Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel
  • Released Internationally on 13/06/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 19/06/13
Preview (as published 01/06/13 in VIDA Magazine)

With attention spans and memories getting seemingly shorter, filmmakers are probably justified in never giving up on a film franchise. Just wait a few years, and give it another shot. When Ang Lee’s Hulk wasn’t a success, they tried again a few years later, and when that flopped too, they snuck the angry green giant into Avengers anyway, with record-smashing results. Which brings us to the second attempt at reviving the iconic Superman franchise.
In many ways, Superman is the purest, most impressive and certainly oldest superhero, appearing in some form or another since way back in 1938. As discussed at length in a wonderful dialogue scene in Kill Bill, he is also the superhero whose natural state is the heroic form, whereas the ordinary human clothes he wears whilst on earth are a costume for him to blend in. The red cape was something he was wrapped in from birth, and none of his powers were designed in a workshop or caused by some lab meltdown or insect bite. Yet, despite all these attributes, his popularity waned recently, as moviegoers shunned his red spandex briefs for the cooler outfits and antics of Batman, Iron Man and Spider-man, to name just three of the many recent crowd-pullers. Superman reached his cinematic pinnacle with the first two Christopher Reeve films in the late 70s and early 80s, helped by then-ground-breaking special effects and by one of the best musical themes in cinema history, courtesy of John Williams during his wonder years.
But when Bryan Singer tried to revive the franchise with Superman Returns in 2006, the results were entertaining but forgettable, with too much deference to the original films, and Superman’s good boy image (and red briefs) jarring slightly after 2005’s unbelievably cool and dark Batman Begins. The two masthead heroes from the DC comics universe apparently could not co-exist, and whilst Superman was shelved, Batman went on to dominate recent years with a critically acclaimed trilogy by Christopher Nolan. So, sure enough, it’s Nolan himself who now has a hand in trying to bring Superman back into the reckoning, although he’s producing, not directing.
Surprise, surprise, the red briefs are gone. So is the boyish curl on his forehead. This is no goody-boy superhero - he’s masculine, he’s damaged, and the first glimpses we got of him were him busting out of a safe and him being escorted in handcuffs. A crucial factor in bringing Superman into the current gritty trend of superheroes was casting Henry Cavill (The Tudors), who looks a bit more weathered than 2006’s clean-cut Brandon Routh. The rest of the cast is an exciting mix - Russell Crowe as Superman’s natural father, Kevin Costner as his adoptive father on earth, Diane Lane (Unfaithful) as his adoptive mother, plus Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Amy Adams (The Fighter) as Lois Lane, and the wonderful character actor Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) as the main villain, General Zod.
Directing duties went to Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), directing from a script by David Goyer, who wrote the recent Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan himself has also contributed to the story, and amongst his many usual collaborators, he also brought along veteran composer Hans Zimmer, who was faced with the unenviable task of taking a new musical direction which will inevitably be compared to Williams’ Superman theme. He did a wonderful job with the Dark Knight music, and based on the stunning music which dominated the latest Man of Steel trailer, he might just pull this one off too. There hasn’t been a trailer that caused so much fuss since Inception (also by Nolan, of course).
Now that the film’s release is imminent, the sublime marketing campaign and response so far have more or less guaranteed that the film will be a financial success, probably based on the first few days alone. But the important question will be whether it can stand up to all the hype, and ensure we get to see a quality, well-made Superman trilogy that is as great as those of his peers.

Review (18/06/13)
3-word review: A super disappointment.
I was so let down by this film that I felt sad for the rest of the day. A first-world problem, granted, but it had never happened to me to this extent. It’s my fault, of course. I get caught up in the excitement. I read the news scraps we’re fed as the film is being made. I feed on the excitement and I believe the hype. I felt justified in this case based on the list of key players, and based on the subject matter. Then, in mid-April, the third trailer was released, and I was in awe. I think making trailers is an art form that not all filmmakers succeed at, but this trailer was by far the best this year, and caused an appropriate level of excitement as it spread online. Now, having seen the film, that ‘Trailer 3’ remains for me a perfect mini-movie which contains most of the things I loved about Man of Steel – the key scenes, the best lines, the best parts of the plot, and the best piece of the soundtrack. For me, it’s all I need to remember, and it’s far better than the film as a whole.
A bit much.
I had a hard time rationalising why I hadn’t liked Avengers last summer, but this film helped confirm why. I dislike films that use the ‘aliens’ plot device to signify that absolutely anything can happen, and that for a good chunk of the plot they will throw everything at the audience, in bigger and bigger waves, seemingly trying to outdo themselves. In Avengers it was that wormhole at the end, and all the enormities that emerged. In this case it’s practically the entire third act of the film, as the two main protagonists conduct their alien duel on our planet, with increasingly immense swipes of destruction, increasingly complex technology and ‘powers’, and increasingly enormous vessels. I am fine with science fiction, but the type I love sets out a few basic ‘rules’ for the world we are about to see, and then plays out using a mix of those rules and the rules of reality we are used to. So, to use an obvious alien example, in E.T. we of course know he is an alien, we know what ship he arrived in, and we soon find out what his handful of alien tricks are. But the story then develops using those factors and a good dose of earthly reality we can connect with. The same goes for the more recent Super 8, or to use another superhero example, the Iron Man trilogy. It’s that dose of reality and scale that helps us connect with what’s happening. The Dark Knight trilogy is of course a wonderful example of this, since Batman is a very human and real hero, and the fantasy/sci-fi element is tiny. His technology might at times be stuff we haven’t invented yet, but otherwise we can get a pretty good picture of what is happening. Even Star Wars, which is of course entirely alien and sci-fi, is wonderfully set in a world we can appreciate – dirty, rough around the edges, human. Where farm boys dream of glory, vessels often break down, and having your hand cut off is a huge inconvenience. We’re told what the ‘Force’ is, we’re shown what lightsabers do, we can grasp the concept of spaceships – and then the plot plays out like any earth-bound drama, but in that setting.
Loss of scale.
But here, that sense of scale is thrown out of the window. After a reasonably entertaining, albeit overlong, prologue detailing the titular character’s birth and destiny, we finally get to earth for what I considered to be the best part of the film – the non-chronological scenes of Clark Kent growing up and learning to harness his powers without making a splash. Director Zack Snyder covers these wonderfully, and the focus on Clark’s relationship with his father (a wonderful Kevin Costner) and their agreement to keep the powers hidden is a joy to watch. But once the cover is blown and the final battle begins, the destruction and action takes on ridiculous Transformers-type proportions, with endless, mind-numbing visual effects and wave after wave of to-and-fro hammerings and near-death experiences. How am I supposed to care about either Clark Kent or even his new foe, General Zod, if every scene is trumped by the one after it, and if new powers, options, ships, devices and weaknesses are introduced and used ad hoc? Why should I be awed by the appearance of an enormous spaceship or destruction of a city, if something even bigger could easily just turn up five minutes later. Why should I feel for a battered superhero if his capabilities are being revealed on an as-needed basis? Rarely has an epic battle left me so tired, uninvolved and bored.
Not all bad.
As mentioned above, the growing up scenes are excellent, and I wish they had been the focus here. One particularly interesting concept introduced might prove interesting to those with autism spectrum disorders, and their families. The performances are generally great throughout, although Henry Cavill doesn’t get to do or say too much as the main man. He looks the part brilliantly, however, and is clearly a great choice to take this franchise forward. There’s a scene as he flies up into a jet stream where for a second he looks uncannily like the late Christopher Reeve, which can’t have been just a coincidence. His love interest, Lois Lane, gets an interesting portrayal by the talented Amy Adams, who manages to make her likeable from her first scene, and who prefers jumpsuits and anoraks to the pretty dresses the character is used to. She also gets the best line, right at the end. Russell Crowe, who is thankfully back in a non-singing role, provides a great anchor of stability and wisdom, and delivers the important monologues with class. Another highlight is the obvious attention to the small, but key, moments – the ‘S’ word is only heard once, if I remember well - a good hour-and-a-half into the film. The outfit gets a befitting reveal scene, and the flying sequence that follows is gorgeous and appropriately exhilarating.
In the end.
The bookends are wonderful too – a slow, gorgeous logos sequence at the start, and a brief but perfect ‘What are you going to do when you are not saving the world?’ scene at the very end, which returns to earthly, nostalgic emotion once the action has ended, and nearly managed to make me forget the exhausting half-hour that had preceded it. It also features by far the film’s best piece of music, with a rousing new heroic theme by Hans Zimmer, which was also one of the reasons that third trailer was so jaw-dropping. Just like the film, this last piece of wonderful music unfortunately comes after a long sequence of battering noise (see a wonderful review here), but at least it allows you to leave the cinema with a slightly better taste in your mouth, and hope that the sequel will be better.


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