Later this week, DC will present its most audacious challenge to Marvel’s pristine record on the silver screen yet with “Batman V Superman – Dawn of Justice”. DC and Warner Brothers are hoping to feed off society’s current obsession with the ‘Superhero Movie’ genre and use the uniting of arguably 3 of the most iconic comic book characters of all time to kick-start a new age of prosperity for their brand and reputation in Hollywood. In anticipation for Thursday’s release, I thought it would be an appropriate time to take a look back at the origins of DC’s current cinematic universe with 2013’s “Man of Steel” starring Henry Cavill, directed by Zack Snyder.
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
DC’s past with translating their comic books onto the big screen has been anything but ideal. In recent years, their attempts to challenge the success of franchises such as “X-Men”, “Spiderman”, “Iron Man” and later “The Avengers” never quite met the mark of quality and appeal with both “Green Lantern” and “Superman Returns” held back by their predictable narratives and inconsistency in tone. For a long while, “The Dark Knight” trilogy remained the sole success story of the DC Brand, making it very clear that unless the company learned to focus their ambition and take their stories seriously in the way that Christopher Nolan achieved with his series, their reputation cinematically would be tarnished beyond repair.
Enter “Man of Steel” – and FINALLY the story of Superman is given the respect of a stark and bold script that ticks all the right boxes tonally and thematically. For starters, its balance of action and drama is superb – not being superficial in its use of *expensive* CGI sequences in a way that detracts from the narrative, but also having enough explosiveness to maintain an atmosphere and energy for the duration of the film. In a field where there is so much competition from rival brands and characters, “Man of Steel” found a way to reinvent the genre by focusing on a more intimate and character based approach to contrast against Marvel’s tongue-in-cheek, family friendly appeal.
“For some, he was a guardian angel. For others, a cipher; a ghost who never quite fit in. As you work your way back in time, the stories begin to form a pattern.”
Visually, there’s very little to fault in the film. The efforts of Zack Snyder and his team to produce an exciting and aesthetically pleasing movie is remarkably apparent, and his commitment to using practical effects as much as physically possible in the place of CGI environments and sequences works wonders for how realistic and genuine the finished product looks. Aside from that, the film is carried by an array of remarkable performance; including Amy Adams whose interpretation of Lois Lane is one of the most assertive and confident we’ve seen on film, Russell Crowe who effortlessly embodies the gravitas and strength of Jor-El and Diane Lane whose grasp of a typically younger Martha Kent works nicely to provide a source of support and strength for our titular hero. Of course Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman is without question one the strongest performance of the lot, embodying the divinity and presence of the hero so believably it’s not hard to find yourself in awe of the character from the get go.
“You’re talking about genocide!” – “Yes, and I’m arguing its merits with a ghost”
Of course this is far from the perfect movie, with certain sections of the narrative suffering from overexposure and the occasional pacing issue. One of the most hit-and-miss aspects of the film is Michael Shannon’s General Zod and his role as the main villain of the piece. On one hand, there is something refreshing about a Superman origins movie – or just a Superman movie period – that doesn’t feature Lex Luther as the antagonist. Without a doubt Lex is the most iconic of Superman’s villains, however that in no way makes it logical for literally ever Superman film of the last 50 years (bar one) to ignore a vast catalogue of equally imposing characters. It would be like featuring Peter Parker’s version of Spiderman for 3 different origin movies within 15 years despite the fact there remains a plethora of unused, diverse and arguably more interesting versions of the character waiting of their opportunity to shine…
Back to the topic at hand, General Zod is not a poorly written character, much the opposite. The antagonist is not one without solid motivation and justification for his actions – in fact it’s fairly evident that he truly believes himself to be the hero in his own story. The problems with his involvement in the film revolve purely around his portrayal, specifically Michael Shannon’s visible struggle to encompass the status and power the sole villain of a Hollywood blockbuster requires. Furthermore, Zod’s team of rebels lack any individual characterization, with Faora-Ul coming the closest at grasping a personality but just falling short. Luckily the film sources its tension and atmosphere from elsewhere including some gripping scenes depicting the destruction of Metropolis and its bold attitude in not being afraid to threaten the mortality of some of its most cherished characters.
“I gotta find a job where I can keep my ear to the ground. Where people won’t look twice when I want to go somewhere dangerous and start asking questions.”
Perhaps the most refreshing and successful aspect of “Man of Steel” is the angle it takes in reintroducing and reimagining the story of Superman for a new audience. When you look at the most prominent criticisms of Superhero origins movies, some common threads arise. Both 2002’s “Spiderman” and 2005’s “Batman Begins” were flawed due to the great amount of time it took for the titular heroes to actually manifest on screen, a trope used even more unsuccessfully with the shambolic horror that was 2015’s “Fantastic Four”, in which the ‘Fantastic Four’ didn’t even become the ‘Fantastic Four’ until the last line of the film. Where “Man of Steel” succeeds is through flipping that narrative on its head and instead tracking a much more personal and intimate character journey. This is not the story of Clark Kent finding his strength and becoming Superman, given the story quite quickly asserts that the heroic values and thirst to do good in the world are qualities that the character had embodied from an incredibly early age. No, this is the story of a man finding his place in a world, cementing his beliefs and accepting the good he can do by embedding himself into everyday society. In quite a strange and rewarding way: this is the story of Superman grounding himself and becoming Clark Kent – a character whose morality, flaws and determination make him just as much of a superhero as his caped alter-ego.
Check back on Radio Monash throughout the day on Wednesday for an exclusive advance review of “Batman V Superman – Dawn of Justice” before it’s global release on Thursday.