15 June 2013


In 2006, Superman Returns copped a lot of unfair flak for dutifully ignoring the twin embarrassments of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and acting as a direct sequel to Superman and Superman II. Bryan Singer's nostalgic and romanticised continuation of the most iconic screen version of the character, as played by Christopher Reeve, has both strengths and its weaknesses. But it's not a good idea to slave yourself to earlier, better movies- isn't it far better to try and do something new?

Seven years later, we have Man Of Steel, from producer Christopher Nolan and, more importantly, director Zack Snyder. Part of their new approach to Superman's origin story finds Kal-El being the first naturally conceived child to be born on his dying planet of Krypton for centuries. From there, we remember that his parents give him a passage to Earth, where he is found and raised by a farmer and his wife, and rechristened as Clark Kent. But as Clark comes to terms with his heritage, and the phenomenal power that he possesses within Earth's atmosphere, he is pursued by General Zod, who will stop at nothing to protect the future of Krypton.

It seems sadly unavoidable, at least for the time being, that people will credit Nolan with the good things about Man Of Steel, while any negatives will be blamed on Snyder. Even after the almost hilarious failure of Sucker Punch, the director is still an interesting choice to lead Warner Bros into a potentially much bigger DC cinematic universe, at a point where they still don't know what they're doing with most of their other comic book properties. He's even eased off on his enthusiasm for speed-ramping, and adopted a more beautiful (if not necessarily steadier) style of shooting. And if Snyder's way is the way forward, there's more than enough here to confirm that they're headed in the right direction.

First up, the casting, which was usually the strongest point in any given Dark Knight movie, is superb. Henry Cavill is the best screen incarnation of Superman since Christopher Reeve. The Clark Kent that we see here isn't the bumbling Daily Planet reporter, so it would really be tough to measure him as better, but he brings the same sense of gravitas to the costumed heroics as Reeve did. At the same time, this Clark has got an authority in action, and in his own strength, which is intriguingly explored in the course of his attempts to blend in with humanity- just don't piss him off. Cavill's also older than Brandon Routh or Smallville's Tom Welling were when they took the role, and actually looks like a goddamn man- there's a reason why it's called Man Of Steel.

Elsewhere, Amy Adams is the best screen incarnation of Lois Lane ever. For the purpose of full disclosure, we should note that I fall a little more in love with Adams every time I see her in a movie, but her Lois isn't merely a girl reporter, or a sassy damsel in distress. She's constantly active in the plot, getting involved, and actually getting herself out of her own scrapes more than Supes does. It's unfortunate that she and Cavill, who are so excellent individually, don't have as much chemistry as fans might like, but if you liked the film enough, you could even excuse that by pointing out that Lois is no longer there simply to be Superman's love interest.

As a more complex General Zod than we might remember, Michael Shannon gives another exhilarating performance. Although he's a million miles from the more memorable pyjama'd antics of Terence Stamp in 1980's Superman II, this Zod underpins a version of the Superman mythos that drops the whole Last Son Of Krypton angle and instead focuses on Clark's individual responsibility as the son of two Robin Hoods. One father, (Kevin Costner, on fine form) wants to protect him from the fallout of revealing his abilities to humanity, and another (Russell Crowe, whose Jor-El has more of a presence than you'd necessarily expect) encouraging him to stand tall, as an example to Earth.

Naturally, once Clark decides to suit up and go with his birth dad's advice, he comes into conflict with Zod and his band of five or six Kryptonian criminals. That means there's immediately more action in any given sequence than in any Superman movie since the second one. This has been the source of the biggest criticisms thus far- the action becomes a little repetitive after the first eight times Superman is thrown through a building, and vice versa. It's also unfortunate, that director of photography Amir Mokri isn't the only thing that the action scenes share with the third Transformers movie- the loss of life incurred amidst the massive, city-smooshing smackdowns that take place here would be colossal, and yet goes largely unacknowledged. Even in the series' dumbest moments, Superman has always cared about the people.

I enjoyed the film in spite of this, but my biggest problem with it would be that there are signs of an extended cut that are all too obvious in this theatrical version. It could be par for the course for Snyder, who famously did Watchmen justice by a 162 minute theatrical cut, and then a 186 minute director's cut, and then a 216 minute "Ultimate Cut". Despite Man Of Steel running to an epic 143 minutes, there's clunky dialogue covering scenes that were seemingly skipped over in the edit, and late pivotal scenes featuring characters we've barely seen before that point. These gaps could be down to the editing structure, which avoids front-loading the exposition by taking a Batman Begins-style non-linear approach, but it becomes jarring at all of the most inconvenient moments.

There's also a niggling sense of incompleteness, by the time this epic reimagining is fully unfurled. You find yourself waiting for the sequel, even before the film is entirely over. That's a problem with some origin stories, and while it's absolutely the right decision to break with the previous cinematic and televisual adaptations of this very widely known character, you feel as if this is built on the trilogy model. This one borrows some structural bits from Batman Begins, so they're probably hoping that Superman's answers to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises will follow- there's a strange, lingering sense of deferred satisfaction, especially when the final image of the film comes closer to the form of recent reveals about Robin, or Moneypenny, than its intended similarity to that awesome Bat-signal reveal.

Nevertheless, if they were holding anything back, it's not because of any lack of energy on the film's part. Hell, the film's opening 15-minute sequence ranges from a political coup to a hand-to-hand fight, via aerial chases, all taking place on an alien planet. The Krypton factor may be a shock for those who don't know their Faora from their elbows, or those who only remember Brando benevolently doling out knowledge crystals for a massive paycheck back in the '70s, but Snyder immediately starts out by showing you things you've never seen in a Superman movie before. This is the action you always wanted from a Superman movie, and he barely lets up from there on out.

Man Of Steel asks for more stamina of its audience than any Superman movie you've ever seen, whether for the far-reaching take on the familiar story, or for the exhaustive scale of the action scenes. It's very well cast, and despite some lapses in the writing and editing, it's the new take that many fans wished Superman Returns would be. Although Warner Bros is apparently not in the business of building a major DC continuity in any obvious way, as the various Avengers movies have so successfully managed, you can't help but get excited about the next step for this new take on Superman. Kal-El gets a shaky start as he learns to fly in this film, but if Snyder builds on the solid, if flawed foundations laid here, he may accomplish wonders.

Man Of Steel is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Man Of Steel, why not share your comments below? Also included in the movie: a shot of a polar bear, and a producer's credit for Jon Peters. BECAUSE THEY'RE THE MOST DEADLY PREDATORS IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.


John Noble said...

'A Good Day To Die Hard' is still, lamentably, the joint least-worst film of the year so far, along with Fast Six.

Oh, please let World War Z ( - rhymes with 'three') be the stand-out pic of the summer..!?!

Mark said...

Hope they get Bruce Willis to play Lex Luthor in the next one. But then it's a matter of getting him on a good day, rather than on A Good Day To Die Hard. HOHOHO.