james debate
james debate

Friday 19 July 2013

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Running time 143 minutes

man of steel chris nolan zack snyder superman

It would be an understatement to say that the newest iteration of the Superman franchise has been hyped; Superman is after all one of the oldest and most iconic of super heroes, and one with a rich cinema history. But the franchise has effectively been in limbo for the past 20 years since the loss of Christopher Reeve, even the talents of Kevin Spacey couldn't save the last entry in the series, 2006's Superman Returns, from being a train wreck.

So when it was decided to reboot the franchise once again under the direction of Christopher Nolan, hopes were sky-high. Nolan's Dark Knight Batman trilogy had completely changed the way people look at super hero movies, from childish comic book fodder to genuinely substantive cinema, and paved the way for super hero movies to be both rich in depth while still appealing to the mass market. The hope was that Man of Steel might do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman.

However Nolan turned down this offer, deciding that jumping from Batman to Superman would not be in the best interests either for him or the franchise (a sentiment apparently not shared by JJ Abrams who has recently performed a similar manoeuvre from Star Trek to Star Wars), but stayed on as a producer. The directorial duties then shifted to Zack Snyder, a man whose earlier Watchmen adaptation had seen a similar level of artistic nuance to Nolan's Batman films, albeit less commercially successful.

With these two attached to the project the anticipation was understandably high. At the very least the expectation was for a super hero movie of similar scope and ambition if not quality. Unfortunately the result is one of the majors cinema disappointments of 2013. Man of Steel is more Batman and Robin than Batman Begins.

Man of Steel starts off on a bad foot with the obligatory scene of baby Superman being saved from his dying world. Whereas previous iterations of the series had wisely adopted the astute mantra of "less is more" when it comes to Superman's home world, Man of Steel instead opts for an absurdly drawn out 20 minute introduction full of spaceship battles, explosions and generic action movie sequences that feel completely out of place in the Superman franchise. Tasteful? Not at all. Relevant to the plot? Barely. Is it going to look more dated in 10 years than the equivalent scene from 1978's Superman? Incredibly and laughably yes, hell it already looks like a deleted scene from the Phantom Menace.

Perhaps they were trying too hard to woo the summer blockbuster crowd, perhaps they were simply giving Russell Crowe a bigger role because they didn't have the guts to give him a single tiny cameo as they did in 1978 with Marlon Brando. Either way the manner in which the movie begins sadly epitomises everything that's wrong with Man of Steel.

A film that had been billed as something with artistic ambition instead feels more like a generic summer action movie. Action sequences are drawn out, drama is overwrought, nonsensical and contrived plot devices are employed seemingly just to advance the movie to the next fight scene. It's weak stuff.

Most of the problems can be attributed to the awful script which is full of banal dialogue, cliché-ridden set pieces, and simply none of the humour or joy that made the old Superman movies so watchable. It was easy for audiences to relate to Reeve's affably nerdy Clark Kent and his doomed romance with Lois Lane, but Man of Steel's characters feel so plastic and soulless that we are simply never given a reason to really care about what's happening to them.

It's a shame because the premise is great: focusing on 'Clark Kent the person' and how it feels for him to be an outsider, so out of place and distant from the world around him. And yet this concept is never given the treatment it deserves, the words are hollow and lacking in emotional clout, not helped by the sporadically out of sequence flashbacks that slowly reveal this character-driven aspect to the story.

Much is therefore made of Clark Kent's relationship with his family, and yet so little time is spent on his youth that there's no sense of development or affection, just more cardboard cutout characters to fill the gap between explosions.

Many have simply criticised Man of Steel for being too long, but the length wouldn't be a problem if more of that time were devoted to richer character and story based scenes and less mindless action. At its heart Man of Steel is a film that aspires to the greatness of those that have come before it, and yet totally misses the qualities that made those films work.

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