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Man of Steel Review


Is it a bird, a plane...or just a speck on your glasses?





Here it is - the hyperbolic biggie of the summer. The film that carries Warner Brothers and DC Comics’ (effectively the same company - DC are owned by Warners) hopes to mount some serious competition to the runaway juggernaut that presently epitomises Marvel Comics at the multiplexes. This is the one that DC hopes, if reports are to believed, that will spearhead the path to the Justice League movie.

Before I head into the film, let’s discuss Superman for a second. I’m a fan of the Man of Steel and have been ever since I first encountered the character in the sixties - not long after I discovered Batman. It was after that that I discovered that the two characters knew each other, worked alongside each other and were part of a brand called DC. Later on, I discovered Marvel. It was a great aspect of my childhood. And later on, my adult life.

Superman may well be the world’s greatest super hero character. He’s certainly the best known, but he was never my numero uno. Top three or four, of course - no doubt - but never the favourite. I loved the silver age comics that I’ve reread thanks to those "Showcase" reprints. I love the mythology of that era: the Fortress of Solitude with the huge key to open the several feet thick steel door, the various colours of kryptonite that affect Superman in different ways, from having a freakish side effect to total and irrevocable loss of powers to death, the bottle city of Kandor, the alliterative girlfriends, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, the Phantom Zone, Krypto the super dog. But what I didn’t much care for was the fact that his powers are so absolute, it’s hard to find a real threat for him. What was worse, as far as I was concerned was that in the early seventies - DC Comics decided to get rid of kryptonite as a plot device, and a freak chain reaction across the globe turned all kryptonite into lead, leaving ...er.....black magic as Superman’s only weakness. Yeah - great going, guys. Kill me now.

One of the problems going in to making a Superman movie, or a reboot as this one is, is that the origin story is a familiar one to just about everybody. It’s almost pop culture turned to pop mythology. Even the most cynical non comic book reader knows about Krypton’s last son and how he came to Earth. It’s past of the cultural consciousness of the Western world. It’s been told in the comic book many times, it was recounted in the Max Fleischer cartoon shots of the forties, retold as the first episode of the George Reeves TV series of the fifties, the films of Christopher Reeve in the seventies, you can’t watch an old episode of Lois & Clark from the nineties or Smallville from the noughties without knowing the (to all intents and purposes) legend.

It takes a bold step to reboot the Superman film franchise, and it takes a pretty big pair of feet to try and follow Christopher Reeve in those red boots. A few years ago, even X-Men director Bryan Singer backed away from that particular challenge and instead opted for Superman Returns - a sequel to the first two Superman films, neatly dismissing the increasingly lamentable 3 and 4 - the Quest for Peace. Brandon Routh did his finest impersonation of Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance and all in all, apart from a few nice action sequences, the movie made a negligible impact.

Finding the right person to play Superman is also a huge and unenviable task. I remember clearly seeing the first studio publicity shot of Reeve in his costume, standing on the edge of a New York skyscraper rooftop with the city as a backdrop and thinking it looked like the comic had actually come to life. The similarity between Reeve’s features and build and the way he was drawn in the comics was uncanny. Newcomer Henry Cavill fits this bill nicely - not to the extent Reeve did, but better than Routh. Thinking back now, it feels like years since I saw that first shot of Cavill in the costume - and it actually was. I recall the original release date for Man of Steel was supposed to be Christmas 2011!

It was always going to be a film to be seen on opening weekend, with all spoilerific reviews avoided like kryptonite. It was always going to be a 3D showing. None of that was ever in question. Hyperbole about a summer marquee movie like this one is always hard to avoid - even more so when the majority of genre reviewers proclaim it to be the greatest super hero film ever committed to film. Big words, and with anticipation running higher than the tallest building, faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive - we took our seats for the 10:15 showing. Cunningly chosen as part of my strategy to avoid children and chatter.

Basically, the film is, as anticipated, a retelling and rebooting of the origin story. No surprises there. The film begins on Krypton, with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) as the only scientist aware that the planet is about to implode, failing to convince the Kryptonian elders that doomsday is indeed up on them. A military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries a coup for power, but is shot off into space for his troubles, Krypton goes kablooie with Jor-El’s only child, Kal-El , bound for Earth where our yellow sun will give him super powers.

So - nothing new so far - right? Wrong. This is a whole new take. FINALLY someone, somewhere gets away from the notion of Krypton being an ice planet. It was never an ice planet in the comics, that was a creative decision taken for Superman - the Movie in 1979 and has been imitated ever since. Notably also, Zod isn’t condemned to the Phantom Zone with his followers. We see a lot more of Kryptonian culture than we have previously and to be honest, Crowe is a better Jor-El than Marlon Brando ever was.

Landing on Earth, Kal-El is renamed Clark and is raised by the Kents on their Kansas farm on the outskirts of Smallville which we see in a series of flashbacks with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent trying to impart sage wisdom to his adopted son while trying to keep his super powers secret. But the kid can’t help himself from saving the school kids on the bus from drowning when it crashes off a bridge. This is despite being the target for all their jokes and an outsider. Following the death of Pa Kent (no, that’s NOT a spoiler, you all know it’s part of the origin) Clark

The effluence hits the fan when Zod discovers Earth and demands that Kal-El be delivered to him. And that’s when the film soars up, up and away with battle sequences that literally make Superman 2’s fights seem like a bitch slap skirmish. It’s also partly where the film loses.....something.

I waited a day after watching the movie before starting this review because although I saw everything I wanted to, it kind of fell short of being the immaculate conception of the super hero movies that everybody says it is. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie because it most certainly isn’t, but it has something missing. Let’s look at the good first:

Henry Cavill as Superman. He looks the part, he plays it differently from Christopher Reeve, and that’s a good thing.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Totally buries Margot Kidder, who was NEVER Lois as far as I’m concerned. In fact, Amy Adams is instantly my second favourite Lois Lane of all time, right behind Teri Hatcher.

There’s no Jimmy Olsen - easily one of the most annoying and needless comic characters ever created.

As I’ve mentioned, Krypton is no longer shown as an ice planet. Yay!

We finally get a Superman reboot that doesn’t feature Lex Luthor as the main villain. In fact, with the exception of seeing a couple of LexCorp trucks, there’s no mention of Luthor at all.

The 3D! The 3D is absolutely amazing for the battle sequences alone. In particular a shot during the airborne fight between Superman & Zod, looking down at them, with the city far beneath. Just stunning.

The bad

While it makes sense that Superman starts feeling out his flying powers by jumping incredible distances - that’s how he started in the comics, he then seems to be able to have mastered the art of simply floating in no time at all. Wouldn’t he have noticed that he was able to float years ago? And whereas I understand how he flies, by jumping upward and gaining momentum - how the hell does he just flat?

The entire third quarter of the film is one long battle, destroying much of Smallville in scenes that kept reminding me of Thor’s third quarter. Only much, much longer. In fact, the camera jumps around so much and the cuts are so rapid, that much like the final battle in Transformers: Dark of the Moon I was getting confused what was happening to whom. As soon as one improbably huge, destruction dealing destroying machine was beaten, a bigger one appeared and in the end I lost all sense of scale. I literally became numb to it. By the time the final showdown between Superman & Zod started I found myself inwardly groaning that I was about to watch yet another fight.

Is it me, or does Michael Shannon have a somewhat grating manner of speech?

Where’s all the kryptonite? Not a single shard of it seems to have fallen on the planet. Given that, what’s Kal-El’s weakness now? I pray it’s not black magic.

While I’m glad that Luthor wasn’t the main villain, I was a little disappointed that it was General Zod. Again. How has a relatively minor villain from the silver age comics suddenly become the number 2 go-to bad guy since Superman 2? I was hoping for Brainiac! Actually, a minimal rewrite and Brainiac would’ve fit perfectly as the bad guy here.

Superman, as a movie character seems too glum in the film. Apart from a scene where he throws a drone back at the general who ordered its launch because he doesn’t want the military to know where he hangs his cape, there’s no humour in the here.

Superman as a character is the polar opposite of Batman. Batman is a grim and determined psycho with issues. Superman is the ultimate brightly coloured good guy. This film takes Superman out of the brightness and makes him a darker edged, morally ambiguous hero and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Lighten up a bit guys, your movie lacks a certain warmth.

Now, it’s time for some spoilers - so you know how this goes..... I count down, so if you haven’t seen the movie, skip the next bit, until I tell you we’re out of the spoiler zone. Here goes.

 

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YOU’RE IN THE SPOILER ZONE AND HAVE BEEN WARNED.

 

Okay. Just us here? Good.

What the hell was that stupid death of Jonathan Kent’s in a tornado. I get that maybe he didn’t want Clark to expose himself as having super powers, but widowing his wife and waving Clark away so he can be heroically thrashed against a tree or a cow or something? Couldn’t Clark have simply used his super speed or just used the commotion as a distraction and used his invulnerability and strength, which he knew he had by that time?

Lois being aware that Clark and Superman are the same person - okay, it happened earlier in the story than I’ve ever seen before, but I’m confused - did she still recognise him at the end when he starts work at the Daily Planet?

I know why Superman killed Zod (in order to save the family that were about to be incinerated by Zod’s heat vision...which incidentally was moving very slowly toward them) but Superman as judge, jury and executioner? This is Superman, not the Punisher. Though understandable within the context of the story, isn’t it way out of character? Do we now have an indestructible alien on earth that kills with impunity? Shouldn’t that make us really nervous? The destruction and probable loss of life in Metropolis alone was on an almost genocidal scale.

So, the burning question is where does this leave us for the Justice League film? Short answer - no closer. We have Superman now established, but no mention was made of any other super heroic meta humans, so no Green Lantern, Batman doesn’t seem to be around. No Wonder Woman, Flash....or any of the DC Universe stalwarts.

This doesn’t seem to leave any time to get the JL film off the ground in time for summer 2015, especially as Warners aren’t following it up with another super hero movie next year.

 

Okay - let’s rejoin the rest....

 

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End of spoilers

So, all in all - not a bad film, but pretty much like a meal cooked by a gourmet chef that needs just an extra pinch of salt, padding out an excellent story with interminable action sequences, each more bewildering than the last prevented this from being the film of the summer in my honest opinion. It’s a film that I will certainly buy on its day of release on DVD and probably watch over and over again - but my first viewing left me overwhelmed in some ways, underwhelmed in others.

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