Thursday 28 April 2022

From the archive: "Man of Steel"

Sometimes deciding what to see when you’re stood at the ticket counter of a Saturday night is a trade-off. More so than ever with the Superman reboot
Man of Steel: anyone getting excited at the input of executive producer Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker responsible for the Batman revamp, may be given pause by the Kryptonite presence of Zack Snyder, whose Watchmen, 300 and Sucker Punch were products of that leeringly adolescent yet highly bankable sensibility that’s effectively blocked the mainstream from making movies for grown-ups.

In fact, even Nolan’s presence might be seen as a double-edged sword: the Superman we’re getting here is one of those origin stories that effectively tells us what we already know – only, y’know, at greater length, in gloomier colours, and with more digital whistles and bells. An interstellar prologue seems particularly garbled: something about how noble Jor-El (Russell Crowe) shuttled away his infant son after their native planet Krypton fell subject to a coup by angry military advisor Zod (Michael Shannon), everybody dressed in those silly costumes that sunk much of the Green Lantern movie.

Yet some indication Snyder has here been pointed in a marginally different direction – one equally interested in physical and virtual forms – can be inferred from the film’s early effects work: underwater baby farms that resemble medical diagrams of haemorrhoids, thrusting, tapered prison cells that square the penal with the penile. Even the S-shaped memory stick Jor-El slips into his offspring’s escape pod is fashioned out of a skull.

The film finds its feet when the kid – Kal-El, assumed name Clark Kent – lands in the kind of small town where a guy might reasonably expect to have Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as foster parents. Yet growing up great in nondescript flatland is no easy task. Kal’s persistent heroism – heaving a schoolbus from a lake, for instance – only shows up his contemporaries as weak and muddling; he grows into a bearded drifter (Henry Cavill) whose good deeds attract as much opprobrium as they do acclaim – like a really, really buff Jesus.

It should be noted that the cape fits Cavill pretty well. He's just blank enough to pass unnoticed in large crowds, and capable of demonstrating sensitivity as well as strength when set in close-up. His biceps are, frankly, out of this world: away from bending girders to put out an oilrig fire, you suspect he’d make an exceptionally satisfying cuddler.

That said, it may be a sign of the New Event Movie’s near-total lack of interest in anything like flirtation or romance – what fanboys generally have down as “girly stuff” – that this Kent reveals himself to his Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as Super from the off: happening upon her as she snoops around his crashlanded pod, he cauterises a wound on her torso with his eyes, while telling her “I can do things other men cannot do”, which is one way of piquing a gal’s interest.

Maybe it’s the presence of proper actors like Adams, Lane and Costner – some distance removed from the Ken and Barbie dolls who staffed this director’s earlier work – or maybe it’s Nolan’s steadying hand, but Snyder seems to grow up a little in this central section, finding at least an hour amid the usual blockbuster storm for something more reflective and human. He loses the smirk, rations the CGI, even packs the doubting Kent off to church in a scene that would have been unthinkable in 300 or Sucker Punch.

It gets serious, in other words, which fits the Nolan conception of comic-book capers as Terribly Important Modern Myths; some may miss the vein of chipper comedy that ran through the 1978 Superman. Still, at least we’re spared the morbidly self-involved mythology that played out on the cramped sidestreets of the Dark Knight movies. This is a Middle American story at heart, and Snyder seeks out wide open spaces (a cornfield, a salt flat, the galaxy) in which Man of Steel can at least gesture towards an exploration of what it is to be good, and do good – a theme even Snyder cannot help but make resonate.

Almost inevitably, the final hour gives into the kind of loud crashes and bangs market forces (and studio trailer-makers) demand, which lessens some of the impact; it’d take a filmmaker with a personality stronger than Cavill’s arms to pull away from that urge, one suspects. Yet it’s pleasing to be able to report that, for the moment, Superman has survived Zack Snyder. That ticket can be bought without undue fear.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Man of Steel screens on ITV at 10.45pm tomorrow night.

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