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Posts Tagged ‘Henry Cavill’

It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind of film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

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Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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‘Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.

In case you’re not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it’s from noted comic-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC’s attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.

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BvS (I can’t be bothered to write the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I’m going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).

Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller’s book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).

Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller’s politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he’s on form, which is not something I’m sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn’t usually miserable enough.

Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilanteism. This at least takes Kent/Superman’s mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.

Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.

(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn’t miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)

Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they’re on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.

That’s a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it’s done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn’t really do either story justice.

And, architecturally, the mashing of structures unbalances the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.

The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. To put it yet another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn’t convince.

As you may have gathered, once it’s (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder’s preferred aesthetic of everything that’s not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).

Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it’s so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It’s so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there’s none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.

You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn’t read The Dark Knight Returns and isn’t going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn’t going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. (I have to say the film kind of misses the point of DKR, too: you’re firmly on Batman’s side in the Miller book – his Superman is a compromised, arrogant figure – whereas here the Kryptonian is essentially an innocent party being roughed up by a headcase.) Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.

A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn’t criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he’s coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn’t just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.

(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn’t actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)

To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it’s possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of ‘being taken seriously’ (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a premise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There’s probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what’s inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.

 

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The world is full of mysteries – most bafflingly, right now, why anyone would think it was a good idea to make a new Transporter movie without Jason Statham, but I digress – and the secret of consistently good and lucrative film-making is one of them. Mind you, that’s only part of the story – once your film is made, it’s still got to be reviewed, and this can be just as random a process as the actual production.

Or so it seems to me, at least: I think we can safely ascribe much of Fantastic Four‘s underwhelming opening weekend to the vicious reviews it received. Not that this wasn’t deserved, of course, for we’re talking about a film which is tonally all over the place, fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, and frequently quite dull to watch. 8% on Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a harsh rating, but not by much. Guy Ritchie’s new take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, currently basks in a comparatively luxuriant 67%, even though… well, we’ll get to that, I expect.

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Ritchie’s movie opens in early-60s Berlin, where playboy thief and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is intent on extracting a young woman named Gabby (Alicia Vikander) to assist him in his current assignment. However, she is already being watched by towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Nevertheless, Solo succeeds, and is naturally surprised when his superiors inform him that Kuryakin is to be his new partner (the Russian is not impressed either). Gabby’s father is a nuclear physicist whose discovery of a quicker way of enriching uranium could facilitate the production of nuclear warheads, and this has brought him to the attention of a Rome-based criminal syndicate. The US and the USSR have agreed to co-operate in order to find the man and bring down the criminals.

So, younger readers may be wondering, this film is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent joining forces to take on an un-named set of bad guys. So why on earth is it called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? That’s a good question. I suspect it is because the makers of this film believe that the title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still has some traction amongst audiences of a certain vintage and they have duly purchased the rights to it and slapped it on a buddy-buddy spy film in the hopes of luring in people with fond memories of the original.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., should you be curious and yet too sedentary to check it out on Wikipedia, was a popular TV series of the 1960s. It was very much a post-Bond piece of entertainment (indeed, Ian Fleming was involved in its genesis), very heavy on gadgets and slick spy-fi storylines. It was very much at home in a pop-cultural landscape that included similar shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Mission: Impossible, and so on. All of these series were ultimately totally escapist, serving to distract audiences from international tensions rather than examine them in any realistic or rigorous way.

So why would you make an adaptation of the show which largely revolves around the political and personal tensions between the two lead characters? Why would you ditch the concept of U.N.C.L.E. as actual organisation and just make a film about a joint CIA-KGB operation? Why would you reimagine the two protagonists so thoroughly? (Or, if you prefer, stick the names of popular characters on two wholly new creations?) The film’s Solo is an amoral crook working off his prison sentence by working for the CIA; the film’s Kuryakin is by turns Soviet iceman and Viking berserker.

There is no use of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous theme from the show. You will look in vain for any sign of a radio concealed in a pen, for those little triangular badges they used to wear, or for the organisation of bad guys from the TV show which has a rather embarassing name by modern standards. As you may or may not recall, I was no great fan of Kingsman, but I will still cheerfully admit that even in its mongrelised way, it was closer to the spirit and style of the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. than this so-called film adaptation is.

Okay, so forget about the fact that this is supposed to be based on a classic TV show (Ritchie and company certainly seem to) – how does it stand up as a spy movie in its own right? Well, if your idea of a really good spy film is something made by Fellini or starring Audrey Hepburn, you’ll probably be quite happy, because once the action shifts to Rome those seem to have been the primary influences on the film. People are forever leaping into speedboats to zip about the Bay of Naples, or decking themselves out in retro 60s gear. It’s all very evocative and nice to look at, but not especially gripping.

The direction is, to be honest, a bit self-indulgent: Ritchie can’t seem to resist going for very ostentatious set-pieces that may show his talent for composition and editing but don’t necessarily hold together that well as a story (or provide the spy movie staples). At one point a speedboat chase beckons, but Ritchie opts to go for some very laid-back business with a packed lunch and the soundtrack instead. Possibly he was just trying to be ironic, but I’m not sure he’d earned that right at that point.

In addition to being more concerned with atmsophere and aesthetics than actual plot, there’s something very odd going on with the tone here, too. The best thing about the film is indisputably Henry Cavill’s performance, which strikes a very entertaining note of drolly ironic detachment, but he’s stuck in a film which mostly takes itself pretty seriously. And when it doesn’t, it fumbles as often as it succeeds: one lengthy ‘gag’ revolves around a minor character slowly being electrocuted and burning to death. Oh, my sides. (I couldn’t help recalling that, at one point in its very long gestation, this film had Quentin Tarantino attached as a possible director.)

Cavill and Hammer do their level best with the material – both of them are in the fortunate position of being actors that Hollywood seems determined to turn into big stars, no matter how many stumbles there are en route – while Hugh Grant is also okay as Mr Waverley (needless to say he has very little in common with Leo G Carroll’s character from the show). But on the whole I thought this was an underwhelming and frequently quite dull film. To be honest, I kind of felt cheated by the use of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. name on a movie which quite clearly has no connection to the show, nor any real desire to have one. This is moderately stylish but utterly vacuous; not even fun in an ironic way.

 

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It is the Earth Year 2013, which by most people’s reckonings makes it 75 years since 1938: and so only an idiot would have bet against Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, bringing out a movie to celebrate the anniversary of the first publication of Superman. (I suppose one must be slightly surprised there isn’t another Batman movie on the cards for his 75th next year.) This is, by any reckoning, a prestige project and DC, quite wisely, appear to have surveyed recent adaptations of their properties and seen that by far the pick of the crop are Zach Snyder’s version of Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies.

Man of Steel, consequently, is directed by Snyder and produced by Nolan (also involved is David Goyer, doyen of comic book movie scripting), and is refreshingly unencumbered by the need to reverence the quartet of Superman movies made by the Salkinds between 1978 and 1987. (I don’t want this to be an extended series of swipes at Superman Returns, which I reviewed back in 2006 anyway – but suffice to say it was bloated, dull, and too interested in paying homage to its predecessors. Though Brandon Routh was good in a tough role.)

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Playing Superman this time around is British actor Henry Cavill (his nationality caused a bit of a fuss when he was cast, as I believe I mentioned), though we don’t get to meet him for a bit. The film-makers pick and choose which bits of the Superman legend to explore in detail and one of the areas they really go to town on is the last days of planet Krypton. Not only is Krypton falling to bits, but it is also wracked by civil war, with supreme head of the military General Zod (first name, one hopes, Neil) attempting a coup. (Zod is played by Michael Shannon.) With all this going on it is just as well that top Krypton boffin Jor-El is played by Russell Crowe, as this makes him a bit more of a bad-ass than any of his previous incarnations. (Crowe gets an impressive amount of screen-time for someone who technically dies in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.)

Once all the shooting and shouting and emoting between Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, whose supposed obscurity I was making wisecracks about only last week – hey ho) is over, it is pretty much business as usual as Superman origin retellings go. Our hero is launched off towards Earth while still a babe, while Krypton goes bang killing everyone apart from the occupants of its maximum security plot device (there’s such a thing as making a prison too secure).

From here the movie skips over most of Clark Kent’s infancy and boyhood in Kansas with his foster parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), though we are treated to key flashbacks later on. As the story proper opens he is a lone drifter going from job to job, wondering who he is, trying to find his place in the world, and occasionally propping up the odd collapsing oil-rig should he find himself in the area. For his alien heritage means that he ‘can do things other people can’t’ (he has the gift for understatement too). Little does he realise his search for his own origins will attract the attention of others – possibly welcome attention, when it comes from ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), almost certainly not when it comes from hostile survivors from his own planet…

Well, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic take on the Superman legend, but on the whole a successful one. The story’s handling of some of the classic elements is slightly baffling, and the structuring of the plot occasionally feels a bit peculiar – for example, one of the main beats is the arrival on Earth of vastly powerful aliens who demand that Superman is handed over to them… which would surely have had more dramatic potential had the people of Earth actually known Superman was there (he’s still operating incognito at this point). Likewise, if this movie forms the basis of a franchise (the signs are good), it’s really going to pummel credibility for Superman to have any kind of secret identity as Clark Kent – not only does one key character already know, but it’s hardly difficult to work out given much of what goes on here.

Then again, this is a film which is fighting hard to avoid any of the traditional Superman tropes that people might be inclined to think of as twee or old-fashioned. The clue is in the fact that this movie is called Man of Steel, rather than some variation on Superman – it’s a looong way into the movie before our hero picks up that particular title. The pants-outside-the-trousers component of his uniform has likewise vanished, and he appears to be wearing some futuristic version of chain mail rather than the usual tights (this is somewhat ironic given how many Robin Hoods are amongst his forebears). In short, the film is trying very hard to be a serious, mature piece of work. It’s still a film about a flying man in a cape, so there’s a limit to how successful the film-makers can be with this approach, and I for one would have preferred to see them treat the story with a slightly lighter touch and insert a little more comedy – but I expect wall-to-wall CGI and brooding seriousness is what the focus groups wanted.

It’s certainly a fabulous-looking movie: the production design seemed to me to be stuck in a slightly post-Matrix groove, but it’s still convincing and coherent. And anyone who has been waiting decades to see a fully-CGI’d Superman really do his stuff should be very happy: the protracted scenes in which Superman and the US army do battle with Zod and his minions are as spectacular and destructive as spectacular and destructive can be – I was pleasantly reminded of Independence Day at quite a few points in the course of the movie.

If this means that the performers occasionally seem a little swamped by what’s going on around them, that’s one of the pitfalls of making this kind of film. Michael Shannon is still impressively ferocious as Zod, while Russell Crowe brings every bit of his considerable presence to the film. Henry Cavill probably struggles a bit simply because of the nature of the script: given the delineation between Superman and Clark Kent doesn’t really exist in this particular story, he doesn’t get the same chance to show his range that some previous Supermen have had. He is still very convincing as this most modern of icons.

Then again, this is a very modern Superman film, with a strong sense of its own identity, and very distinct from every other version of the character I can think of. Reports suggest that this is just the first step in an (understandable) attempt by DC to repeat the success of Marvel Studio’s series of films about their characters. Quite how subsequent films based on Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and so on, will slot in around this one I’m not entirely sure. On its own terms, though, this is a solid movie: I don’t quite see where future installments are going to go, and there are a few things about the plot of this one I’m not wild about (not least the way it is resolved) – but this is one of the strongest blockbusters of the year so far. And, in terms of its identity as a Superman film – I don’t think it’s by any means perfect, but neither can I think of any obvious ways in which it could be better. Impressive entertainment.

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Direct from the (not especially) mean streets of Oxford City centre. Or not far from them, anyway – from the foyer of the nicer Odeon:

Awix: ‘One for Immortals, please.’

Ticketeer: ‘What time, please?’

Awix: ‘The one in about twenty minutes.’

Ticketeer: ‘That’s in 2D, sir.’

Awix: (grinning) ‘Yes, I know.’

Ticketeer: (clearly bemused) ‘…oh.’

(Protracted conversation concerning which of the numerous available seating and loyalty card options I wish to avail myself of ensues. Eventually…)

Ticketeer: ‘So there’s your ticket, sir. Do you prefer 2D or 3D?’

Awix: ‘2D.’

Ticketeer: (clearly straining to hide incredulity) ‘May I ask why?’

Awix: ‘Well… I just find it really distracting. The 3D shrinks everything… I don’t think it’s worth the money… and with the glasses you lose so much light, if the film’s dark to begin with you can’t see what’s happening…’

(The Ticketeer is staring at me with an expression as stony as the Greek economy. I had no idea these people were trained so thoroughly. )

Awix: ‘Anyway I’ll just go now…’

Ticketeer: (clearly doubtful that such a thing is even possible, but contractually obliged) ‘Enjoy your film, sir.’

Hmmm, well. Given that the film in question was Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s Immortals, I was pretty dubious myself – I had a pretty shrewd suspicion going in that even had I availed myself of the stereoscopic option, adding an extra D to this movie would only bump the plotting and characterisation up to the level of 2D anyway.

There’s probably a pretty good Immortals drinking game to be had – every time a terrible old fantasy cliche or plot device lurches into view, everyone has a shot of something bracing. This way you will all be unconscious well before the end, which is possibly the best way to partake of this movie.

Oh well – expository opening voiceover explaining backstory of ancient evil and lurking plot devices? Check! Rampaging dark warlord on the march, intent on vengeance for poorly-explained reasons? Check! Strapping young hero with a Big Destiny? Check! Besieged monastery and fleeing beautiful young woman? Check! Faux-period violin-y sounds all over the score? Check!

If you really must know: bad guy Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) has but one aim – to breach the walls of Tartarus, the ancient prison of the Titans, losers of a war in heaven. (Well, I say ‘one aim’ – he also seems quite keen on eating and putting it about a bit. Clearly the man has serious issues of all kinds.) To this end he and his army are sweeping across what’s obviously ancient Greece (though not named as such). Releasing the Titans will mean trouble for everyone, but especially for the Gods, who are nevertheless unable to intervene (although it’s never explained why).

In Hyperion’s path is the village of buff young atheist Theseus (Henry Cavill, to be seen next year in Zach Snyder’s increasingly ominous-looking Man of Steel), who is strong and determined and – judging for his ability to put up with a homily-spouting old coot who follows him about (John Hurt, really slumming it) – extremely tolerant. Theseus is only concerned with looking after his dear old mum, to the point of indulging in fisticuffs with the Greek army when they object to helping her flee from the looming war. ‘This is no time for violence!’ cries a Greek officer, an attitude which may explain why Hyperion is doing so well.

Anyway, Hyperion captures Theseus and slings him in the salt mines, where he meets Phaedra (Freida Pinto), not the Nancy Sinatra character but a seeress, and Stavros (Stephen Dorff), not the Harry Enfield character but a wisecracking thief and thus someone with ‘sidekick’ written all over him. Phaedra quickly twigs that Theseus has the potential to stop Hyperion and they all bust out, with what seemed to me to be excessive ease.

The rest of the movie is to do with the Epirus Bow, a plot-device magic weapon. To be fair to it, Immortals does break new ground in this area at least – normally you would expect a lengthy quest taking up most of the second act to take place, with great deeds required, etc etc. But Theseus basically just trips over the damn thing without even knowing what it is, let alone looking for it, which must have made the film shorter, so – hurrah! Well played, guys!

Yes, this is another clanging mess of a fantasy film, very much influenced by 300 on this occasion. Lord knows 300 isn’t a great movie (though I always find it rather enjoyable to watch), but compared to this one it’s a blazing classic of our time. Immortals is a brave movie in a number of ways – for one thing it goes down the full Jason and the Argonauts route of having the Gods of Olympus appear as characters – good-looking, woodenly-acted characters, admittedly (one of them, Luke Evans, was in The Three Musketeers, and another used to be in Home and Away, so this should not be a great surprise).

The film also has the most impressive collection of silly hats I can recall – Phaedra turns up at one point apparently with a lampshade on her head, while Hyperion has a large selection, of which my favourite is one which makes him look like he’s peering out of an earwig’s bottom. All in all, Immortals is so absurd and incoherent and garish and emotionally banal that it rather resembles a particularly lavish mounting of the Eurovision Song Contest with all the songs cut out and lashings of violence put in their place.

I have to say, folks, this is a seriously violent movie – it’s only a 15 in the UK (and I understand some key scenes have been snipped to secure this) but what’s there is still seriously at odds with the tone of the rest of it. It’s a silly CGI-heavy 3D piece of fantasy nonsense! Kids on the cusp of teenagerhood are probably the only ones who will be able to enjoy it unironically! So why bother to include all the graphic stabbings, eye-gougings, people being burned or roasted alive, and men hacking out their own tongues or being castrated with a sledgehammer? (The last two occur in the same, charming, scene.) It all comes across as simply nasty, which when added to the silliness of the rest of it results in a film which is just baffling: if you’ve ever wanted to see an extravagantly choreographed and CGI’d sequence of about six extras having their heads graphically smashed apart in slow motion by a man apparently dressed as a giant cockatoo, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.

There are lots of looong slooow zooms to showcase the 3D, intrusively flashy dissolves between scenes, and technically immaculate but utterly soulless effects sequences. For at least the third time this year Freida Pinto is treated solely as a decorative item. Mickey Rourke spends the entire film doing a hhhrrrhhhrhrhrhhrh voice which renders some of his dialogue actually unintelligible. Only Stephen Dorff – someone once described by the commentator and critic Mark Cousins as ‘a rotten actor’ – manages to show the slightest personality beyond the demands of the script.

Immortals only ever shows the barest signs of anything beyond simple technical efficiency. The rest of it is pretty much unmitigated nonsense, utterly cliched and frequently genuinely unpleasant. One to be avoided – stay at home with a DVD of 300 and marvel that that film turned out as well as it did.

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So, yet more news on the superhero blockbuster casting front, this time for Christopher Nolan and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, which is due on our screens at the end of next year. Given that Nolan’s previously made The Dark Knight and Snyder the remarkable Watchmen adaptation, this was always a fairly-tasty sounding project, and now they’ve actually found their Superman their angle on the legend may start to become a little clearer.

The actor in question is British actor Henry Cavill, who is famous for… er, well, nothing, if we’re honest. I’d never even heard of him, wouldn’t have even recognised his face before the other day, though my painstaking researches (Wikipedia) have revealed he’s previously appeared in costume bonkbuster The Tudors, Hellraiser VIII (hmm, classy), and Tristan + Isolde, and that apparently he was the inspiration for the Edward character in Twilight. (I really must share my Twilight limerick with the wider world one day.)

Well, given their track records I have to trust that Nolan and Snyder know what they’re doing. Rather unexcitingly I adhere to the standard view that you really have to cast an unknown as Superman, especially when the alternative is someone like Nicolas Cage or Muhammad Ali – don’t sneer, for a few queasy minutes in the Seventies the producers of the original movie seriously considered it. Everyone knows by now what Superman really looks like. Nicolas Cage could never have been Superman, only Nicolas Cage in a Superman outfit. So from this point of view Cavill’s the man for the job.

I find some of the negative reaction to Cavill’s appointment quite interesting. Not all; much of it is along the lines of ‘they should have kept Brandon Routh (from 2006’s rather underwhelming Superman Returns) or Tom Welling (from the increasingly idiosyncratic TV version of the mythos, Smallville)’. (I wonder why Dean Cain isn’t being mentioned? Hmm.) This sort of complaint seems to me to stem from a rather fannish concern with the great golden idol of continuity, over actual creativity and imagination. Why would Nolan and Snyder want to associate their shiny new version with a previous, unsuccessful one? It would be like casting George Clooney in Batman Begins. And Welling would have brought with him limiting expectations of the new movie sticking to Smallville’s style and continuity.

The voices of discontent which actually interest me are the ones complaining on the grounds that Cavill is British, and thus inherently unsuitable to play the Man of Steel. I find this attitude rather startling, to be honest; I can’t imagine anyone complaining that the cast of 300 weren’t all Greek and Iranian or that the actors in Star Wars weren’t born in a galaxy far, far away. Neither do I recall much griping when a Welshman was cast as Batman or an Englishman as Spider-Man, and they’re very nearly equally iconic characters.

An artist’s impression (of something completely different). The artist in question is the inimitable John Byrne, of course.

But then someone made a comparison with an American being cast as the Doctor, and suddenly I could sort of see what they meant. In most of the darkest moments of American-produced attempts at Doctor Who, the key people involved remained wholly committed to having a British actor in the role. (The only exception being Paul Anderson’s late-Nineties attempt at a Who movie, for which he had his sights set on Denzel Washington.) This surely isn’t just parochialism about one of our own characters – James Bond has been played by Scottish, Australian, English, Welsh, and Irish actors without being irretrievably damaged, after all. Could it be because there’s something fundamentally British about the concept of the Doctor?

And in which case, is there something fundamentally American about the concept of Superman? There may be a case to answer here – Superman is, after all, an immigrant from a foreign culture, who assimilates rather well into American society, becomes a model citizen and makes good. There are elements of the American dream in there, which aren’t present in the Batman or Spider-Man legends.

On the other hand, the job is still acting, isn’t it? The American dream is at its core one of inclusiveness, so it seems odd to say only Americans can embody it. I’m still inclined to give Cavill a chance, though I can understand American folk getting disgruntled with characters from their folklore being portrayed by foreigners – Australian and British X-Men, an English Spider-Man, a Welsh Batman and an Australian Hulk, to give just a few examples.

And I’m not even sure the Doctor embodies a British or English national myth in the same way Superman does the American dream. The Doctor’s twice been played very successfully by Scottish actors, after all. What makes the Doctor so quintessentially English, given he didn’t even grow up there and has only chosen to live in the country for an extended period once? He’s such an inconstant and chimerical figure it’s difficult to say. Possibly it’s his roots in a British tradition of a certain kind of gentlemanly pulp hero.

Even so, if I’m going to give a British Superman a chance, I suppose that means I ought to give the idea of an American Doctor a fair hearing if it ever comes up. On some level it still makes me shudder, but I don’t quite know why. As things currently stand, though, it’s still just idle speculation. Thankfully.

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