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Man Of Steel (2013)
Director: Zack Snyder

review by J.C. Hartley

I was looking forward to this movie mainly because of the elegiac aspects revealed in the trailers that have trickled out during its production. Sitting here now, shackled to a laptop by the sense of duty that compels me to share my powers with an ungrateful humanity, while sunshine and cloud-cover compete to cast turbulent shadows over my collection of original comic-book art, I wish that Andrei Tarkovsky had made a superhero film, imbuing it with the melancholy mystery of his magnificent Mirror (1975). Now we get two and a half hours of movie magic of which 90 minutes is property damage.

I've got nothing against explosions. They are part of what makes us human, that wonderful contradiction whereby we can revel in creation and destruction, beauty and ugliness; at its ultimate expression we can admire the symmetry of an expanding mushroom-cloud. For years, as a science fiction fan, and a comic-book fan, I mourned the inability of the cinema to realise the pictures that were in my head from printed SF stories, and the frames in the comics I read, that depicted huge vistas of other worlds and equally expansive conflicts. Then we got Star Wars and, suddenly, filmmaking technology seemed to have caught up. Actually, I suppose, the people who were making films were people like me, people whose imaginations, up until then, had contained images that were not matched by what appeared on the big screen.

When the film industry turned its attention and its considerable budgets to comic-book superheroes, the impossible events that had, for so long, seemed confined between garish glossy covers could now be realised. My favourite superhero conflict up to now has been the final battle between Dr Doom and the Fantastic Four, in F4: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007), a deeply flawed and unsatisfying movie on almost every other level, but for a moment the sheer ridiculousness of that battle captured something that I had for so long enjoyed in the pages of "the world's greatest comic." Characters knocked through buildings, street furniture employed as bludgeons, property damage on a massive scale: yay comics!

But violence and destruction only go so far. It's like sex; for a time, the vigour, the sweat, the frenetic cardiovascular activity, is sufficient unto itself (I would imagine), but after a while a little conversation wouldn't go amiss. Man Of Steel is not without ideas, but I would happily have ditched at least half of the orgiastic violence, half the running-time in fact, to better appreciate the nuances of characterisation and plot. Krypton is dying. A galaxy-spanning empire has withdrawn to its home-world, for reasons that are not really explained, mined its core for power and condemned the planet to destruction. In the comic, Krypton's sun expanded to devour the world, but not here. This movie begins with a birth, the first natural birth for centuries.

Birth on Krypton has, for a long time, been artificially managed, with babies born into an already designated role, as in Huxley's Brave New World. Kryptonian scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), conceive and deliver their child Kal in order to save the Kryptonian race. As the planet tears itself apart, and Jor-El makes his plans, General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup against Krypton's rulers. Rebuffed by Jor-El, with whom he seeks to ally, Zod attempts to sabotage the latter's plan to send the infant Kal to a new world in space with Krypton's genetic codex implanted in his DNA (no, me neither). Jor-El is killed, Zod captured and imprisoned in the 'Phantom Zone', but Kal is despatched to Earth and Lara watches her world implode.

The action then shifts; and this is something I loved about this version, the abandoning of the old linear narrative. So we don't see the infant Kal-El arrive on Earth and be adopted by the ageing and childless Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), not yet anyway. We see Clark Kent as a rootless itinerant, quietly doing good or avoiding doing ill, and then having to move on, like Bill Bixby's David Banner in The Incredible Hulk TV series; but we don't see much of this, which is a shame because surely this sense of duty and restraint is central to the whole conceit.

Eventually, Clark's destiny calls, an ancient artefact buried under Alaskan ice and attracting the attention of the US military, and nosy reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), turns out to be a Kryptonian scout ship. Clark uses a bit of Kryptonian tech from his original space capsule to access the scout's memory banks, and activates the avatar of his father Jor-El, who brings him up to speed regarding his alien heritage. Unbeknownst to Clark/ Kal, activating the scout ship alerts Zod and his crew, who have escaped from the Phantom Zone and are scouring the galaxy for Kal and the Krypton codex. Cue Zod's arrival on Earth, the revelation to humanity that a super-powered individual walks among them, and a sequence of overlong and self-indulgent super-powered battles that ultimately induce destruction fatigue.

What did I dislike about this movie? Well, obviously the padding out of effects-heavy scenes of mayhem and destruction (Avengers Assemble was guilty of this too). Sometimes, less is more. The prolonged use of Jor-El's avatar, presumably to big-up Russell Crowe's part, was frankly just silly once the original exposition sequence was over. In fact, the exposition scene between Jor-El and Kal was silly, too; we know Kal needs to be told his heritage, but we don't; we've already seen it during the first 20 minutes! Zod's transforming 'world-engine' is too much like Nero's planet-destroying weapon from Star Trek (2009). Something of the beauty, and yes, poetry, of the trailers was lost in the final release.

What did I like about Man Of Steel? Well, rather a lot, which makes for a greater shame that I was so often bored during the action sequences. The central performances were good, Cavill is not as wooden as some reviews claim, and he is certainly less wooden than his performance in Immortals, and, if we're talking wooden, Crowe is the authentic Australian teak. Cavill has a real presence and a quiet dignity, not helped at the end by his weak "I'm here to help," speech. Costner is brilliant and can happily be compared with Glen Ford's wonderful turn as Pa Kent in the original franchise in 1978. Interesting, too, that Costner's Pa agonises about adopted son Clark's safety, urging him to restrict his powers even at the risk of allowing people to perish, while Ford's portrayal suggested that Clark wasn't just sent to Earth to score touchdowns.

Diane Lane is terrific as Ma Kent; Adams looks like a real person and does well as Lois Lane. Shannon has great presence as Zod but doesn't have much to do except rant, and he complains at the end that Krypton's artificial birth process has designated him as a warrior with a mandate to protect Krypton, which begs the question how Jor-El, who was presumably birthed in the same manner, came to have such a surfeit of freewill. The languid flashbacks, filmed in a grainy hazy nostalgic style, and shown out of sequence, are a real plus for the development of narrative, and the psychic-plane confrontation between Zod and Kal, as the latter adapts to the Krypton-like atmosphere on Zod's ship, is a lovely comic-book style touch that shows real innovation.

After the battles and wholesale carnage, one ends up wondering how these cataclysmic confrontations between seemingly indestructible entities can end. Ultimately, Superman takes the Wonder Woman path from the conclusion to DC's Infinite Crisis, which, I suppose, is a mark in the sand, signifying that this is a new take on Superman, light-years from Christopher Reeve's portrayal. There's nothing wrong with that but, wow, there were some great jokes in that old movie, there's barely a smile in this one. I don't honestly see where a new franchise could go from here on the basis of this outing, except that merchandise and box-office probably say that it will. Could the action and cataclysm get any more ramped-up? Does it need to be? I'd welcome an art-director's cut of Man Of Steel foregrounding the poetic imagery and keeping the donnybrooks to a minimum. I don't expect to get my wish.

Man of Steel poster

Man of Steel artwork

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