Saturday, 15 June 2013

Man of Steel (Film Review)

Birds fly, planes are punched from the sky, and there is no giant spider in sight. Superman has returned to the big screen. With new technology to display his powers, a brand new look, and Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer handing the film opinions were decisive. With Sucker Punch and Blade Trinity still in audience's minds, the question was would this be a fantastic film or a flop to doom DC Comics superheroes.

With the determination to build towards a Justice League film and Marvel a considerable head start on their rival, a lot was riding on the Man of Steel's success. As Gareth of Paranerds pointed out, the vastly lower quality of films outside of Batman and more consistent successes with Marvel films meant Superman had a lot to prove. He had to show that beings of massive power, ones who could easily take on all of the Avengers at once, could be portrayed convincingly and DC's iconic figures could be equally as compelling as the flawed, relatable heroes of Marvel.
Did the film succeed in this? Partially.

The story follows Superman's first stages as a hero and coming into public knowledge. Skipping many of the events on Krypton outside the bare basics and his early childhood, Man of Steel instead opts to show his early beginnings in a new light. The path his adult self has taken and how far he is forced to go in order to hide his powers. Managing to barely avoid his true self being revealed to the world by Lois Lane, he is soon put to the test when the last of his people arrive.
Militant remnants of the kryptonian people led by Zod arrive to reclaim Kal-El and what was sent to Earth with him. Forced to choose between humanity and ensuring the future of his race, Superman must fight to ensure that all life on the planet sees another dawn.

What's most notable here is the level of departure from the classics on display here. While keeping the iconic background and history of the character, many plot elements and ideas from recent story arcs are a far stronger influence. New Krypton is an obvious presence with Zod's attitute and devotion to his people at work, not to mention the paranoia of the military, and there are clear roots in the New 52 beyond just the costume. It allows for the exploration of new areas the mainstream public has not seen before and fresh blood to be added to the films. There's no reliance upon Lex Luthor, no kryptonite and no repeats of him learning to fly. All of which were definite mistakes in Superman Returns with its heavy reliance upon nostalgia for Christopher Reeve's outings.

What helps truly sell these ideas is both an outstanding cast.

It feels like every role possible has been covered down to a T and no matter their screen time they just feel right. Along with Henry Cavill's earnest performance as Kal-El,  having the face, attitude and the muscles for the character, Amy Adams is easily the best Lois Lane we've seen in years. Matching both her ambition and character with a drive which makes her likable while holding her own next to the superhero she is paired with. 
Despite the racial change Laurence Fishburne gives a businesslike, stoic performance as Perry White and Russel Crowe acts as if he were born to play Jor-El. Add to that a scenery chewing, scene stealing Michael Shannon as Zod and you'd have a good story but it goes even further with Kevin Costner proving he can still act in a decent film, and a talented group of child actors fleshing out Superman's childhood. It was at about the time when I realised that several major figures from Battlestar Galactica were playing minor background roles just how loaded with talent the film really was. Better yet they're used well. Covering the script's flaws with their performances and helping sell the film to audiences.

While the talent of actors certainly helps sell the world of humans, the world of heroes is boosted by that of the CGI effects. The plot is set on a truly global scale with catastrophic effects resonating throughout the world and brief flashes of countries being shown as Superman flies. The film goes the extra mile in trying to give the impression of some massive catastrophe at work rather than being just limited to America or Metropolis, which truly works. It takes The Authority route of both featuring far flung events and mind-bending collateral damage in fights.

The Avengers showed a small section of a city being turned into a warzone, caught between a group of powerful individuals and an invading army. Man of Steel shows buildings crumpling from the shockwaves of punches and the battles between the kryptonians, or atomised by their technology. Even with their durability and super-strength lessened from planet-moving to Aquaman levels, they're still a sight to behold and show how some of the most spectacular superhuman brawls to date. Even with a frequently dubious quality in a fair number of scenes, you're usually distracted enough by the shrapnel and figures being punched across cities to forgive this.

Unfortunately it's in looking at the action that you begin to see some of the film's flaws.

While visibly tempered in his excesses here, Zack Snyder remains a director who is better at shooting scenes than he is films. Many segments of the film's first half, prior to Superman and Zod meeting face to face, feel disconnected and disjointed. While clearly excellent while taken on their own they fail to truly gel together. Frequently flashing between eras and separate events, they lack a continuous plot for momentum to be built upon or a familiar act structure to separate events.

The problems of scenes feeling disjointed is only enhanced by the film's abrupt introduction. Audiences are flung right into the film and you'd be forgiven for feeling as if you had missed vital character development if you arrived late. Details such as Zod and Jor-El's previous friendship, Krypton's decadence, and the planet's genetic engineering is all spoken about rather than show. While it would be certainly difficult to fully flesh out, taking a tip from Thor and having narrated flashbacks to establish the world would have gone leagues in creating a better introduction. Then again perhaps Goyer felt that, with so much criticism placed upon Green Lantern's use of a similar opening, it would be a mistake and instead opted to just jump into the plot.

Sticking with Goyer's script, it suffers from the unfortunate problem of very stilted language on many occasions. A fair few conversations do not feel natural and instead they feel like they're exposition dumps or things the script needs to progress, not something which people would actually say. This is admittedly often offset by the acting talent speaking the lines but more than once you're going to raise and eyebrow wondering "who talks like this?"
It also doesn't help that while Zod is an excellent villain and there are exposition dumps a-plenty, his plan has a good number of gaping holes in it. Not only involving why Earth needs to be targeted for his plans but why the kryptonians cannot simply live there as it is. The latter point resulting in one massive headscratcher due to one line Zod delivers about adapting to its environment.

Then finally there's the one big moment which is going to split audiences.

In the film's final moments Superman crosses a line he can never go back from. Both within the films and as a character. It's one which he has admittedly crossed before but only in the most dire of moments and with unstoppable, raging monsters. Super computers which cannot be reasoned with, nightmarish machines of death or god-like entities bent on the death of everything; all of which could only be halted by this one action. While Superman's reaction is believable, fitting entirely for the character, it is something which could have been avoided. Something which could have been stopped in any number of ways, but ended in a brutal manner most would expect only of the Punisher.

Despite these issues, Man of Steel is still worth seeing. While its problems are numerous and obvious, it manages to be a fantastic watch which hopefully will be the start of a new trilogy. It proves that demi-gods of superheroes can be captured brilliantly on the big screen and gives hope for DC's future in Hollywood. While definitely reliant upon some foreknowledge of Superman's origins and a difficult first half, by the time punches start being swung you'll likely have forgotten its issues.


Man of Steel and all related characters and media are owned by DC Comics, Warner Bros. Pictures, and DC Entertainment.

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