21 June 2013

Review: Man of Steel

(Dir: Zack Snyder, 2013)

Let's be honest, Superman has been sorely missed from our cinema screens these last seven years. Since the under-rated Superman Returns we've had a glut of superhero movies, with it becoming the de facto blockbuster movie of this age. Whether it's the endlessly fascinating darkness of The Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel's (initially) exciting rise to dominance, the varied adventures of X-Men, Spider-Man and certain others we'd care to forget (Green Lantern I'm mostly thinking of you!), comic books are now de rigueur source material. But none of these possess the same gravitas or magnanimity as the man of steel. When it comes to superheroes he's not just the real deal - is there any better distillation of what a superhero should actually be?

Man of Steel places Superman into today's modern age, aiming for something a little more gritty and less fanciful, but retaining the look and feel of the character. It's an origins story that arguably doesn't need re-telling (does anybody not know it?) but placing everything into context again always helps when there's new faces filling familiar roles. And lest we forget, a comic book character manages to survive eighty years by constant reinvention and refreshing. The film sees Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggling with his identity, knowing there is no-one out there like him, but certain there's something to find out about his past. And when he obtains this knowledge what then? Well, it can only lead to one thing but it's fledgling steps. This isn't about Superman fully realised with his keen humanistic senses fully honed, this is a man struggling to find himself and donning a suit to react to a threat because he's a decent man. The awareness and humility comes later.

The most interesting angle here is how chief villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) is driven by a singular purpose deeply rooted in his biology, concerned only with saving the existence of Krypton. If this comes at the expense of another planets destruction then that's an irrelevance. This unwavering determination, hidden behind the icily unnerving stare that inhabits most of Shannon's characters, not only makes him a credible foe but elicits a small wave of sympathy in that he has no possibility of deviating from course. How this forceful approach affects Clark's view of his true people and the decision he has to make when the weight of two civilisations are resting on his shoulders, is enough to truly shape a man when he finds out who he really is, whilst offering ironic analogies around real world militaristic politics.


The man himself is portrayed (initially at least) as someone lost at sea, desperately looking for that beacon. There's an almost lack of personality to him with occasional hints of humour (see the truck stop scene), but again this is about development. The anachronistic littering of childhood flashback scenes throughout helps balance this, as Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane) guide their young "son" to be all the man he can be. Their gravity is appreciated but more Costner wouldn't have gone amiss. Likewise the presence of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gives an even greater sense of the need for thoughtful consideration of what it means to be great and truly represent his people. Cavill fulfills the requirements for brooding angst sufficiently, but where he excels is physically, with the imposing chiseled muscularity that convinces that this is someone who could save the planet if need be. This is not the same lighter-hearted character of Christopher Reeves' days, but one who thoroughly suits Cavill's modernity.

In an attempt at enhancing realism some camera choices are unwise, with too much inexplicably shaky handheld camera usage, whilst the camera has a tendency to flit around in a manner akin to the recent Star Trek films, most likely to emphasise how hard it is to keep up with these characters. The possession of powers beyond what humanity knows ensures the (many) fights are destructive beyond rational comprehension. Many of these scenes are impressively staged, becoming a thrilling blur of digitally twisted metal and rubble, but despite being more engaging than usual, the continual flow of such scenes pushes the levels of tolerance towards the end. Regardless, the climactic scene in Metropolis thoroughly shows up The Avenger's not overly exciting similarly staged invasion of New York.

Man of Steel retains the sense of comic book wonder to be expected from Superman, but pushes itself into a slightly less fanciful world informed by how we've recently approached his bat-aping caped compatriot. This helps us buy into the depth but allows for some of the lighter, almost cheesier moments that might be expected with these characters. What is difficult to escape is the awkward patriotism - his position as the all-American hero is intrinsic to his development and growth into Superman whilst being representative of the time in which he was conceived, but in any future films this needs to be rapidly quashed as his position on Earth is untenable if he's not a hero for the world. 

Don't be fooled by the overload of CGI, be it on Earth or the initially awkward but actually fascinating prologue on Krypton, and the obsessive fixation on destructive fight scenes; there's a lot more to enjoy here which bodes well for sequels if they can curtail these elements and have a story with more intrigue. In short, I loved Man of Steel.

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