Saturday, 29 June 2013

I've never really been a fan of Superman. He’s too perfect. Invulnerability, super strength, flight, all packaged up in an oh-so-American primary coloured super-suit of apple pie and charisma. No, I’m a Batman fan; damaged by a crime-ridden society, he’s a much darker, more questionable hero and easier to root in real societal issues. Superman is just too distanced from reality, even before he turns back time by flying around the world so fast it spins in reverse.

Man of Steel may well have been conceived to deal with this kind of criticism. Though directed by Zack Snyder, who really hasn’t impressed me in the past, this new take was produced by Christopher Nolan and written by David S. Goyer – the creative team behind the masterful Dark Knight trilogy.

As can be expected with these names on board, the film isn’t a colourful, one-liner-packed Marvel-esque romp but a character driven attempt to look at old Supes in a new and interesting way. The first two-thirds of the film follow Henry Cavill’s grown-up Clark Kent as he learns about his past and reflects on his upbringing. Brought up on a Kansas farm, complete with Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and dog, Clark dreams of heroism; in a magnificent piece of imagery, he chases the dog around using a red sheet as a cape (it reminded me of that Phantom Menace teaser poster which was so much better than the film), but he also struggles with his father’s demands to repress the fact that he’s different. Though this flashback structure is unnecessarily muddled, these sequences are the real heart of the film. It’s a coming-of-age story about finding your identity, with moral questions abound – should Clark use his super strength to save others, or let them die so that he can keep his secret from the world? Costner puts in a brilliant performance as the caring father figure who advocates the latter, but at some point, trouble has to come along to turn Clark fully into the Superman we all know.

And that trouble comes in the form of the great Michael Shannon, adding class as well as ham as the militaristic General Zod. This confrontation begins suspensefully, with Zod’s grand arrival and  demand for Superman to hand himself in leaving me eager to find out what would happen next. Unfortunately, what happens next is that the film goes dramatically downhill. The final act drops the interesting character stuff and is composed entirely of punch-up after explosion after punch-up after explosion after utterly unnecessary sub-plot in which Laurence Fishburne saves a damsel in distress from an explosion. With the destruction ramping up and my interest ramping down, this final act is an unwelcome return to the hyperactive child Snyder responsible for Sucker Punch and could easily lose half an hour. 

But hey, at least the majority of the script does have character to it. It’s just a shame that Henry Cavill doesn't do this character justice. The actor was previously considered for the Superman role for 2006’s Superman Returns before it went to Brandon Routh, and for the James Bond role before it went to Daniel Craig. Frankly, I can see why he didn’t get them. He doesn’t have the biggest range of facial expressions and his voice never strays too far from the realms of the stoic gurn. Amy Adams, on the other hand, excellently lends a much-needed strength to the character of Lois Lane, making her a charismatic and active journalist for the twenty-first century.

There was one more thing which particularly annoyed me. This was when Zod is broadcasting a message via all the world’s TV and computer screens, and someone says "he's on the RSS feeds!" I mean, really, did Goyer have any idea what an RSS feed is? You can't just put in internet words arbitrarily to make the film modern. "Zod's taking over the re-tweets!" 'He's in all the sub-reddits!" "Stop him before he gets to Wiki administrator status!"

On the plus side, that annoying line came shortly after the best part of the film, which was a visual gag about a printer.

Overall, has it changed my opinion on Superman? It’s definitely a more interesting exploration of the Superman mythos than Returns, and it’s my favourite Zack Snyder film to date. If anything, the printer gag is definitely worth paying for. On the other hand, its final act lets it down severely, and the film never gets as good as Nolan’s morally complex The Dark Knight (I probably bring that up a lot, but it’s the standard by which all superhero films have to be judged). I’m still not a fan of Superman.


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