Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Ah, Superman, how comic-books seem to struggle with you. You've been around for so long, and have become such an archetype, a god-like, morally upstanding symbol of what everyone thinks of when they think "superhero". Latecomers seem modeled on you, or consciously reacting against you, and whilst the cool kids all want to be Batman, to the wider world there is you, standing in the spotlight, being difficult to write new stories about. Because how do you make such a paragon interesting? Well the latest attempt is here, and I took Ewan to see Man of Steel on Saturday.

Well it turns out that the first thing you do is get weirdly embarrassed about calling him "Superman". I think the word is used twice in the whole film, certainly no-one calls him it. The second thing you do is lift the broad structure and some of the themes of Batman Begins, because that worked pretty well. And when all else fails, you just turn the volume up to eleven and batter the audience into dumb-struck submission. And the strangest thing is, it mostly works.

So, this is yet another origin story, so whilst we're not straddled with the baggage that gave Superman Returns such feet of clay, you do have to sit through one of the most familiar modern myths in Western Culture. Thankfully they give it a good spin - the opening on Krypton is a full-on, epic Space Opera opening (y'know, the sort of thing Green Lantern should have had) framing not only the destruction of the planet in a way that becomes relevant to the later plot, but also introduces Michael Shannon's General Zod as a villain with a more motive and relevance than Terrance Stamps. Most of the rest of Clark's upbringing is spread out through the film as flashbacks to the Kent farm, Batman Begins style, but rather than emphasizing Bruce's life without a father, it presents Clark being challenged by guidance from two very different ones.

What you end up with, through the first couple of acts of the films, is a steadily building, but reasonably interesting, movie framed around Clark as a character, and the limits of faith, and finding your place in the world. It's not the deepest stuff in the world, but it works for me, and feels right for this version. You also get a pretty decent Lois Lane out of Amy Adams, staying independent and capable, and most interestingly, not being made to look stupid by the whole "not knowing who Superman is" nonsense. The rest of the Daily Planet is pretty much sidelined into playing "average Joe" spectator roles but do the best with what they're given.

In the end though, the gloves come off and the finesse vanishes and we just get an enormous fight. Well, two, actually - the first one, in Smallville, is big and devastating and has things like trains being chucked around, and you'd think that any movie would be happy with that. But no, we have to level half of Metropolis, as if they'd watched Avengers and thought "pah! Not enough carnage!". The film sinks a little, I think, into a quite fun Alien Invasion Disaster Movie, but loses any distinctiveness it had accrued in the process. That said, it's quite nice to see that sort of power level - common in animated versions and comics, but very rare on screen - at play, and it does look crunchingly spectacular, but it is also over the top and, more worryingly, doesn't leave them a lot of places to go in a sequel, unless they've the creative vision to take is somewhere that won't suffer by comparison.

I've also been skeptical about Man of Steel, so it's possible the fact that it wasn't actually awful colours my reaction, because I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's not a grim-dark travesty, miles away from what makes the character tick, but it does have a sense of wanting to be a modern vision of Superman without abandoning a long heritage. Given that that Superman Returns gets a lot stick for not being a fresh take on the character, I do find it a little odd to see so many voices complaining about Man of Steel being so far from Supes' Silver Age Phantom Zone.  I have qualms about some of the execution of this vision, but actually, as a vision of how Superman can be updated, I kinda like it.