Saturday 15 June 2013

Man of Steel

Zeal Before Nod

Man of Steel
2013 USA/Canada/UK
Directed by Zack Snyder
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Some big Kryptonite nugget sized 
spoilers lurking in here later...

You know, in some ways, I owe Superman a lot.

When I was two or three years old, I was encouraged to read via Superman and Batman comics which my dad or my uncle would pick up from the stand, long gone I imagine, at the Angel, Edmonton in the very early seventies (1970 in fact, I suspect). These comics, along with Green Arrow/Green Lantern, World’s Finest, Shazam!, Justice League Of America, Daredevil and The Amazing Spider-Man and also the annual Christmas time reprints in such tomes as The Batman Bumper Book, The Superman Bumper Book and, wait for it, The Superman and Batman Bumper Book, were pretty much how I learned to read and by the time I got to junior school I was already out-reading all the other kids in the class (and writing epic length tales of imaginary spaceway heroes in some lessons too, from what I can recall). I particularly remember the cover to one specific Superman comic I read which, unfortunately, was the only comic which didn’t survive my childhood because I just read it too much and it finally fell apart. But the cover was so good to a kid my age... Superman VS The Electronic Ghost of Metropolis. It would probably cost an inappropriate amount of money these days if I were to track it down in the chance I could read it again but that cover will always live on in my memory.

So Superman meant a lot to me and I remember how thrilled I was when I used to watch the reruns of the old George Reeves The Adventures Of Superman show when I was a kid... and even the old Superfriends cartoon show. And I still have my Superman reels for my old 3D viewmaster somewhere about, I’m sure. When the first of the Christopher Reeves movies came out at the cinema, many years later, it was an event almost as big as the Star Wars movie of the previous year. All the kids loved both that and the sequel and I even got on well with the third in the series at the time... barring one scene which totally enraged me... but that’s another story.

Years later I discovered the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 40s and was absolutely blown away by the visual sophistication of these which, I believe, are the most expensive cartoon shorts ever made. I remember when a film some years ago called Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was released into cinemas and I also loved that for being able to so perfectly invoke the spirit and visual feel of those Fleischer animations.

As the years have gone by I’ve rewatched all the old George Reeves shows on DVD and, more importantly for this fan of the last son of Krypton... about seven or eight years ago I now acquired and watched on DVD the very first live action Superman theatrical serials from 1948 and 1950, starring Kirk Alyn in the title role, who will now always be my favourite live action Superman, I think.

Now, as far as the new Man Of Steel movie goes, it has to be acknowledged that I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Two reasons for this, actually... one was the fact that every trailer I’ve seen for this movie was... well... a bit rubbish. Two was the fact that, in their wisdom, the producers decided to get rid of Superman’s red pants. To explain to all my international readers (and thank you all so much for coming on here and reading, you’re all very much appreciated), I am English. In the UK the term pants is not what we call trousers as it is in the US, apparently. Over here it means underpants, or Y-fronts or... um... I dunno... men’s knickers. It’s long been a jokey but undeniable fact that Superman wears his underpants, the wrong way around, over his trousers. Funny or not, though, it’s always been an integral part of his costume and, along with one or two other minor but equally unwelcome tweaks to the uniform, these basic “no brainer, you don’t change these things” elements have been unnecessarily tinkered with in this movie. So even going into the screening I knew this was not going to be a proper Superman movie. No red knickers... no Superman!

But... I trusted Zack Snyder as a director and he’d not let me down in even the most challenging movie properties before this. He took liberties with Watchmen, to be sure, but certainly not as many as with Man Of Steel and I thought, even though it didn’t have the fake alien squid monster (which it really should have) it still kinda worked as a movie. Dawn Of The Dead, a reboot of one of the classic zombie movies, was also really cool (and works better when you realise it’s really not a remake of the original in anything but name and location similarities). I even thought Sucker Punch, a much maligned movie on its initial cinema release (don’t worry, a film that good will be rediscovered and lionised to classic status in approximately 23 years time) was a brilliant and highly cinematic experience (reviewed here). So on the strength of these I went along to see Man Of Steel anyway.

Besides... I wanted to hear what Hans Zimmer was going to do with the score.

Now, I took my folks out to see this and frankly, the cross section family assessment of this movie is as follows...

Dad: That was a terrible, terrible, atrociously bad movie.
Mum: It was a bit long winded and could have done with being a lot shorter. Not very good.
Me: It wasn’t completely terrible. It was way too noisy. There were no red underpants.

So... well there you have it. But let me give you a little more about what I thought of this noble intentioned monstrosity.

Well, firstly, it’s like no Superman movie you’ve seen before, even though it’s practically a remake of the opening half hour of Superman The Movie and most of Superman II. After a spectacularly realised set piece that shows the rebel General Zod and his cohorts defeated and Jor El (Superman’s father) himself becoming a fugitive on his own planet before the baby (Kal El) is finally launched towards Earth and Krypton destroyed... we are propelled immediately into a series of early “adult Superman” adventure sequences with him performing various, low profile, super-powered rescues. It would be fair to say that the director hits the ground running but, frankly, as spectacular and as enjoyable as the early Krypton scenes are on a purely cinematic level, they really are inappropriate to the subject matter, I felt, and would have been much better off in a Flash Gordon movie (for the record, I would love to see Zack Snyder direct a Flash Gordon movie, especially if it’s done in the proper time period). There’s an element of adaptation to this movie, whether you like that or not, and this “interpretation” of Krypton was beautiful but just not what was needed, I feel.

Also, another problem for some will be the eliptical way in which Snyder tells his tale of Superman. It’s, quite appropriately, much more like a comic strip, jumping backwards and forwards in time so we can get to the action as well as seeing his defining years on Earth at the same time without slowing down the high level of energy on the screen (this film is nothing if not pacey). It’s another example of Hollywood wanting to have its cake and eat it at the same time but, for the majority of the film it really kind of works and I was certainly buying into this technique for a while. However, if you’re a complete novice to the legend of Superman and unfamiliar with any of the previous versions (and there are many who are these days, I promise you) then you may have a hard time following the back story is my guess. The crash landing of young Kal El’s space capsule on Earth, for example, is never even shown... we just have to take the implication which, if you don’t know the story, may be a bit of a leap, is my guess.

There are some good things about the movie, though...

Superman could never fly in the early comics... he could leap tall buildings in a single bound though and this later developed in the strip into the kind of high flying ariel stunts we are used to associating with the character post-1930s. This new version pays homage to this in its “first flight” sequence and it’s  a really nice nod to those origins. It reminded me of a similarly successful scene in the much maligned John Carter movie, when the title character in that film (and Edgar Rice Burroughs original source novel) has to learn to cope with extra muscular activity in a gravity a lot lighter than on his home world (review here). So this was all good when it comes to Man Of Steel. Although, he didn’t have red pants on, of course, so... it wasn’t really Superman.

The performances are all superb, although many of the characterisations are quite off. It’s not the fault of the actors, presumably, if they’re being written like that in the script.  Larry Fishburne makes a surprisingly cool version of Perry White and Ma Kent is brilliantly played by Judge Hershey herself, actress Diane Lane. The title character, played by some guy I’d not heard of called Henry Cavill, really looks and acts the part as far as he’s allowed, although he does look extremely worried all through the movie. Also, losing the kiss curl (and that’s been done before many times too) is a big mistake. It’s not just a kiss curl you guys, it’s the "S" symbol. It’s as much a part of the Superman costume as his red underpants... oh, wait.

Hans Zimmer’s percussion heavy score, too, is excellent but quite noisy. Not as memorable as some of the Superman scores in the past but certainly he’s had a good go at it and I look forward to hearing the score CDs when they finally arrive in the post.

Anyway, yeah, there are some nice things about the movie but... the number of bad things happening maybe outweighs all that.

The plotting is atrocious, for example and completely relies on a ridiculous piece of “deus ex machina” towards the end of the picture which really is just a piece of technical sounding mumbo jumbo and which seems to make mockery of physics. I know I’ve bandied the “deus ex machina” term around a lot just lately in my reviews but, honestly, if Hollywood stops doing it then I’ll stop calling them on it. Sheesh! And for your information, I suspect deliberately creating a black hole over a big city on the planet Earth may actually do even more damage to the planet than Superman, Zod and his crew do. Not just disappear and... oh, don’t get me started.

It’s kind of fitting that a modern incarnation (minus red knickers) of a classic character who made his debut in a 1938 issue of Action Comics should be part of a film where the emphasis is solely on action... unfortunately, and this really surprised me from this particular director, the action sequences are edited together really badly. I couldn’t work out what was going on half the time, I have to admit. It was all going by super-fast and mostly super-incomprehensibly and I so won’t be taking my hard earned super-cash to another screening of this movie if I can help it. Although I’ll probably buy a reference copy on DVD when it hits later in the year (or when it goes in the sales). Seriously, all that over zealous energy was pretty much non-stop caving my brain in on a Friday night and making me go all sleepy. It really is a case of “zeal before nod” as far as this film is concerned.

Which reminds me... I was quite disappointed that Snyder didn’t use the famous line “Kneel before Zod” in this film. Unfortunately,he  didn’t succumb to the same kind of post modern referencing temptation that J. J. Abrams did in his latest Star Trek movie, it would seem (Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!).

There are a few more things that I think this movie could have done without changing. The “mild mannered reporter” incarnation of Clark Kent, for example, is saved for a reveal right at the end of the movie... which bothered me quite a lot actually. It’s also kind of annoying that Lois Lane is right in on the identity of Superman pretty much right from the start of the movie, when she accidentally gets embroiled in an incident in this version's equivalent of The Fortress Of Solitude and then uses all her reporter’s know how to track down her alien rescuer to the Kent’s home in Smallville. I suspect that, at DC, this might also be known as “pulling a Mary Jane/Gwen Stacey” in terms of watching what does and does not work at the box office. Although it seemed to fail on them as a ploy in the much panned but quite good Green Lantern movie from a few years ago (and reviewed here).

The one thing which really killed the movie quite a bit for me, though, was the death of gazillions of millions of bystanders. In Superman movies, innocents tend to not get killed, even during the big street battles with Zod and his crew in Superman II from what I can recall. Kal El would simply not tolerate not being able to rescue someone. It’s just not on and would do a lot of psychological damage to him, I think. During this movie there is a reign of destruction against the Earth which sees literally millions of innocent people dying. In the old Superman The Movie version from 1978, the character even breaks the director’s vision of “verisimilitude” (and annoyed us Superman fans no end) by having the man of steel magically take time backwards and heal the world rather than suffer anyone dying.  In this movie the gloves, and the red pants too, apparently, are off. Millions die and quite often due to the last son of Krypton himself  doing as much structural damage as the main “villains” of the piece. Superman loses his innocence and then compounds that by committing an act of murder at the end of the film when he chooses to end Zod’s reign of terror the only way left open to him. Superman makes the decision to kill and loses his “big boy scout” label in the process.

I think this was all very wrong and, frankly, if they wanted to make another Batman movie then they should have done just that. Superman is a different kind of hero to Batman... this is why they always work so well with each other. They possess strengths of character which fill in each other’s weaknesses. It’s a mistake to make one too much like the other... especially over the simple box office knowledge that bleak and vicious plays better than strength of morality in the cinema these days. It’s a shame but... there it is.

Okay, I’ve said a lot of negative stuff here but I don’t want to come down too hard on this movie. Lots of it was throughly entertaining and I don’t think a younger audience is going to be too concerned over the morality issues of the tale (even if there was a direct biblical analogy thrown into the mix in one scene). If you’re a fan of big budget action films then Man Of Steel might be right up your alley but if you, like me, have a big soft spot for the character, then you might want to have another think at whether you want to see this one. If you do though, and you find yourself wondering how Superman got into such a sorry state of affairs, just keep reminding yourself of one thing... “If he’s not wearing red pants, he’s not Superman."


  1. Just watched it too--I was relieved that there were no knickers (I always thought it a throwback to weird wrestling costumes that are baggy in all the wrong place)s. My biggest issues were the high rate of death-by-Superman-battles to civilians (which you pointed out wisely is a flaw in the Superman ethos) and the heavy-handed Christ imagery, which was just ludicrous. Can't one evoke sacrifice without requiring the hero to flop backward in a crucifixion pose (and at age 33)? That said, I was needing entertainment and got it. I liked the confusing fight sequences and high-powered back-story flips, which I also thought well done. And this Superman had an endearing lisp--I don't know why that got me, but it did...

    1. Hey again.

      Yeah, maybe a bit heavy handed I guess. It would have to be for me to notice it. ;-)

      Glad you got a lot out of the movie. Maybe I'll like it more when I rewatch it eventually.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

  2. I thought Watchmen was abysmal so not surprised that this was the same. The only improvement was that it has a score instead of a greatest hits compilation of songs.
    It also seems to me that there were a lot more interesting characters and plots in the Superman comics than the Zod business and even Luthor was more than the comic relief that his cinema appearances suggest.
    The Fleischer cartoons came closest but I'm still waiting for the definitive treatment of Superman on the screen.

    1. Hi again anonymous.

      I agree the Fleisher cartoons were amazing. If you haven't already seen it, you might want to catch up with a movie called Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. They really managed to nail the spirit and atmosphere of those early Fleisher Superman episodes.