The S Stands For Hope
I’ve mentioned before, the importance of a critic’s impartiality and the genuine difficulty of maintaining that impartiality when one has a severe opinion about the source material. In other words, I think I like this movie and I’m willing to overly defend certain issues because I want this movie to do well, equally, I am an avid comic reader and Superman fan, which means I have a unique set of complaints about issues that may seem irrelevant. So, if this review feels a little choppy, passionate and all over the place, at least I’ve given a brief disclaimer as to why.
I think it’s fair to say that everyone knows the origin of Superman (or details of it), so in an attempt offset this, the first twenty minutes are spent on Krypton, detailing Kal-El’s birth, the failed uprising of the twisted military leader, Zod [Shannon] and the planet’s final hours. Once on Earth, we follow an adult Clark Kent [Cavill] interleafed with flashbacks to key developments in Kent’s childhood, most notably, the death of his step-father, Jonathan Kent [Costner]. Feeling like a freak, Clark roams North America looking for clues of his existence and helping people along the way. Meanwhile, a top secret military operation is underway in Canada, unearthing what appears to be an ancient artefact. Clark finds his way inside the alien craft and converses with a digital copy of his father’s [Crowe] consciousness. Learning of his past comes at a price, as the ships’ activation sends out a beacon to Zod, who voyages to Earth, to exact vengeance on the heir of his rival and terraform our planet into a new Krypton.
The three top form elements are the performances, the score and the action. While some would argue that several key character traits were not present in this film, you cannot deny the fact that each performance was compellingly acted. Sure, Cavill’s Superman is very dark, broody and layered but he hasn’t had a victory yet. He’s been alone, hidden, isolated and unable to stand up to bullies without exposing his abilities; of course he wouldn’t be the most upbeat individual. Amy Adams is a very commendable Lois Lane and while her all-access appearances feel a little surreal, I didn’t doubt her credibility or believability as a charming if overly eager reporter. Shannon’s reimagining of Zod as a blindly determined general (echoing his performance in Boardwalk Empire) feels like a nice departure from Terence Stamp’s iconic portrayal in the 70’s/80’s. And the thing is, I could happily go on listing almost every single cast member. The only characters that really struck a strange cord were the extras. Stupid, gormless idiots staring in disbelief rather than evacuating, as if they’d been cast in a Michael Bay flick. Then there are the action sequences. For better or worse, Superman’s history (the comic, that is) has been rooted in action – his first appearance in Action Comics should be a clue there. Some will decry this film for being too punch heavy, draining the audience’s stamina. While I can appreciate this sentiment, I feel in order for Superman to be a success (and after the bitter taste of Green Lantern), DC/WB really needed to accentuate an action heavy film. Granted, the CGI is ropey every now-and-then and the coordination and camera work leave much to be desired but it feels absolutely bloody epic and really staples our race’s need for Superman. But the icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s wondrous score. Stepping away from John Williams’ memorable theme and creating an instantly fitting and soaring sound that captures the majesty, power and quiet sorrow of this character.
However much I enjoyed this movie, it is massively flawed and almost all issues stem from technical problems. First thing to address is the writing. While the performances, scientific injection and production design sell the characters, the dialogue, narrative and pacing are pretty atrocious. Most of the lines are rather corny, despite the global threat the drama seems very US localised and the story bumps and grinds along ham-fistedly, leaping from peak to trough with no steady flow or guidance. An error that is magnified by the sloppy editing, throwing audiences about rather than building continually from threat-to-threat and escalating the action to a really climactic conclusion. Finally, Zack Snyder’s direction just isn’t up to it. Coming from somebody who has enjoyed most of his back catalogue, I really don’t think that Snyder is suitable for Superman. Having said that, Christopher Nolan wasn’t really suited for Batman but we’ll get onto that in a minute. Despite all these gripes, minor complaints and disappointments, I still think this movie is better than most of the action shlock that gets pumped out. It may not feel one hundred per cent true to Superman lore but it is greatly superior to most other original superhero flicks that become huge box office successes. Hancock, I’m looking at you.
When adapting source material that has been reinterpreted and reinvented several times over several decades, it’s fair to say you’re not going to please everyone. The best you can hope to do is create a solid film and (in the case of Marvel and DC releases) establish a decent universe to populate your characters. But Superman films are almost always reactionary, trying to give audiences something new while showing them mind-blowing visual effects. In this way, Superman Returns and Man Of Steel are two sides of the same coin and as such, I’ve given them the same rating. For those that feel Superman should be a humorous, emotional, Clark Kent driven story (akin to Richard Donner’s Superman), Superman Returns is a great sequel; retreading familiar ground, going with something safe while pushing the technology of the age as far as it could go. But it didn’t do well. People complained about the plot, some of the performances and the lack of action throughout. So is anyone surprised that the next Supes film gives audiences the very thing they whined they didn’t have in the last adaptation? More action, more brooding, less Clark falling over stuff and a real separation from the 70’s films. Well, here it is. Happy now? No, of course you’re not. But when liberties with the very core of Batman’s character were taken by Nolan in his Dark Knight trilogy, no one batted an eyelid. Punching people in the face, screaming like an angry walrus and bellowing, “Where is it?” does not make you a good detective, Mr. Wayne. This is not going to be to everyone’s liking and if DC/WB are trying to establish a cinematic Justice League universe with this movie they’ve set the threat level a little high – what opposing/invading force can you produce that Superman couldn’t handle on his own and would need Batman’s help?
There’s a firmly held belief that sequels will always be inferior to the original, by definition alone. However, that rule does not apply to comic book films. Origin stories are clumsy, awkward, confused and usually extremely dated (Superman’s is 75 years old for crying out loud) but once they’ve been established, the next story is bigger, smarter, more heartfelt and better. I can only hope this is the case here.
14th June 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
What could arguably be considered the start of the hour long action sequence, the Kent farm is ravaged by Kryptonians and Martha Kent [Diane Lane] is assaulted by Zod. To counter this, Superman crashes into Zod at great speed, tackling him through a corn field, laying in punch after punch, screaming, “You think you can threaten my mother!?” before pummelling through shops and eventually a petrol station. This is a point of contention for a lot of people but I’m totally cool with Clark being smashed through shops, diners, skyscrapers and petrol stations because in a real inexperienced fight, you don’t react sensibly or rationally, it’s only after you’ve done something terrible that you start to look out for others.
As stated above, I could happily praise almost every performance in this film but three in particular stand out. First of all, Russell Crowe’s badass, defiant Jor-El was a pleasant surprise, fleshing out his character to something impressive and greater than ‘the guy who put his son in a rocket’. Additionally, the choice to show his physical resolve is a nice inkling of Kal-El’s potential and hereditary abilities to confront evil and do the right thing. Secondly, Kal’s adoptive father, simple farmer Jonathan Kent is brilliantly portrayed by Kevin Costner. When Costner was first announced, no one thought he would be suitable or capable in this role but he brings the required amount of reserve, caution, concern and hope that makes up the heart of this character. Finally, maybe an odd choice, but I really liked Antje Traue as Zod’s steely second-in-command, Faora. It’s always nice to see the real muscle in a superhero book/film as a woman, rather than a bloke, especially if they don’t have to rely on swollen, spilling cleavage and overtly sexual dialogue. No, Faora was a woman of few words who proved herself an extreme adversary to both mankind and Superman, without resorting to Catwoman-like behaviour.
“I have been a warrior my whole life, all my senses have been trained and focused on the art of combat. Where did you train; on a farm!?”
In A Few Words:
“For those that want lighter fare, there’s Superman Returns, for those who crave action, there’s Man Of Steel. Hopefully the next instalment will be able to combine both to produce a truly wonderful Superman story”