Retro Review: Man of Steel

So it arrives.  The much heralded return of Superman to the big screen.  Ever since the alleged failure of Superman Returns, and the huge popularity of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the reboot of the Superman myth has been kicking around.  When Zack Snyder was attached to the project, the majority of people anticipated a disaster.  However, the casual tagging of Nolan’s name onto the film as producer turned many around to the idea.  You see Nolan is apparently the second coming, and he literally craps gold – or so many of his fanboy followers will attest.  This, sadly, means that negative reviews for Man of Steel so far have blamed Snyder, whilst positive ones seem to exclaim that Nolan delivered.  You have to feel sorry for Snyder, but then again he made Sucker Punch, so deserves all he gets.

Anyway, here we have a new origin tale about the destruction of Krypton, and how Kal-El was sent by his father to Earth, where he would act as their protector.  The young boy is raised in Kansas by the Kents, and discovers his alien heritage as a young adult.  This coincides with the arrival of General Zod, a merciless leader of Krypton’s armies who staged a military coup.  You see, Zod is after something that Jor-El sent to Earth, and wants Kal-El to bring it to him.  Cue danger, and action spectacle that packs a super-punch.  Added into the mix are new variations on the support cast of Superman comics and films, with Lois Lane, Perry White, and, erm, Jenny Olsen?

Jenny what now?

Jenny what now?

Okay, so this was never going to be a true comic book adaptation.  Warners wanted to reboot the franchise and make it ”darker” and ”edgier”, believing that the reason ”Returns” failed was due to it being bright, colourful, and fun.  But, you see, Returns didn’t fail – it made profit, but had thrown a chunk of the budget away on the various aborted attempts at the film through the years.  Returns was also quite well received by critics and fans.  But, of course, it wasn’t as much a success as The Dark Knight, and so they decided they wanted a Superman film to match that darkness.  And therein lies the problem with Man of Steel, which I will get to in a bit.

Suffice to say the film is well cast.  The changes to characters (Perry White is now Laurence Fishburn, Olsen has changed sex and become a girl) are fine, and don’t really make a difference.  It is helped by having such a wealth of strong names involved.  Amy Adams is a strong minded Lois Lane, Russell Crowe gets to kick some ass as Jor-El before turning all Yoda later in the film as Kal’s mentor, and Kevin Costner reminds us why he was such a big deal a few decades ago.  Henry Cavill, the one factor I was uncertain of going into the film, does a decent, if not great job.  It is Michael Shannon who steals the film away from everyone as General Zod.  Spitting menace and with a stare that would make a grown man cower, he storms through the scenes with serious intent, and manages to really portray a villain whose reasons for being have a pure validity to them.  If you imagine Magneto in the X-Men series, then you have a similar contrast – he believed his people needed saving, and would destroy any who get in the way.

Action and spectacle wise the film delivers in spades.  Buildings get trashed, cars get flipped, streets gets ripped up.  The last act of the film is one of scene after scene of devastation, with Superman versus Zod’s Kryptonian forces being of such a scale that the whole planet does feel at risk.  Gone are the comic book films of the past where all fights took place in one street…now the fight moves from one end of the city to the other and back again.  Yup, for those who complained that there was not enough action in Superman Returns, there is no way you will say the same here.

Kneel before Zod!

Kneel before Zod!

However, that is part of the problem.  There is a bit too much action and property damage this time around, and without the levity to break the tension.  Last year, The Avengers did a similar scale of damage, but it had fun whilst doing it.  You laughed, and got caught up in it all.  Here, in Man of Steel, it is all too serious and foreboding, which makes for a long, harrowing, drawn out action fest that leaves a bitter taste when you weigh it all up.  Whilst the big-S flies to the rescue of a few individuals, the level of destruction in which a plethora of others would have been engulfed makes you wonder how heroic is he?  Does he have to personally know your name to give a damn about saving you?  Why is he so flippantly disregarding everyone else?  Way back in Superman 2 (even the Richard Lester version), as soon as Superman realised that humans were in danger during the fight with Zod, he flew off to draw them away from the population.  This time around, he seems quite happy to contribute to the destruction.  Maybe that’s the point, though.  Maybe this is him learning the consequences of his actions.  Regardless, it still feels out of place.

The film also, sadly, lacks heart.  There are moments within, don’t get me wrong, such as the scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent teaching Clark to keep his powers secret, but we never really connect or care too much about anyone.  Even Lois Lane, who is played well enough by Amy Adams, doesn’t seem to have any chemistry with Cavill as Clark/Kal-El.  In the end I think the lack of solid heart comes from that earlier mentioned uncertain factor, Henry Cavill, who lacks the charm and presence to make us really connect with the central character.

The film isn’t a terrible film.  It stands well ahead of Superman IV, and is at times a stronger film than Lester’s version of Superman II.  Snyder has matured as a director, and his ”slo-mo” flourishes have nearly vanished completely.  Forget the Nolan name, this is a Snyder film, and it shows in the action.  But it doesn’t feel right as a Superman film.  Loads of spectacle, with a distinct lack of hope throughout (ironic given the symbol on his chest being Kryptonian for Hope) make it a film that doesn’t sit right.  Throw in the musical score, packed with ominous repetition, and a far cry from the uplifting Williams score, and it just didn’t feel like Superman.

New audiences will likely embrace it, approaching the character without expectation they may find it sit well with their idea of what a DC comic book movie should be like (given the responses to Nolan’s trilogy).  But for fans of the character of the comics, or the previous films, there will be that nagging doubt.  Maybe the second film will pick up and move in a lighter direction?  We can only hope.

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Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

After the response to Man of Steel, and the ‘not as strong as hoped for’ box office results, the proposed sequel to that film went through a bit of a change.  When the title reveal was made, and the character of Batman was added, the fans at SDCC went wild.  I, however, grew sceptical.  I wasn’t enamoured with Man of Steel, but held out hope that a sequel would grow the character in a better direction.  Suddenly adding Batman seemed like a stunt, a cynical attempt to get movie goers back on board by adding the one character guaranteed to bring crowds back.  Initially WB stuck to their guns with the story that this was the always planned sequel to Man of Steel, but that story changed pretty soon to say that the official MoS II would come later down the line (until it completely vanished in the updated release schedule last year, highlighting the lack of confidence the studio has in the character, with Batman being named as the ‘lynchpin that will hold the DC Cinematic Universe together’.  However, the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman flipped things a bit.  The online fan community were aghast – he was the man who ruined Daredevil!  Personally, I always felt he was a decent Daredevil and that film was ruined by the director, Mark Steven Johnson (who also gave us Ghost Rider, so there’s the evidence for the prosecution), and was quite vocal in my support for Affleck in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

As the film was further and further into production, Wonder Woman was added to the mix, and story details began to emerge.  Then the trailers arrived, and I was once more underwhelmed.  As suspected, Superman looked to be side-lined in the promotion of the film, with Batman being the focus.  However, it is worth noting that one trailer which focussed purely on Batman more than convinced me that Affleck was going to be perfect in the role, a role that many already think we’ve seen too much of, but which looked set to prove those people wrong.  As the film was about to release, the reviews came….and they weren’t good!

Shields up....this could get messy!

Shields up….this could get messy!

So it was that, as someone who has no love for Man of Steel, I approached this film with trepidation and scepticism.  The positive rants by fans online did nothing to convince me that it would be great, especially as most of them simply said it was awesome because it wasn’t Marvel (I’ve never trucked with this idea that you must like one or the other, so anyone who uses it to argue the merits of a film is instantly showing bias).   Would the film impress me by not being as bad as some will suggest (after all, I’ve never been one to shy away from going against the grain, with films such as Wild Wild West, John Carter, and Lone Ranger sitting proudly in my DVD/Bluray collection), or would it be another let-down like Man of Steel was?

Well, let’s just skim over the plot first before the critique shall we….

After the events of the first film, and the destruction of Metropolis caused by the fight between Zod and Kal, Superman has become a controversial figure.  Some praise him as a hero, others fear what he is capable of.  One who fears him is Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (for those who have just crawled out from under a rock – hi there, it’s 2016 and we have computers now).  You see, Bruce was there, in Metropolis, on that day of destruction, and he saw personal loss in amongst the devastation.  Over the two years since he has continued his fight against crime in Gotham, whilst also investigating as much as he can about Superman, who he has chilling dreams about on a regular basis.  At the same time, Alexander ‘Lex’ Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is doing some research of his own, specifically on the crashed Kryptonian ship, and the body of General Zod.  He’s also managed to get his hands on some Kryptonite, and sets about his plans to bring Batman and Superman into conflict.  Anyone who has seen the trailers will know where this will all lead.

Okay, I'm ready! Let it rip....

Okay, I’m ready! Let it rip….

Let me start off by saying that there are some really spectacular set-pieces in the film.  Well shot action, and some fantastic imagery.  Bruce’s dark dream about a world where Superman leads an almost Nazi-styled army is a gorgeous piece of film, as are the first glimpses we get of Batman in costume – quick glimpses as he evades a cop in a small room.  With an agility that we’ve not seen on film to date, this is genuinely a Batman that reflects the style and motion of the comic book character, and when we get to see him in full action later in the film it is impossible to not be impressed.  The long anticipated smackdown between Superman and Batman is another great moment, with some brutal damage being done to both parties, and a Batmobile chase sequence is yet another great set-piece.

However, all of these are just set-pieces, sadly with no substance to hold them together in any coherent manner.  In addition, many of them end with some astonishgly corny exchange of dialogue which just leaves you cringing in embarrassment.  This skill Zack Snyder has with crafting standout moments but not managing to slot them together has been seen before in Sucker Punch, another film with some great sequences, but which is just an unbridled mess of a film overall (laughably so).  Dawn of Justice feels like at least two story ideas mashed together in a desperate attempt to race towards the Justice League movie, and yet feels far too long a film as a result as neither story is allowed to grow.  Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is forced into the proceedings for no particular reason other than to show off the character in the hope it will get people to watch her solo film (in production now), and the other mooted cameos are so painfully forced in via one of the most contrived methods that you genuinely feel embarrassed for all involved.

Lex Luthor is completely underwhelming as a villain.  Eisenberg does a decent job of putting a new spin on the character (who is not necessarily the ‘Lex’ we all know, with a throwaway line commenting that Lexcorp was named after his father), but feels so out of place in the story, becoming more of an expositional character, there to simply move the story along without any actual natural progression (hey, how do we get to the next action piece?  I know, Lex does something random….Go!).   Gadot is bland as Diana/Wonder Woman.  Whether this is due to her not really having much to do, Zack Snyder not really caring much, or her being terrible remains to be seen when her solo outing arrives.  Cavill, once again, fails to convey any kind of presence on screen as Superman, and whilst his chemistry with Amy Adams’ Lois is slightly better than the previous film, it still feels a little forced.

Now for the cool stuff...like this Batwing design.

Now for the cool stuff…like this Batwing design.

But, Affleck is jaw droppingly amazing, and if any one person can walk away from this wreckage it is him.  It is almost worth watching the film again just to see his scenes once more.  Giving his everything to the character, as mentioned earlier he plays a different Batman than we’ve seen on screen in the past, and I would happily watch more…in a better film.  His presence is one of the only things that kept me watching – well, him and Jeremy Irons as Alfred.  When a solo Batman outing arrives, I’m all over that like bees on honey!   I can understand WB choosing to utilise this Batman as the cornerstone of the upcoming DC films, linking each together – it’s just a shame that Superman had to become a secondary character in what was originally his own sequel in order to do it.

All of this, and no mention of the final segment of the film, one which the surprise of was spoiled by a trailer reveal (which if you haven’t seen any marketing for the film and still want a surprise, then skip to the next paragraph quick).  Yes, the tacked on team up against the CGI blemish that is supposed to be Doomsday is one of the most dreadful endgames of a film in a while.  The whole thing is an utter mess of half-finished effects work, with Doomsday looking as realistic as The Abomination did in Incredible Hulk – that level of CGI realism!  There is one well played moment in the action, which sees Superman drifting in orbit, drained of power after being struck by a nuclear weapon (a moment practically lifted from the pages of the comics), but that’s about it.  The rest of the fight is woefully directed and poorly edited, making the final heroic actions strangely comical when they should be harrowingly serious.

Throw in another dreary, booming, overpowering Zimmer score which consists primarily of loud oboes and drums, and the sloppy editing throughout, and we have a film which has some loyal comic book moments, but slap dashed together in an incoherent mess.  I’ve read in places that some people couldn’t follow the story and thought it was confusing.  I don’t agree with this, I followed it fine, but it is sloppily written, and messily constructed.  I’m still excited to see other films in the upcoming DC slate, but any which keep Zack Snyder on as director just have no further appeal to me.  What could have been two great films is instead another example of Snyder’s skill at moments, but failure at features.

On a lighter note....

On a lighter note….