Tag Archives: Superman

Man of Steel – Kal-El that ends well

The S stands for "Strike a pose": Henry Cavill as Superman

The S stands for “Strike the pose”: Henry Cavill as Superman

It’s been 26 years since we last saw Superman punch a guy on the big screen. The sole attempt to bring back the last son of Krypton since Christopher Reeve last wore the red cape, 2006’s cringe-inducing Superman Returns, saw Supes battling his greatest nemesis yet: an inanimate chunk of rock. That anti-climax is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that film, and the Superman brand, has suffered so hugely in the public consciousness.

Rebooted here with the explosive verve of a Zack Snyder movie, this take on the Superman myth satisfies both those who crave faster-than-a-speeding-bullet aerial fistfight-ery and those who like their Christ allegories with really good hair.

Superman Returns hammered home its Christ metaphor with Superman descending from the sky, resurrected, in cruciform pose. Man of Steel attempts to one-up it, recreating that divine posture—although at a less pivotal moment—and even having a scene where Clark Kent soul-searches in a church, haloed by stained glass. But it’s actually a lot cleverer than this. Clark, born Kal-El, is planet Krypton’s equivalent of the Virgin Birth, a child born through natural reproduction on a dying planet where kids have been eugenixed in Matrix-like pods for generations. Even before the planet crumbles due to the hubris of its ruling elite, Kal-El is already the last hope for his people.

As the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (an exceptionally enthusiastic Russell Crowe) embarks on a quest to preserve the history of his people, showing the sort of physicality that escaped Marlon Brando back in 1978. The “Codex” of the Kryptonian people is retrieved and launched into space with the miracle child, just as Zod’s rebellion is brought to a close and the planet devours itself in a bowl of lava-Os.

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring into the distance is really done

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring off into the distance dramatically is really done

After this extended introduction to this slightly different take on the Superman origin, David S. Goyer’s screenplay eschews the chronological tracing of the early years of Jor-El’s life as Clark Kent, of Smallville, Kansas, in favour of cutting to his Bruce Wayne-like journey of self-discovery, helping those in need across America with less than sufficient subtlety for the only alien on Earth. In moments of reflection Clark thinks back to suitable lessons from his youth, the calming tone of his mother Martha (a finely aged Diane Lane) and the baseball coach morality of his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, back with a very calm and insightful vengeance).

The intercutting flashbacks allow us to get to Clark’s discovery of who he is more quickly, uncovering a lost Kryptonian craft hidden in the Arctic and downloading his birth father’s memories, giving Crowe considerably more—and welcome—screen time. Soon he is wearing the old blue, red and bit o’ yellow and blasting around the planet like he owns the place. But crafty reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of this super-human do-gooder, and a vengeful General Zod emerges from the shadows of space searching for the Codex and the son of Jor-El.

Snyder, a filmmaker whose hitting and missing along the years have never allowed critics to deny his ambition and flair, shows remarkable restraint here, choosing to focus on the scale of the world(s) his story is set in instead of drawing all attention to action and movement; there is not a moment of his signature slow-down/speed-up style of editing, allowing the super-powered Kryptonians to blast around the screen at their own dizzying speeds. The scenes on Krypton could rival Avatar for sheer scale of world-building, while the flashbacks to Kansas are filmed with the tenderness and tone of an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale: the director of 300 shooting like Richard Linklater meets Terrence Malick. Who’d have seen it coming?

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

The story is well-known, though there are a few new beats to this drum. Superman is unknown to the people before Zod and his army arrive. Lois is on to the son of Jor-El long before she meets Clark. Kryptonite and Lex Luthor play no part in the tale, although the latter’s industrial might is evident in one scene. A new extreme take on the life lessons Jonathan Kent teaches Clark provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

The action and drama are updated suitably, and there are some clever allusions to the world of today, with Superman in one scene forced to down a military drone sent to track his location. But the failure to properly evolve the Daily Planet, the “newspaper” of record, seems like both a missed opportunity and a cop-out. The internet is briefly mentioned as an alternative means to break a story, but there is no feel for the crisis in the industry. The scenes in the Daily Planet offices feel terribly dated, with even the layout of the newsroom floor looking like it’s from the 1970s. As if struck by a magic beam fired by some politically correct supervillian, editor Perry White is now black and Jimmy Olsen is now Jenny—all good progressive things, if only the characters were given anything to do.

The script is both the salvation and damnation of Man of Steel. Goyer, whose finest work rests in The Dark Knight trilogy, created this story with producer Christopher Nolan, taking a break from bats. The Batman Begins structure of the early earthbound sequences revels in this reunion, and Goyer’s screenplay is superb at contrasting the patriarchs and the lessons they imbue upon their shared son. But the dialogue outside of these father/son scenes is often dull, and almost every last one of Goyer’s jokes falls sigh-worthily flat. One military character has an identical arc to a police character in The Dark Knight Rises, almost scene for scene. The burden of two enormous themes—what does it mean to be human? and; what does it mean to be the last of one’s kind?—proves too much for Goyer to balance, and by the end one of these questions has been all but completely dropped.

British actor Henry Cavill, following performances in The Tudors and Immortals, shows himself a strong leading man as the adult Clark Kent. Preposterously handsome, like TV Clark Kent Tom Welling but sculpted in marble, Cavill’s presence dominates when he is not pitched against the two Robin Hoods, who utterly steal the film. Cavill may not be given too many opportunities to show off his talents, but in the few scenes where it counts his face unleashes an intensity and pain that totally sell the moment.

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Amy Adams is less lucky as Lois, working with an awkwardly written version of the character, but still ever-believable as a successful female reporter. Zack Snyder, whose Sucker Punch has been the subject of more women’s studies PhDs than Sylvia Plath (FACT), refrains from making an obvious sex symbol out of Lois, keeping her professionally dressed throughout, and able to give as good as she gets in debate with even the most alpha male of men. If Goyer had been more successful in writing both her character and the love story between Lois and Clark, Adams could no doubt have stolen the show. Michael Shannon is similarly let down by lax characterisation, but his undeniable intensity makes him a riveting Hitler-esque Zod to Terence Stamp’s more Rasputiny take.

Hans Zimmer may be no John Williams, but his score rises at the most crucial moments and lingers in the ear with the same fire, if not the same bombast. This is a film with an almost faultless soundscape, and the sound effects on Krypton help sell it as both a believable world and society. The production design on Krypton is fantastic, with devices using Pin Art-style illustrations to communicate instead of video screens, and the costumes looking like Liberace-in-space, flamboyant but superbly detailed.

This all brings us back to the action, because yes—indeed—Superman does punch someone in the face. Several times. For the most part Snyder conceives a remarkable, rocketing look to his action scenes, although the speed can be hard to follow. Clark’s first battle with the Kryptonians is thrilling but overstays its welcome, and the camera at times is more concerned with framing the logo of an IHOP than showing the fates of those thrown through its windows. A battle with a tentacled robot is a poorly edited and indecipherable mess, but the payoff is immense. A re-enactment of a major scene from Independence Day slips from homage into theft, and the film’s recurring usage of the fatal consequences of buttons being only half-pressed down is insulting to the audience.

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

The carnage of the finale is unspeakable, and the presence of Transformers 3 DP Amir Mokri seems hardly a coincidence, with buildings crumbling and exploding all across Metropolis in a veritable blitzkrieg of CGI. It looks superb, but with Goyer choosing to focus on only three civilians throughout the colossal donnybrook there is little sense of human tragedy in what must be a ground zero of Nagasakian proportions. The Avengers was far more concerned with the average citizen.

Like the film itself, the action sequences are troubled, but overall satisfying. Snyder has not made the magisterial Superman film that people had hoped for, but he has made the most exciting take on the tale yet. Sequels will come, and the end earns them. But no scene is more deserving of a Superman franchise than that moment when Henry Cavill first takes to the skies, as if lifted by Zimmer’s score, and jets across the world, Snyder’s camera slamming from left to right, struggling to keep up with the superhero. It’s the cinematic moment the character has been craving since Action Comics #1.

You won’t need to believe a man can fly; you’ll see it.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Film

The Avengers, by Marvel, who Assemble – Review

Thor and Captain America watching the box office returns

It is now four years since Iron Man was released, a decent superhero movie that still felt a bit like any other. The big difference came once the credits had rolled, and Samuel L. Jackson appeared as comics spymaster Nick Fury to foreshadow The Avengers. This was an unprecedented move on behalf of Marvel, the comics powerhouse behind this almighty band of heroes. Actors crossed over between the ensuing films, and unlike the contradicting X-Men films, continuity was maintained – when one character is called away from the events of Iron Man 2, he shows up in the events of Thor.

And now the superheroes are brought together; Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man 2 support Black Widow and Thor cameo star Hawkeye, all under the watchful eye (singular) of  Nick Fury; to battle Thor’s nemesis, and brother, Loki. And while that sentence is a mouthful, and the idea seems over-ambitious, it works. It really works.

You see this? This works.

Because this isn’t just sandwiching some characters together like Freddy Vs Jason or the proposed Batman and Superman movie of the 1990s. Despite their enormous differences these characters have, they have already been set up to exist within the same universe, so the film can cut to the chase without the slightest hint of being patronising.

The film opens with Loki, now an intergalactic outlaw, being given a chance for revenge by a shadowy otherworldly figure, provided he can summon an alien army to Earth. To do this he needs the Cosmic Cube (the macguffin from Captain America: The First Avenger, a further link), which is in the hands of Nick Fury’s agency SHIELD. Once he has achieved that, Fury has no choice but to call in the big guns, summoning superheroes from around the world to take down the impending threat. Thor, the god of lightning, returns to Earth to help take down his brother.

“Kneel before Zodki.”

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The characters gel, the dialogue snaps back and forth for the most part, and when things explode they explode in style. Writer/director Joss Whedon, best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless prematurely cancelled TV shows, brings his comic book fascination and expertise to the table, creating a superhero movie that is as silly as can be while also remaining utterly confident in itself.

The incredible star cast are solid across the board. Robert Downey Jr. does what he does best as Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark; it’s a role he has down to a T. Mark Ruffalo takes over the maligned role of Bruce Banner, the rage-riddled man behind the Hulk, and makes a strong effort with it. Chrises Hemsworth and Evans show the same committed passion for the roles of Thor and Captain America that they did in their solo adventures. Scarlett Johansson makes a case for a solo adventure of her own as the super-lithe assassin Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner has some fun as bow-and-explosive-arrow expert Hawkeye, even if he does get Cyclops’d off for half the film (X-Men 2 fans will get that one). Tom Hiddleston continues to charm as the Machiavellian Loki, although his character lacks the Shakespearean drama here that he had in Thor. The side are let down, ever so slightly, by Samuel L. Jackson, who invests every line with the same shouty drama that he did the infamous punchline in Snakes on a Plane. His scenes, by and large, steal energy from the film.

“Quick, this is our only dramatic scene in the whole movie, say something powerful and memorable.”

Fortunately this film has plenty of energy to spare, and much of that is down to Whedon’s witty script. While the drama drags in the first and second acts, there are enough one-liners and moments of superb comic timing that make up for these pitfalls. One gag about the getting of and not getting of pop culture references, involving Captain America and Thor, deconstructs the very idea of pop culture references in the same way that Whedon’s other current release, The Cabin in the Woods, deconstructs the entire horror genre.

Whedon is also careful not to let any two heroes hog the spotlight, à la that regrettable other “superhero” team-up, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the central action sequence that closes the second act, two of the heroes with the potential to steal the film, Iron Man and Captain America, are given the least exciting task, while Thor and Hulk spar, Black Widow and Hawkeye get their martial arts on and even fan-favourite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) gets to blow stuff up!

The final act, in which the Avengers fend off an invasion of New York City, visually calls to mind the endless finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it is so less cluttered and more focused, giving each character a set objective and a limited space and time to achieve them in. Surprisingly, it is the Hulk who makes this sequence his own, rampaging across the screen in gleeful bounds of carnage. You’d be hard-pressed to hold in a raucous cheer as the Hulk smashes everything in sight!

HULK AWESOME!!!

The Avengers is far from perfect, but it is so much greater than what it might have been. Setting itself up nicely for both a sequel and a return to the solo films, this will be one of the most fondly remembered and rewatched blockbusters of the decade.

Avoid the 3D if you can, and please, stay for the bonus scene in the credits. Because why wouldn’t you?

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

4 Comments

Filed under Film