’s evolution from nascent and uncertain into fully-fledged hero will be something to behold.

Written by Grace Duffy

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  • Richard

    I guess I’m one of the few people that actually liked the tone and direction of this film, but I do agree with the writer on the music.

  • Iphoneadopteer

    don’t agree at all about the film; Never felt the direction was shoddy or dialogue wooden. Although editing could have had better pacing, it’s a good reboot. The quibble I have is Zod is one note; His genetic origin as Krypton’s protector makes him less than human. If his only directive is to preserve his people, how can it not be. Genocide would be the natural order for him where Superman’s free will would make the hero oppose Zod.

  • Shell Germann

    You’re not alone by any means, and don’t let a late review bug you in that way.

  • Grace

    I think there are plenty of people who agree with you – one of the good things about MoS really is how wildly divergent people’s opinions have been. For everyone who despised it, there’s someone else who adored it, so at least each viewer is taking a firm stand! I’d rather films provoked discussion like that instead of sort of limping in and out of theatres without leaving a mark. In any event, thanks for reading!

  • Grace

    Oh gosh, I cringed through the entire film at what they were saying – a group of toddlers wouldn’t have discussions as awkward as these characters. I think I can see where you’re coming from with Zod, as to my mind a lot of his appeal did stem from Shannon’s performance as opposed to the writing. That said, I thought there were clear shades of grey to him – he has obvious genocidal tendencies but they’re rooted in a desire to preserve and revive his homeland as opposed to just murderous intent, and I think he would rather embrace Kal as a fellow son of Krypton than have to square off against him. But that was my take from it – I’ve heard lots of people say otherwise! Thanks for reading anytoot!

  • Grace

    Not sure if you mean this article when you say ‘late review’, but this is a soundtrack retrospective, not a review of the film.

  • Sonny Crockett

    It was a terrific film for me ….Did (yet to open in japan) great business for an origins film…FINALLY a Superman who hit something! Also, I am old enough to say that George Reeves was my favorite Superman (The black and white episodes of The Adventures Of Superman being the best) and that Chris Reeve did a great job in the one brilliant film that Donner completed (Superman II, The Donner Cut not included), but….I am really over the silver-age, campy, “Luthor, you snake!”, cross this line ONE more time and I’ll get really annoyed …..version of Superman. 1978 is come and gone and the Superman in Man Of Steel was perfect for THESE times. He was: fearful, anxious and unsure….just like we all are and that made him relatable. Goyer, Snyder and Nolan did what many said couldn’t be done; they made Superman cool again. The film wasn’t perfect, but was perfect for what was needed. Also, for those that didn’t like the ending (VERY ballsy, Goyer), one needs to look back and see that Superman has done that or something close to that in the past (the George Reeves TV series, again, black and white episode). In Superman II when Zod and his cohorts fell into the crevice in the fortress, do you think they landed on pillows somewhere? The king is dead….long live The Man Of Steel…

  • Taylor

    Hi,
    The view of the people differ from individual to individual…!!!
    The movie trailer: http://trailer.ly/movie/1670/ is somewhat seems interesting.