Man of Steel
Brand reinvention is the latest thing in the movie world and particularly so if your name is Christopher Nolan. Last year was the culmination of his trilogy centered on the antics of The Dark Knight, or The Artist Formerly Known As Batman to you and I. After brushing up the Batman franchise and selling it on at a profit, Nolan has now enlisted 300 director Zach Snyder and moved on to another superhero.
In a way, you can sort of see Nolan as a one-man PR agency specializing in comic book adaptations. Batman was in a terrible mess at the turn of the millennium after some truly woeful outings in the 90’s. Enter Nolan. Rebrand as “The Dark Knight”. Voila! $2.5bn in the Bat-bank and credibility restored.
Now it is the turn of DC Comics’ other big name.
As a product, Superman isn’t quite in the doldrums to the extent of his caped pal. Where Bruce Wayne and his alter ego had become a laughing stock, Superman has simply ceased to be relevant. An endless succession of Christopher Reeve sequels in the 1980’s brought ever diminishing returns and critical acclaim. X-men guru Bryan Singer tried to pump life back into the series with 2006’s Superman Returns. But despite decent reviews, no-one really seemed that interested. Superman had become a dinosaur, a child of the 80’s that not even children of the 80’s cared for any more. It was time to call in the expert.
At this stage it’s probably important to state that Nolan is only the Producer on this movie, but his grubby little fingerprints are all over it. Even the title smacks of him: “Man of Steel” is a clever rebranding, somehow making the whole concept of another Superman film less ludicrous in the first place. The trick worked with Batman, albeit to the extent that Charlie Brooker mockingly suggested that Nolan would probably even refer to Papa Smurf as “The Blue Patriarch”, a view that this film will do little to change.
Anyhow, our film begins on what can only be describes as the total carnage of Krypton, a planet which is collapsing due to a thinly-veiled swipe at our reliance on fossil fuels. The infant hero is fired off to Earth in the nick of time with an incarcerated baddy called General Zod (think a cross between Adolf Hitler and David Brent) swearing to hunt him down.
There follows an hour or so that is essentially a red and blue clad version of Batman Begins, as young Clark Kent (as his adopted parents obviously call him) comes to terms with his powers under the ludicrously sanctimonious eyes of his father, played by Kevin Costner. Investigative journalist Lois Lane is one of many people saved by Clark at various stages of his life and threatens to blow his cover before he talks her out of it. So far, so nice.
Then, just as the film is beginning to drag, Zod turns up with a few cronies and predictably all hell breaks loose (in New York, obviously). If the first half of the film was aping Nolan’s first Batman outing, then the second half borrows heavily from the likes of Avengers Assemble, Transformers, etc.
There is much to like about this film. It is visually stunning, not least the shots of Superman (although you sense that it’s considered a bit of a faux-pas to refer to him thus) winging around the Serengeti as he discovers the true extent of his powers, while the action scenes are also impressive, indeed what’s not to like about two people punching each other through buildings and lobbing trains around like tennis balls?
Sadly where Man of Steel really lets itself down for me is in its mood. Given the quality and variation of recent superhero films, it’s no doubt a tricky thing to get right, however Snyder and Nolan’s effort falls well short of replicating either the gothic quality of the Batman films, or the tongue-in-cheek humour and charm of Avengers Assemble.
The end impression is that the whole thing is a bit po-faced. I’m not suggesting that Superman should be zipping off James Bond one-liners as the 14,000th skyscraper to be destroyed in the film crumbles in the background. However it would probably benefit from just taking itself a touch less seriously.
The acting is for the most part very good (although for some reason I always felt that Michael Shannon’s General Zod looked absurdly and unnecessarily CGI-created, maybe it was just his ridiculous beard) and the fight scenes are ambitious and visually impressive, but perhaps appropriately what the Man of Steel really lacks is a soul. There is literally no light relief and even the romance with Lois Lane seems a bit awkward and out of place.
Given the film concludes on probably the biggest “things falling into place” scene since the end of Skyfall, we can certainly expect sequels. Superman fans will also probably notice that all the construction works are owned by ‘Lexcorp’, so one imagines that we’ll be seeing Mr Luther in the next installment…
All in all, it’s a solid return for Superman, but you hope that the next episode contains less naval-gazing and lightens up a bit. Otherwise this rebranding of the world’s favourite superhero franchise might all be in vain.
By Harry Harland