Friday, 1 November 2013

Man of Steel review with spoilers

Man of Steel has split people into two camps – love it or hate it. Okay, there are also some who just weren’t impressed, but in today’s social media sniping culture, those who don’t think much of something will often go to great lengths to tell you why, so I’m including them in the ‘hate it’ camp.

Browsing Rotten Tomatoes and a few other websites, there are several themes that emerge:

In the negative camp – lack of humour, not enough mention of the name ‘Superman’, too much/re-visiting backstory, too dark, too edgy, too emotionally strained, too much destruction in the final act.

In the positive camp – realism and edginess, a good re-telling of the backstory, a Superman for the modern day, realistic levels of destruction given the power of those who were fighting.

As you can see, they’re all seeing the same things in the film and disagreeing on whether they’re right for a Superman story. It comes down to what people expect. It comes down to what Superman means to you.

In his review in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw mourns the absence of light-hearted cliché – no bullets pinging off a primary-coloured chest in bright sunlight, no cars lifted in one hand and jewel thieves shaken out at the feet of incredulous policemen. He’s saying Man of Steel ought to be more like the 1978 Christopher Reeves Superman The Movie, directed by Richard Donner. Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns used that approach and Warner Bros. decided to cancel the sequel, despite mostly good reviews and making $400m worldwide. In 2008 Warner’s President of Production Jeff Robinov said: "Superman Returns didn't quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to. It didn't position the character the way he needed to be positioned.”

In September 2012, said: “Everything about Superman Returns felt somewhat out of place in the modern world. The only way forward is for the franchise to completely hit the reset button. That doesn’t mean that Zack Snyder has to reinvent Superman, but he must find a way to stay faithful to the character without becoming a slave to its traditional depictions.”
Read the whole article "Man of Steel: 10 Mistakes From Superman Returns Reboot Must Avoid" here.

People are notoriously bad at predicting what they want. It’s my opinion that is what’s happening here. Many felt they wanted Man of Steel to be a classic-yet-modern Superman film with roots in the camp levity of the Seventies. If that’s the film you want you have Superman Returns. Peter Bradshaw gave it a positive review in The Guardian at the time, his only real criticism that Singer should have used the opportunity to retell the story from the beginning. Seven years later some have criticised Zack Snyder for slogging back through an origin in Man of Steel that most of us have known our whole lives. But in fact Man of Steel doesn’t just retell the same familiar origin story. If that’s what you saw you weren’t paying attention.

As Man of Steel opens, Krypton is a culturally stagnant world. The genetically pre-determined, mass-produced population are without hope and doomed to destruction by the methods they use to generate power for their technologically sustained lives. Even if the planet hadn’t blown up they had no future. This is a vital point for Kal-El’s decision in the film’s climax. As a baby, Kal-El isn’t just saved by loving parents this time. His mother and father are dutiful citizens and he is the last remaining hope of their species, raised from the ashes of a dead world to embody salvation for both the Kryptonians and humanity. These are modern themes. There are parallels with our own self-destructive reliance on technology and unsustainable energy sources and the implication that we will one day need saving from ourselves. And that’s the real point. Bright sunlight, primary colours Superman doesn’t fit in with our world, any more than the red overpants do.

The theme of the ‘Space Jesus’ is handled nicely in Man of Steel. It was always bubbling under the surface, alluded to subtly here and there over the many years, but Snyder throws a couple of scenes at the audience to show us he knows about the concept and isn’t hiding from it. In one scene Clark Kent visits a church to seek guidance, yet seems confident in the decision he has already made to sacrifice himself and save humanity. The priest is the one in awe when he realises who he’s talking to. Then, in case this is too subtle, there’s a shot of Clark with a stained glass window behind him and sunlight streaming in through an image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsamane.

 And wearing a red cape

Later, in orbit above the Earth, Kal-El and Jor-El gaze down at the planet and discuss the salvation of the human and Kryptonian races. The ghostly father reveals to his son what his mission is and waves him off as he flies down to the surface. In case we didn’t spot the reference, Superman then flies backwards for a moment in a cruciform pose framed by the planet he was sent by his father to save. 

Did I mention he's 33 at this point in the film?

A whole other blog could be written on the Superman-as-Jesus thing (and has been. Google it and ye shall find) and I haven't even mentioned the somewhat subtler scene where he's floating with arms outstretched apparently drowned, then rises again. Let me simply say Snyder knows what he's doing and is playing with it for our entertainment rather than sneaking it in by only indirectly referencing it, as I believe Singer did in Superman Returns. It's spelt out to us because it's there in the mythology whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not. Snyder gives us the credit to put it in plain sight and let us deal with it.

Superman Returns had some good reviews in 2006, but remember, Singer wasn’t re-booting the franchise, he was making a sequel. Brandon Routh did a very good impression of Christopher Reeves and the film shared a lot with the Donner films, right down to the John Williams score. It was as much an homage as an attempt to breathe new life into it. 

Routh's hair is a mirror image of Reeves'. What's that all about?

As I already mentioned though, as far as Warner are concerned it didn’t work. Man of Steel is the reboot to bring Superman into an age where Batman has been sitting comfortably for a long time. The sequel to Man of Steel will surely be the clincher, with the ‘World’s Finest’ pairing firmly establishing themselves either as partners or at least co-habitants in the DC movie universe. In the post-Avengers movie world, DC are surely looking to make all their Justice League heroes viable products capable of sharing a screen. The Superman of Man of Steel has to be as believable to today’s audience as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. No overpants.

Here The Daily Mirror discusses Man of Steel in the wider context of a JLA movie.

Some of the people who dislike Man of Steel are comic fans, some aren’t. Some are only familiar with the Donner films, some know the character’s long history in detail. It’s important to remember that DC have reinvented Superman many times over the last 75 years so whatever your take on him is, it probably comes from a single period, like your favourite incarnation of The Doctor. Or possibly it’s created from an amalgamation of many stories, in which case that version is your own subjective invention. John Byrne rewrote the official Superman story from top to bottom in the 1980s and as far as I know he began the concept that maybe people would be uncomfortable around a god-alien. Superman has been rebooted several times by DC in the last ten years – Infinite Crisis, New 52, etc. – and come a very long way since Action Comics #1. The first hurdle any Superman story has to get over is whether the audience is going to hold tight to their preconceptions or be open to a new version. Several attempts have failed miserably.

If you thought there was only one Superman, think again. Here are a few of the alternate versions over the years.

Here's a picture. Notice in one he's actually Santa Claus.

The second hurdle is the same as for any story – is it any good? There’ll never be a story of any kind that is universally loved. No film will ever please everyone. Unless the Muppets are in it.

Bradshaw criticises the Man of Steel for showing Clark Kent walking into a job on the Daily Planet without previous experience in journalism, but neglects the fact Kent is 33, super-intelligent, has travelled the world for years and that the film makes the point again and again there is far more to him than meets the eye. This nitpick is a good summation of the issues with fantasy criticism in general - that a journalist won’t believe a man can get hired by a newspaper without solid evidence for it in the story, but will happily accept the man can fly due to lower Earth gravity, then complain the film is too long. Any of us can pick a detail we dislike and hold it against the film, but if the film is good, on closer inspection that detail may turn out to be something we’ve misunderstood. Perhaps it’s something the internal logic holds up but unworthy of screen time. I know Clark Kent is going to work for the Daily Planet, I don’t care if he went to journalism school and I don’t want to watch a film about it. I know Superman can fly, I choose to accept there’s no good explanation for it and don’t need five minutes of made-up Hollywood science to make the problem disappear. I see no reason to keep going on about the glasses disguise, but Man of Steel deals with it well enough. Lois Lane already knows Clark’s secret before there is a Superman. She’s in on it from the beginning. At this point in the story there are no photos of Superman to compare to Clark in hushed discussions at the Planet’s water cooler. Maybe later it’s going to come up, but you either accept that as part of the Superman story or you don’t like Superman. It’s that simple. I don’t watch Something Special on Cbeebies while repeatedly pointing out to my kids that Mr Tumble and Justin look the same and are never onscreen at the same time. And if you want to go down that path go the whole way and dismiss every mask-wearing hero there is. As hilariously pointed out in 2010’s dark comedy Super, Rainn Wilson is easily recognised in or out of his costume throughout the film.

Many films don’t bear up under the slightest scrutiny and with huge special effects budgets and hack writers plot holes are routinely plugged by explosions and random peril. Some films do stand up to a bit of digging and Man of Steel, in my opinion, can take a lot. The plot had consistent logic, nothing glared out as wrong to me. It was a story well told and well acted. The characters were believable, the peril was pertinent.

I’ve seen criticisms of Michael Shannon’s portrayal of General Zod describe him as a one-dimensional villain in a constant fury. I disagree. Zod is a man bred to protect his planet and his species facing what he believes are their biggest threats. Kal-El is a physical and ideological threat, he holds the key to the rebirth of Krypton yet refuses to hand it over. Zod’s plan is anathema to everything Superman has come to value and his motives are a product of the stagnant Kryptonian gene-pool that is more alien to naturally born Kal-El than Earth is. Zod has no choice because Krypton failed to place a value on free will. Jor-El and Zod represent Krypton, both attempting to revolutionise their people’s ways and both failing. They have opposite views and each is outraged by the other’s apparently reckless and destructive methods. Shannon plays his part with subtlety yet still seems larger than life. Russell Crowe plays his part with exactly the right amount of detached and cool intelligence you’d expect in a man who shot his baby son into space. Jor-El is the premier scientist, embodying the alien technology, capable of envisioning hope for a distant future through his determination to hold on to a specific set of values. Values that, not by coincidence, are reflected by ‘the American way’. In the classic mythological mode, all the father’s and uncles die and get out of the way so the boy can become a man. Zod and Jor-El represent the warring ideas and dilemmas Kal-El faces, but in the end he makes his own choice when he accepts what he is.

Talking of the stellar cast, I don’t have the space here to do justice to the brilliant casting. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent. Supporting roles requiring big punch. These are characters that shape the lives of the people around them, that set out the paths of the two most important characters in the Superman story – Kal-El and Lois Lane. Amy Adams is a brave but faultless choice. She’s so often cast as a perky, bright-eyed and lovable child-woman and now she shows us she can carry the weight of an adult role. Lane is a driving force in the story and Adams’ onscreen energy fits perfectly.

The apocalyptic levels of destruction in the latter parts of the film are said by some to be too extreme, but surely those are the people who prefer their Superman shaking thieves from cars and jumping into phoneboxes to change clothes. In normal day to day life around humans he must always control himself because he lives in a “world of cardboard”.

In Man of Steel he fights other superbeings and many buildings suffer. Are they filled with people? I doubt it. A gravity weapon has been smashing up the city over an increasingly widening radius for some time. Perhaps only the staff of the Daily Planet are professionally invested enough to stand at their windows and watch the world end. Undoubtedly people did die in the carnage, but the whole human race was facing extinction. Zod chose the battlefield, Superman had to defeat him no matter what. Special effects-wise, there’s never been a better time to show us what happens when the super-strong let loose. I’ve seen bullets bounce off chests a million times. I’ve seen enough kittens rescued from trees now. Smart comments to hapless goons and sartorial praise from pimps had it’s day and we saw what that eventually led to in Superman III & IV. I’ve never seen Superman level a city before, although I knew he was capable of it. It seemed right for a story tackling issues of genocide and the survival of whole species. By the end of the film only those military commanders who had direct contact with Superman in the field trust him, while the government and the top brass and no doubt the population of the world still had many worries. He’s a figure of mystery and suspicion, an excellent storytelling position and a good set up for a sequel involving Batman.

I grew up reading Silver Age Superman, the ‘daylight hero’, and watching some of the Donner/Reeves films. Perhaps people forget that Superman suffers from narrative breakdowns an awful lot; the villains so often becoming mischievous pranksters, ridiculously contrived methods to find suitable foils for an unstoppable man inevitably resorting to the use of ever more Kryptonite. The creep towards pantomime happens swiftly and without warning when the protagonist wears a cape or mask, until the plot is no more than a string of implausible scenes held together by a paper-thin character, resulting in dreadful comedies like Superman III or whatever the hell Superman IV was. In the 1970s Superman comic covers frequently promised incredible drama, the story itself being a huge let-down only vaguely similar to the picture on the front. Superman has for a long time been something of a joke, and even the name sounds silly and dated. Snyder side-stepped these problems and in my opinion he did it well. Of the 75 years Superman has been around I was a fan for ten of them and on the outskirts looking in for another 25. The character’s biggest problem has always been the inability to transcend his 1930s pulp roots. At last he’s done it. I feel like they’ve finally got him right. This is a Superman that could really exist, the Superman I’ve been waiting for.

EDIT: Links, pictures and video embedded. Some text amended. New links and pictures added. Font change. 04.11.13

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