Posts Tagged ‘Man of Steel’

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.)


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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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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