btschonewald's Man of Steel review

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Strong enough, but not without its flaws.

Hi! This is my first post, which I'm reblogging from my blog 'Secondary Readings' at btschonewald.wordpress.com. This part of my review will just deal with the film, spoiler-free, but you can check out my blog section on Comicvine for my take on the easter eggs in Man of Steel, and the future of the franchise, which contains minor spoilers.

Please note that there's no post-credits scene in the movie! Just so you know. I sat there for a good seven minutes. My friend was livid.

THE REVIEW [Spoiler-Free]

A lot of people don’t like Superman. ‘How can you write a good story about a guy with no weaknesses?’ they say. ‘He’s too goody-goody: there’s no moral ambiguity about him.’ Yes, to an extent they’re right. But there have been some great Superman stories written! Mark Millar’s Red Son relocated Superman’s landing site to the rural USSR, and Jeph Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons was depicted his relationships with others beautifully (with some outstanding artwork by the mighty Tim Sale), and those are just two stories in a 75 year history. Superman’s first two movies, Superman and Superman II, are the foundation of the superhero-movie genre, but Supermans III and IV, and the more recent Superman Returns, were much-maligned (although I like Superman Returns! Brandon Routh’s good as Superman, and Kevin Spacey is fucking phenomenal as Lex Luthor!). The thing I love about Superman is how perfectly he embodies the immigrant history of America: his place of birth is lightyears away, and he is different to everyone else, but he embodies the true spirit of a democratic nation in a way that none of those citizens by birth can.

Man of Steel plays up that immigrant angle wonderfully, reminding us of the origins with a phenomenal opening sequence set on Krypton. It looks absolutely gorgeous. Do you remember Avatar? How there was literally one good thing about it, in its design and depiction of an alien world and its inhabitants? Krypton is like that, only there’s good acting and story and writing as well, like in an actual movie for grown-ups. It’s fantastic. Warner Brothers obviously learned lessons from the great visuals in the otherwise terrible Green Lantern movie when they were planning this out. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El and Ayelet Zurer plays Lara Lor-Van in a sequence set in the last days of Krypton, as the planet begins to die and with it, the Kryptonian people. Crowe and Zurer are great, and Michael Shannon’s General Zod is also on excellent form, with Zod questioning Jor-El’s moral choices in a way that places him apart from the usual supervillain. In many ways, Zod is the arrogant citizen to Superman’s immigrant; he doesn’t realise that in his relentless pursuit of protection for his people, he infringes on the choices and liberties they are entitled to, and in a week where PRISM was uncovered, that debate being played out in the speculative soap opera of the comic book world is welcome. Zod attempts to orchestrate a military coup against the Science Council of Krypton (the planet’s governing body) and, for his trouble, is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone with his lieutenants.

By now, Superman’s origin on Earth is as familiar as the start of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Batman, and mercifully Snyder’s film doesn’t force us to watch all of Kal-El’s childhood as Clark Kent. Snyder focuses on key moments in his development, rather than his entire history: his rescue of imperilled schoolchildren, his learning to control his heightened senses, his discovery that he is an alien. Instead, we find Kal-El as a wanderer, travelling the country to get a sense of his identity and what direction his life should take: a direction that is determined by the discovery of an alien craft buried deep in arctic ice, and the arrival of General Zod and his associates. By the end of this, his first trial, Superman’s loyalties will have been questioned, and his moral fibre will have been tested more deeply than in previous incarnations.

The plot from this point is yours to find out: this is just the set-up for the rest of the film. Hopefully I haven’t told you anything more than you couldn’t derive from seeing the film’s trailer.

The film itself is wildly schizophrenic. In one moment it is staid, and still, and the next super-powered battles are being played out against epic backdrops. As a comics fan, I’m definitely a DC boy and I had really high hopes for the film, buoyed by a series of five star reviews. However, at the end of the film, my friend Matt said that he found it ‘boring’, but that ultimately and in fairness he ‘wasn’t in the mood to be wowed’. That’s a criticism that’s been levelled at Snyder before, specifically in relation to his lengthy adaptation of the classic Watchmen, which was a very good movie in its own right but had a tendency to sag whenever Rorschach wasn’t on-screen. I’ve got to confess, in Man of Steel I was only genuinely ‘wowed’ by the initial sequence on Krypton (and I had a thrill big enough that I nearly leapt from my seat when I heard the Wilhelm scream). Everything after that was satisfying, but not incredible. It didn’t destroy my mind with its awesomeness. I felt the plot was a little hole-y. The action sequences were pleasantly visceral, but not in the same way that Hulk’s were in Avengers.

At one point there is a fight between Superman and some of Zod’s lieutenants. The fight is great: super-speed punches, flying grapples, quick changes of pace and position, really showing off the technical side of the film and the healthy special effects budget Snyder has to play around with. Characters take off bearing one another in outrageously muscular arms clad in skin-hugging fabrics, punch through buildings, there are explosions, incredible destruction… But when you see that fight, you might find yourself, like I did, comparing it to the ponderous, painful, deliberate beating that Bane gives to Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. That scene was powerful, considered, choreographed immaculately, and apart from the crunching of ribs and the pounding of steel-capped boots on kevlar, silent. The camera was dizzy, confused, and it was brutal. The scene set to the rhythmic sound of the systematic dealing of pain. In a lot of ways, I feel like that is the difference you’re getting if you set the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel against one another: Man of Steel embraces the comic paradigm, the superhero genre, and runs with its conventions, the superhuman powers of extraordinary visual special effects, but at the cost of creating something with genuine emotional power and evoking a genuine audience reaction, whilst theDark Knight trilogy almost hid its genre associations, preferring to couch its commentary in our world as it is, and focused on delivering a deeper, more disturbing, more satisfying experience through its simple, technical prowess with the basic tools at its disposal, largely avoiding the kinds of special effects seen inMan of Steel. In many ways, those choices of style and convention suit the superheroes they focus on, too.

But what about script and performances? Jimmy Olsen’s transformation into Jenny Olsen is barely noticeable. The Olsen character has next to no role in the film, but that seems to be the way of things for every character who isn’t Superman, Zod, or Jor-El. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is great, active and important, not just the shrieking damsel of yesteryear (I’m thinking specifically about Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), but the audience gets nowhere near enough time with the character, or with Laurence Fishburne’s excellent Perry White (as a character, think the exact opposite of J.K. Simmons’s amazing Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man), or any of the other supporting characters. There’s not enough characterisation here to really make me care about them enough, even though I like the little that I see. Shannon’s General Zod is without doubt the best performance on display, although I laughed pretty hard when I saw the silly beard he assumed for the film’s second and third acts.

But what about Henry Cavill’s Superman? He’s very, very good. He’s got a great mixture of wry charm and idealism about him, and he is terribly, devastatingly pretty. He is let down a little by not having any memorable lines or anything like that, but as a physical presence he is excellent, and very likeable, and I could happily watch him in the role again and again. For me, he can’t touch Christopher Reeve’s outstanding, legendary portrayal of the Man of Tomorrow in 1978′sSuperman, which deftly juggled Superman’s dual identities of Clark Kent and Kal-El (and which, if you haven’t seen it, is one of the best superhero films of all time), but then, I would genuinely struggle to think of someone who could. As far as a Superman for the 21st century goes, and in the current climate for heroes, Cavill is fantastic.

So in conclusion, I think Man of Steel is a pretty solid film. It’s got excellent special effects and a couple of good central performances, and does some nice things with the mythos. If you go in looking for Superman’s The Dark Knight, though, you’ll be disappointed. Man of Steel is closer to Batman Begins, appropriately (although Batman Begins is certainly the better film). Remember how Batman Begins had that old monorail running through the Gotham Narrows, how the background had a little hint of that old Burton charm in the layout and architecture that was missing from the sleeker, more realistic The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which more closely approximated the modern American city? Batman Begins recalled the roots of the comic book, where the subsequent films uprooted them and made its own world. Man of Steelrecalls those roots too, it reminds you of the dream America Superman is the icon of, gleaming Metropolis and charming, quaint little Smallville, but it’s not going to break you, or the genre apart like The Dark Knight did so magnificently.

If you liked this, please check out my blog at btschonewald.wordpress.com! Thanks!

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