"Release the World Engine!"
“Release the World Engine!”
You can tell the filmmakers are taking Man Of Steel seriously when they start throwing the M-word around. Introducing the film on stage at the European premiere in London, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan talk solemnly about myths and mythologies – the sheer, weighty mythicnessness of Superman. This is a film we are to take seriously, because nothing says serious more than watching men in capes hitting each other with cars. You can tell Man Of Steel is serious because it has Russell Crowe – a cinematic Titan of seriousness – intoning narrative exposition in a plummy English accent.
Man Of Steel is also being taken very seriously behind the scenes, too, by a studio who know that since Nolan won’t be making any more Batman films for them they are in need of an A-list superhero franchise from their DC Comics stable to combat Marvel’s near-total dominance of the genre. Marvel have successfully delivered on their ambitious, forward thinking strategy to crossover plots, cast and concepts in what they call the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC, on the other hand, have struggled to find success beyond Nolan’s Batman films. Their last Superman reboot in 2006, Superman Returns? Green Lantern? Their long-delayed Wonder Woman project? Hush now.
The problem for DC is that Marvel drank the Kool Aid and lightened up. Their films are light, loose and bright; pop art fun. DC, meanwhile, are still struggling to shake off the impact Alan Moore and Frank Miller had on their comics in the late Eighties with their vision for grown-up comics (as much an oxymoron as “a serious superhero movie”). Moore and Miller’s proposition of superheroes as psychologically complex, Nietzschean Übermensch battling both themselves and their own inner demons in dystopian cityscapes trickled down to first Tim Burton and then Nolan’s Batman films. It plateaued with Nolan’s last Batman film – the pretentious, po-faced and deeply boring The Dark Knight Rises.
Man Of Steel can’t help but be overshadowed by Nolan’s films: as well as his producing duties, Nolan is also co-writer. It’s a shame for Snyder, who you’d assume doesn’t simply want to be remembered as Nolan’s amanuensis. Great chunks of it are shot in Nolan-lite sombre greys and blues, Christian iconography abounds, Hans Zimmer’s portentous score is trowelled on. I wish they wouldn’t take it all so seriously, especially when the dialogue is a ridiculous mix of platitudes (“Sometimes in life you’ve got to take a leap of faith”) and exposition (“If you destroy this ship, you will destroy Krypton”). My favourite line in the film is “Release the World Engine!”, which is as stupid/serious as it gets. The characters here rarely talk to each other in the traditional sense – there is little attempt at conversation, or exchanges of thoughts, ideas and feelings. It’s mostly one character telling another – very seriously – what he has done, is doing now or is about to do.
Fans of the first two 70s Superman movies – and the comics – will be familiar with the broadest strokes of the plot. Scientist Jor-El (Crowe) sends his only son, Kal-El, into space to escape the destruction of their native Krypton; he lands on Earth, becomes Clark Kent and as a young adult faces down renegade Kryptonian, General Zod (Michael Shannon). In the original 70s films, Krypton was white and icy: here, with the full box of cutting edge CGI tricks at his disposal, Zack Snyder conjures a planet that looks a little like Pandora from Avatar with a style palette reminiscent of David Lynch’s Dune. There are underwater breeding farms, multi-winged flying creatures and the kind of lazy fag-packet logic that comes with blockbuster culture.
The early scenes on Earth are the best thing in the film. We meet Kal-El – now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) – as an introspective, thirtysomething drifter, working hand-to-mouth on jobs in trawler boats, in bars, scuffing round the remotest fringes of America. It reminds me a little of The Incredible Hulk TV series, where David Banner would similarly drift from one dead-end job to another until he found himself in situations where he helped others despite risking his secret. There’s a nice intimacy here, helped in flashback by some good work from Kevin Costner as Clark’s adoptive father, who counsels him to keep his powers hidden in case he spooks humankind. After that, when Zod turns up, it becomes a big fight – and some more exposition, much of it shouted this time – to the final, exhausting end.
As discussed, we are meant to accept that Nolan and Snyder are basically unveiling a grand new vision for Superman – but this is still a film that confirms to a rigid narrative structure, which can find no other way to resolve itself without a massive scrap. Buildings are trashed, trucks are thrown, a city is almost leveled. Snyder spends the best part of an hour on this section, buffeted along by Zimmer’s increasingly bombastic score and an increasingly unhinged barrage of CGI devastation.
So, what to make of our new Superman – and the latest British actor to play an A-list superhero? Henry Cavill certainly looks the part – man, that is some dimple – but there’s something of the estate agent about him. He has little chemistry with Amy Adams, given an underwritten role as Lois Lane, and nowhere near as freewheeling as Margot Kidder’s version. Kevin Costner is arguably the best actor in the film, bringing humanity and lightness of touch to his part that is sorely needed elsewhere. Crowe, bless him, does some quite nice work when Jor-El is revived as a less dogmatic and more felicitous computer programme. Michael Shannon – whose work in Boardwalk Empire and, most recently, in The Iceman is terrific – throws the regulation baddie shapes here. We learn that all Kryptonians are genetically bred to fulfil certain roles and Zod was designed to be the prime defender of Krypton. The intriguing idea of a man who is driven to obey a pre-conditioned directive is intrinsically morally interesting, but virtually discarded by the filmmakers: it might have given Zod something a little more than just baddie in a skin-tight nylon-mesh suit who can shoot light beams out of his eyes.
This is a big film, but one in desperate need of some lightness. “Release the World Engine!” Indeed.
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