Friday, 14 June 2013

Man Of Steel (12A)

You've got to feel a bit sorry for DC Comics, who have struggled over the years bringing their superheroes to the big screen.

Batman was obviously a cult classic in the 60s, but great cinema it wasn't - and things only improved when Tom Burton took the reigns. Sadly, that didn't last long and before we knew it Alicia Silverstone in black PVC wasn't enough to save us from Arnie and Uma Thurman.

Then along came Christopher Nolan, and that all changed. Unfortunately, then Marvel took control of their own film operations and before we know it Avengers have Assembled all over the planet. DC was back out in the cold.

Their only other hero capable of challenging Marvel's superiority was Superman - who has had his own issues on the silver screen. Christopher Reeve made himself and those red pants household names in the 80s, even managing a bloody good sequel. Then there was Superman III, which wasn't the worst of the films because they made Superman IV.

Then there was Superman Returns, where people wished he hadn't.

So who could save us? Who was out there to do a Whedon and create a franchise that would become a by-word for ginormous success?

Zack Snyder. Of course.

OK, he's the man that made Watchmen boring, made 300 camper than Liberace in a tutu and gave us Suckerpunch - schoolgirls in schoolgirl outfits with swords. And somehow managing to make THAT dull.

Thankfully, Christopher Nolan was brought in as executive producer, so there was some hope that Snyder wouldn't Zack this one up.

Not much, but some.

Now, as the excellent Dr Kermode blogged the other day, critics don't go into films wanting to hate it. We don't rock up assuming a film will be terrible, hoping to be proved right. We don't.

So, despite my feelings about Snyder's back catalogue, Man Of Steel should be good. The character has history, a huge fanbase, and a place in many people's hearts. Of course, that can be a poisoned chalice, but hey...

Now, any superhero film stands and falls on two things - the actor, and the costume. The clothes, in this particular universe, really do maketh the man. These characters are born on the page in graphic novels - the very epitome of a visual medium. So, stuff up the outfit and you're dead in the water.

And here, they've dodged that bullet. The costume is darker, sure, and the red pants are now being worn on the inside, but that's no bad thing in this day and age - Man Of Steel's clobber is up to snuff.

And so too is Jersey boy Henry Cavill (that's the British tax haven off France, not New Jersey), star of The Tudors and a Midsomer Murder. He manages to encapsulate perfectly the angst of an alien in a strange land and the inner calm - steel, if you will - of a man who knows he could literally kill you with a look.

And Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his earth parents are excellent, wonderfully capturing the essence of two people who adopted an alien child and sheltered him from the world while helping him come to terms with his 'differences'. Of course, it helps a bit that said alien happens to come from a planet of people who look like us, but that's something to take up with DC Comics...

Sadly, not all the performances are of the same calibre. Amy Adams - an actress I love - struggles to be battle-hardened journalist Lois Lane. Granted she's not helped by some of her dialogue (she's won awards for her coverage of troops in the field, can talk to colonels with macho vernacular, yet asks where she can 'tinkle'. And don't get me started on the bit where she tells her editor she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist), but she's just too damn sweet and nice. To say she lacks conviction is an understatement.

And we have Russell Crowe - playing Superman's dad. Granted this is far from his worst performance, but he comes across on screen as a man who's just been handed the words with no sense of who the character actually is. His reading is fine, but there's a distinct lack of character. And given we know that he can act, you've got to think that was a director issue.

Then there's Michael Shannon as Zod - the evil general from Super's home planet of Krypton who seriously loves his work. Zod is a colossus, a man (well, alien, but you take my point) who exudes menace. Only that doesn't come across here. This time around, Zod is a bit cross, a man (alien) who can't find his lucky mug on match day. And his team of hench persons (aliens) just look nonplussed.

And the story is fine - it's the one we all know. Bad things happen on Krypton, Zod is punished, Super becomes Clarke Kent and grows up in Kansas, never meets Dorothy, Zod escapes, finds Earth, finds Clarke, battle commences. Nowt wrong there at all.

So, we have some winners and some losers. A bit of a mixed bag, but on balance the positives outweigh the negatives so far.

But then we get to the actual nuts and bolts of the film - the direction, the shooting, the musical score, the glue that holds the whole lot together. And that's where it all goes a bit south.

Now, as mentioned, Snyder has made a few dull movies in his time, but that doesn't happen here. Oh no. Because there isn't time to get bored. The camera never stands still. It's like Baz Luhrmann on speed. There are only two or three moments (one of them a lovely shot of a polar bear) in the whole film - and it's a LONG film - where Snyder actually allows the camera to linger. And they're welcome respites from the deluge of images you have to try and process. This film really needs slowing down in places, just to allow the audience to have a rest.

Especially as there is no respite to be had from the score. Hans Zimmer clearly zoned in on the barrage of stuff and decided it needed to be louder. There is one fight scene where the sounds of Kryptonians hitting each other with concrete is actually added to by the score. It's like being shouted at and hit at the same time.

Driving home from the cinema I stuck Metallica on in the car, just for some peace and quiet. Writing this now, I have The Bronx's fourth album going full blast and that is still quieter than Man Of Steel.

Then there's the tone of the film. While Batman has always been the dark, Gothic hero, Super's always been the bright and breezy boy Scout American hero. He's the smiling one where Bats always scowls.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see that particular cornerstone of the Superman heritage get thrown out the window. Not only is the costume darker, but the whole tone is more aligned to Nolan's Batman trilogy. Now, personally, I don't have a problem with that - but I suspect I'm in the minority. As my comic book guru pointed out, there is one hell of a body count. Given the final fights take place in the centre of Metropolis, and all the skyscrapers would have been full of people before they all came tumbling down, there's unlikely to be many people left to rebuild the place.

And there's another bit that'll make devotees sit up and spill their sweeties, but we can't talk about that bit. Bit of a shock though. Certainly not what you'd call 'in character'...

Even with all that was wrong with it though - even though every fight scene was a blur (I pity those of you who donned 3D specs for this one) - I didn't hate it. I actually liked the changes. It needed to be quieter, but it was still OK. And there's even a bit that has real emotional impact. Genuinely.

It doesn't compare to the work Nolan did with his Gotham trilogy, and Marvel are still out in front in terms of bringing the very essence of a comic book universe to the screen (Mr Whedon might want to speak to his lawyers about the final fight scene too. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...), but given what he's done before, Zack Snyder did OK.

Not great, sure, but OK. It should lay the foundations for the franchise DC and Warner are hoping for.

Once they've rebuilt Metropolis, obviously.


  1. Good review Kahn. It's a good movie, but had all of the right ingredients to be great and it did not achieve that. The sequels, maybe?

  2. Got to think they'll tweak it a bit, once the dust has settled and the feedback has been collated. Maybe they're hoping Nolan will take over the reigns