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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Classic Review : Superman the Movie (1978)

I have a tendency to revisit old films frequently, from those I loved to those I hated, just to re-analyse them from the perspective of the older self. In the first of a planned series of Classic Reviews, I take a look back at Richard Donner’s Superman.

Richard Donner’s 1978 superhero film had quite an effect on the 5-year-old me as I sat and watched it at the cinema. Only a year earlier had I been thrown into a galaxy far, far away, and now I was believing a man could fly. It probably was the one moment that sparked my fascination and love for comic book characters who dress in costumes and fight crime. This is one film that I return to time and time again and experience the same surge of emotions that I had as a child. So, returning to the film now was never going to be a chore, and in fact was a great pleasure.

The opening sequence shows us the comic book history of the character before thrusting us into the opening credits, whilst John Williams’ epic score builds behind them, stirring our emotions even before the story has begun. This origin tale shows how Kal-El, son of Jor-El, was sent from his dying world by his father to go to Earth, where he grows to become their protector and defender. Found and raised on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he grows to become news-hound Clark Kent by day, his disguise from his true identity as Superman. Throw in support characters such as Lois Lane, another reporter at the Daily Planet who provides love interest, and Lex Luthor, a crazed genius who will become Superman’s nemesis, and the stage is set for an adventure that sees love, loss, and action.

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The film was originally intended to be be completely shot back to back with the second film, and indeed Donner did complete a substantial chunk of that sequel, but due to pressure in editing and time constraints, work was stopped on the sequel so he could cut this film down to size. In doing so a few ideas were moved around, such as the ‘reversing time’ sequence, which was initially intended as a closing of the whole two part story but was moved here to offer some climactic ending to the first film. It’s easy for us to forget these days how risky a comic book film was back in the 70s, so to even consider a sequel in the first place was extremely daring for the studio, which likely explains their cold feet over the idea.

There are plot contrivances and unexplained moments throughout, but the whole film is played with such a charm and sweetness that it’s easy to gloss over the more bizarre or nonsensical moments. Christopher Reeve himself manages to captivate when on screen, either as the humble Kent or the commanding Superman. Margot Kidder shares such on-screen chemistry with Reeve that their scenes as roving reporters, or love-struck man of steel and journalist, truly sparkle with energy. Marlon Brando famously refusing to learn his lines actually works in favour of the scenes in which he conveys his concerns and desire for his son as the planet falls apart around them. Gene Hackman adds great comic menace to Lex Luthor, aided by Ned Beatty as Otis, his bumbling henchman. Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Susannah York, and everyone else involved all work to ensure that whilst light in nature, they never see the film as a cheap comic-book movie, and instead give the tale the dignity it deserves. We also get a short glimpse of things to come via the trial of Terrence Stamp’s General Zod which opens the film, and in those moments as Zod tells Jor-El that he will make him bow down before him, Stamp ensures that any audience watching will be waiting for him to return in future films.

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I see a little silhouetto of a man....

The film established quite a few things which were then adopted by the comic books, such as the ‘S’ symbol actually being a representation of the El family crest, the crystalline technology of Krypton, Jonathan Kent dying of a heart attack, Lois frequently misspelling words; and so is held in high regard by many as a definitive origin tale film. The action takes a while to arrive – it’s over an hour before we first see Superman in action saving Lois from a helicopter crash – but when it does it delivers. The earthquake sequence gives us Superman inside the earth’s crust fixing the fault, a school bus in peril on the golden gate bridge, a damaged train rail that threatens a high speed locomotive, Lois buried alive, a dam breaking, all of this within minutes of each other, and leading to an emotional decision which would have repercussions later on.

All in all, Superman may not be quite perfect, and the film does suffer from a few oversights and contrivances, but even with the dated effects work it’s still easy, when watching, to believe a man can fly – thanks to the fantastic direction, the great cast, and that perfect score by John Williams adding emotional undertone to every scene.

This review was originally posted over at World of Superheroes as part of my writings there.