views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Man of Steel (12A)
Cineworld, O2
12th June 2013

★★★☆☆

I'm a film geek. I'm also a comics geek. I value neither above the other. It's a neat dichotomy accurately representing Clark Kent and Superman. The Kryptonian and the human, science and morals, the hick Smallville kid and Metropolis man. And also represents my opinions of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. For nothing has made me more furious or more gleeful in a long time. Make no mistake, the three stars doesn't mean this is an average film, it's simply the mean and median average from my intense hatred and passionate joy.

I also have a friend who simply wants to see Superman punch things - an action woefully missing from Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns. I, on the other hand, would like to see this, but also want my Kal-El to be an inspirational figure, bringing out the best in humanity, a beacon representing wonder, hope and otherness. Does this film deliver them both? Yes. But like my reaction, they are both presented in the most extreme way possible. More on this later.

It's a story as old as time itself - scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) puts his baby son in a rocket and shoots him away from the dying planet Krypton. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) lands on earth and is found by kindly Kansas couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). He then grows up to be the world's superest hero.

But here, screenwriter David S Goyer, collaborating with Christopher Nolan, can't help but mix things up. As the planet is dying, Kryptonian solider General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup and, after being expelled to the Phantom Zone, decides to track down Kal as he believes he holds the codex with which to restore Krypton to glory - and will happily use Earth as his new planet. This in itself isn't bad - it sets up a much-needed villain after property tycoon Luthor of Singer's disaster, but what follows is a race to do lots of things with what are essentially Kryptonian USB sticks. It's incredibly distracting.

What's worse are the unnecessary changes that benefit neither plot nor theme. Firstly, this is not your father's Krypton. Dismiss all ideas of the Bottle City of Kandor as a gleaming, technologically-advanced wonderland that could have only been dreamed up in the 50s. This Krypton is more like something from Game of Thrones, complete with flying dragons. Kal is the first naturally-born kid on Krypton in forever (yes, we get it, he's Jesus and it's a lazy allegory), with Kryptonians being test-tube babies predestined to play the role of warrior, scientist and other things that they don't really mention. In one irksome scene, Jor-El, a scientist, manages to take out a whole squad of Zod's trained-from-birth soldiers with ease. Why?

This is just the first bump in the road that almost led me to overturning the entire cinema and walking out. The second problem is Jonathan Kent. He simply seems to exist to make absentee father Jor-El look like Dad of the Decade by comparison. Remember the bit in the trailer when John suggests maybe Clark should have let a whole bunch of kids drown? You know, the bit Superfans were trying to justify as being taken out of context? Sadly it isn't. This Jonathan Kent is an absolute git and his actions just seem to get worse, culminating in an act which permanently scars both Clark and Martha and seems to be driven purely out of spite or a desire to be right. And don't get me started on how they've treated Clark's childhood pal Pete Ross.

Part of me is ranting about these changes as a fan of the original characters, true. But like Halle Berry's disastrous turn as Catwoman, why use an existing character then change everything about them? Oh yeah, Hollywood is lazy, my bad, I forgot. The worst part is, the movie benefits in precisely no way from these changes - if anything, it makes you wonder how Clark turned out so well-rounded.

This is also a film that wears its subtext literally on its chest. Granted, we shouldn't expect subtlety in a film involving a man in a blue suit hitting things a lot, but the old rule of show, don't tell, is broken quite a lot. Superman's "S" is now the Kryptonian symbol for hope, an oft repeated point, in case we missed it the first time. At one point, Kal falls out of a spaceship in crucified pose, he's repeatedly told by Jor that he will lead Earth to salvation. It just becomes infuriating and more than a little ridiculous. In the same way it's lazy and hack to say "Batman is obviously just as mentally ill as his rogues gallery" it is to position Superman as a religious saviour. As in Watchmen, Snyder has the style down pat, but the substance is sorely lacking.

Apologies for being so negative there. I did say it made me as giddy as an eight-year-old girl on a sugar high too. And one of the main reasons is Snyder's style. There's no question the film looks amazing. It's easily the best interpretation of Superman's powers we've ever seen. He flies, smashes stuff up and best of all, there's lots and lots of heat ray action - easily his coolest power. I previously mocked the advertising of Watchmen for including the line "From visionary director Zack Snyder" but here it's absolutely true. Spectacular action sequences leave you breathless and cheering on Superman, even if the wanton destruction of property is rather excessive. But this is a young Kal, finding his way, so we can let him off this once. Even in the quieter moments, there's some lovely framing, majestic vistas and considered set-pieces.

Happily, the brooding tone never really lasts the whole length of the film, despite Jonathan Kent's best intentions. When Kal dons the old red, yellow and blue, the majority of your woes melt away. While the trailers make it look too po-faced, it's not. It's simply jettisoned some of the goofier elements of the mythos - such as the name Smallville - and unlike a lot, that works in this context. There are jokes, albeit few and far between, but keep your eyes out for one particularly beautiful blink and you'll miss it gag during a construction site battle. There are also lots of nods to the larger world for fanboys like myself. Dr Emil Hamilton makes a fairly faithful appearance, we see a Lexcorp truck and it may have been my imagination, but I also spied something interesting on a satellite.

Finally, although I have issue with a lot of the characters, many were done just right. Diane Lane is perfectly cast as Martha and Amy Adams makes Lois her own. While I can never see anyone outdoing Margot Kidder in those stakes, Amy's sass, strength and passion are all incredibly believable. She's no damsel in distress, she's a rough-and-ready (but impeccably dressed) journalist daughter of a general who is more than happy to jump into a war zone. Equally, Laurence Fishburn as Perry White is as commanding as he is compassionate, reflecting well at street-level the ideals of Big Boy Blue.

As for Cavill? Well, he's alright. Given that this Kal seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders with a grimace rather than a grin, his stoic portrayal fits. But he is allowed to get a little mischievious every now and again. In all honesty, we don't see any of his bumbling Clark Kent secret identity which is a shame - and really gives him fewer layers to play with. He's very much a Superman printed out in greyscale at the moment, but boy, can he punch things.

Warner Bros as, unsurprisingly, already given the green-light to a sequel. Now we've got the origin unpleasantness out of the way, it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. I've no doubt they have the right talent on board and yearn for a lighter, brighter tomorrow. Still, you'll believe a man can fly more here than ever before.

Man of Steel will be released in the UK on 14th June 2013.

Nearest tube station: North Greenwich for the O2 (Jubilee)



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