Friday, June 28, 2013

Summer blockbuster: Man of Steel (2013)

Warning: This review has a whole heap of SPOILERS.

Wow, I can't remember a film being this divisive amongst audiences and critics in a long, long time! Ordinarily, I never usually cover current movies on this blog. I reserve it more for films from the past that I think people should try and go back and rediscover. However I just saw Man of Steel last week and with everyone on the internet, seemingly, having an opinion about it I thought I might as well throw my two cents in too. First up, I've got to say, if you haven't seen the film already, stop reading and go and see it (assuming you dug the trailers). Don't judge it on what you hear or read about it. Go in with an open mind and decide for yourself. It's a bold and (in a lot of ways) reckless adaptation. Reckless in the sense that it isn't beholden to telling a straight-forward "traditional" version of the classic Superman story like Richard Donner's 1978 film was. You need to decide for yourself if that's a good or bad thing.

The plot begins on the alien planet of Krypton. Eminent scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is trying to convince the population to get off the planet before it implodes. At the same time, military man General Zod (Michael Shannon) is leading a coup to take over control of the planet. Zod is arrested and placed on a prison ship. Jor-El meanwhile, seeing that his people are beyond hope, takes his naturally born son Kal and puts him in a spaceship. In order to preserve the potential to repopulate the race one day, he infuses his son with the "Codex" - an ancient skull which Kryptonians have been using to clone their offspring for the last few centuries. We pick up the story many years later, on planet Earth where Kal's spaceship landed. Kal has been raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) as an ordinary human being called Clark (Henry Cavill). Through flashbacks we learn that Earth's sun rays have given Clark extraordinary powers but Jonathan is convinced that Clark must never use them for fear that other people would reject him. However, when Zod turns up in Earth's orbit, having taken control of the prison ship, Clark must step up and defend the planet he now calls home.

Superman is a character that I've got to say I've never really been massively interested in. I'm a huge reader of Batman comics but Superman never really captured my imagination. He always seemed too powerful and too earnest with not nearly enough flaws and weaknesses for me to empathise with. Man of Steel, however, managed to make him a much more interesting character. He's now not a guy who just chooses to be a superhero but someone who is reluctant and forced into a corner to save the world. I know that's not the classic version of the character from the comics but I enjoyed this new spin. I've got to say that this might be down to the fact I really enjoyed my comic books to be bold and progressive rather than just stagnant, repeating the same old stories over and over. I actively enjoy it when comic book writers play around with continuity and established canon like DC's old Elseworld series.

I really liked the underlying themes of Man of Steel. It's basically about Clark trying to find his place in the world. There were definite echoes of Bruce Wayne's journey in producer Chris Nolan's Batman Begins (a film which, ironically, I wasn't a huge fan of, but let's not get into that now). And this journey is defined by Clark's two very different fathers. His Earth father Jonathan, believes Clark should hide his powers while his Krypton father Jor-El believes he should embrace them and help the world. A lot of comic books fans are upset that Man of Steel makes Jonathan Kent seem so cold, but personally I loved the reinvention of this character. On the contrary, rather than being cold I could totally believe and understand his stance in wanting to protect his adopted son from the rest of the world (hell, I would probably do the same). I also really enjoyed the new version of Jor-El too played by Russell Crowe. He is a much more active character in Man of Steel than previous interpretations and I was pleased when he unexpectedly turned up halfway through the film as an interactive hologram for a few more scenes. I can't think of one cast member in the whole film who disappointed me. Henry Cavill was really good as Clark/Superman. My only disappointment was that I didn't feel many sparks between him and Amy Adams but hopefully that will be rectified in the sequel.

The film is really broken into three acts. The first is on Krypton, following Jor-El's decision to send his son out into space. I really loved the new set designs of Krypton. The old crystal version in Richard Donner's films was cool but I like this weird organic version better. It reminded me a lot of David Lynch's Dune, which was awesome as I'm a huge fan of that film (looks-wise anyway). I also loved the new twist that Krypton's population are genetically created and Clark (Kal-El) is the only one for centuries who has been born the natural way (you know... sex). And because of this he hasn't been genetically imprinted to be a worker or soldier like other Kryptonians. This again ties into the idea of him having to decide who he wants to be. The second act revolves around Clark, as a 30-something man, reminiscing about growing up as he drifts from town to town. Helping people out but keeping his profile as low as possible. This bit kind of reminded me of the old Incredible Hulk series from the 70s with Clark hitch-hiking down roads. It's also here that we get the back story with Jonathan Kent, who we find out died when Clark was a teenager. I don't mind admitting I totally got choked up by his death scene. There's nothing sadder than a greying Kevin Costner getting sucked up into a tornado while motioning for his adopted son NOT to save him.

The third act is basically an extended alien invasion story with Zod trying to terraform the Earth to become a New Krypton. A lot of critics said the fight scenes go on way too long but I thought they were okay. Maybe that could have been tighter but I'm pleased to see some epic and elaborate Superman fight scenes in a film finally. A lot of Metropolis does get destroyed which I think upset a lot of Superman fans who thought he should have been saving more people. Again, I thought this was an interesting new spin. Let's face it, if Superman was real and fought a super-villain in city chances are a lot of buildings would get destroyed. Also, he's not really "Superman" yet. This is the first time he's put on the suit and he only starts flying a few hours (or is it days?) before Zod shows up. He doesn't know what he's doing. (Don't believe me, scroll back to the top of the page and look at Henry Cavill's face on the poster. His whole expression is "what the hell am I doing?") And that's exciting. A massively powerful person is trying to save us but he doesn't know what to do. That's great heart pounding drama. So yeah, basically a huge chunk of Metropolis becomes collateral damage. Some reviewers have tried to defend the decision by saying that "oh, most of Metropolis was probably evacuated." Sorry, I don't think it was. I didn't catch any dialogue along those lines in the film. No, I think lots of people probably died. This isn't a bad thing though. In fact, I think it's a really good set-up for why Superman makes Metropolis his home in the sequels - to make up for how much he (although technically it was mostly Zod) destroyed it. And I can see why Lex Luthor is going to hate his guts. In fact, we might even agree with Lex's viewpoint. That's going to be cool, having a villain who you have empathy with.

Anyway, enough hypothesising what's going to happen in Man of Steel 2. So long as they remember to bring back Hans Zimmer I'll be happy. Zimmer did an absolutely sublime score for Man of Steel. He had his work cut out for him because not only does everyone have John Williams' iconic 1978 theme permanently ingrained in their brain but the film also jumps quite quickly from quiet low-key moments to grand epic set pieces and back again. I thought he did a hell of a job making a coherent composition. The fight scenes have these stirring, bombastic and propulsive percussion numbers while the smaller scenes have quiet piano solos. Like the score he did for Batman Begins (with James Newton Howard) the main theme doesn't appear until the very end of the film - and it's cheekily titled "What Are You Going to Do When You're Not Saving the World?". I hope like Nolan's Batman films he builds and expands on these musical themes for the sequel.

I sound a bit like I loved every minute and every aspect of this film but that's not quite the case. I did find David Goyer's script occasionally a little clunky and awkward. Though I liked her performance on the whole I really hated Diane Lane's "Imagine my voice is an island" speech that she gives to a scared 8 year old Clark who's just discovered his X-ray vision. It sounded so stage-y and forced. There were a few other moments like this but it didn't spoil the overall film. I also found the story a little disjointed with it jumping back and forth in time. Obviously it was needed to get all this story in their but it felt sometimes like I was watching a very long elaborate trailer rather than a movie. I think the next film will be much smoother because it will likely just tell a start to finish story rather than jump all over the place again. My last gripe, isn't really a gripe, it's just more an observation. This really isn't a film for kids. Young kids anyway. I don't know how well they'll absorb the story and visuals. Nolan and Snyder pitch this much more at an adult audience. I was cool with this but I think if you have a kid under 9 years old it's better to go back and watch the Reeve film and save this until they are a little older.

Overall, Man of Steel isn't the perfect Superman movie but it is a great starting point for the inevitable sequels. Superman isn't a fully formed hero yet. He probably isn't going to be universally loved. A lot of people in Metropolis are going to actively distrust and hate him. That may not be how things are in the comics but I think it's a fascinating place to jump off from. I went into Man of Steel looking for a modern, relevant re-imagining of the character and I think I got what I wanted.



  1. The fact that there was such a high level of mortality was due to the fact that Superman had his hands full, he was after all, fighting against three individuals with strenghts as equal as his. Plus, as you said, he's just getting started on the whole superhero business.

    Funny part is how he was so emotional about saving this one family from Zod's heat vision, yet he wasn't as emotional when all those people where dying as buildings were being destroyed? They should have had a scene where he saves a building from falling or something...

    Looking forward to the sequel as well, Im dying to see where they'll take things from here! Doomsday and the whole Death of Superman story will most likely be something that comes along for the third film...but for the second one....rumors of Lex Luthor are flying!

  2. Yeah, that scene where he takes out Zod wasn't handled as best as it could have been. Still I liked the way he was forced to do something something so uncharacteristic. That was cool.

    I agree, I have a feeling they'll do Lex Luthor next and then maybe Doomsday for the third film. Should be fun. I hope the same creative team are carried over for all three.

    1. True, it was cool to see him forced to do something he would normally never do. Though if we go into comics, Supes has killed before. In fact, he kills Zod and his goons on some other planet where no one sees it happen I believe.

  3. Good review Jack. Wasn't as great as I expected it to be, but wasn't as bad either. Just somewhere in the middle, but started to fall apart once those last 15 minutes came on.

    1. Thanks Dan. Yeah, this film had a HUGE weight of expectation on it. Those awesome trailers maybe tricked us all into thinking it would be revolutionary. Still it was a good watch. For me, it was the other way around. The last 15 minutes were really interesting. Shame the film had to end there. Can't wait to see the repercussions in the next one.

  4. I love this movie and your review is one of the best you've written. However, I do disagree with you on the Diane Lane speech. Yes, it felt stage-y and forced, but as a parent myself, it rang true. I interpreted her deliberate dialogue as a well-rehearsed, oft-told monologue that she probably had to use several times on Clark as he growing up to get him to focus and supress his powers. I also took her stage-y monotone delivery as more of a motherly soothing mechanism for Clark more than anything. I do agree with you 1000% on Costner. I really hope he gets a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but knowing the Academy, that's more of a pipe dream than anything.

    1. Cheers Mitch, agree with you Costner. I wasn't expecting him to be so awesome! (I totally forgive him for The Postman now).

      Yeah, you might be right about Diane Lane. I really like her as an actress. Maybe it will sound different when I re-watch it.