MAN OF STEEL (M) Directed by Zack Snyder *** Reviewed by James Croot
Superman II scared the life out of me.
Along with Watership Down, The Scarecrow and Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain sequence, it formed the stuff of nightmares in my early years of cinema-going.
Whether it was Terence Stamp's General Zod or the black-glass-like Phantom Zone that gave me the willies I'm not sure, but the memory of not sleeping the night after watching it at Dunedin's St James Theatre still lingers.
Of course in those days, just over 30 years ago, Superman was the only superhero in town. Spider-Man was only seen in cheap Asian quickies and Batman to us was a TV comedy starring campy ol' Adam West. But that was before even the last son of Krypton lost his way, reduced to battling Richard Pryor and himself in progressively sillier outings. By the time Bryan Singer tried to resurrect the character in 2006's Superman Returns, the cinematic comic-book field had got incredibly crowded and the film's lighter, less brooding tone didn't gel with audience's desire for darker X-Man or Spider-Man-esque action. The threat level of Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor just wasn't high enough. So now, in the wake of Christopher Nolan's wildly successful reinvention of the Bat, Warner Brothers have gone for a "clean reboot" of Cleveland high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's 80-year-old character.
Cinematically David S Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy) and Nolan's story is a hybrid of Superman I and II (which as many people know was basically one big long movie anyway), with Krypton fatally crippled by its inhabitants' meddling with the planet's core, degenerative bloodlines caused by artificial breeding and the populus' future seemingly doomed by lawmakers having endless debates.
In a last ditch attempt to save his home, military leader General Zod (a Hulky Michael Shannon) launches a coup but is thwarted by chief scientist Jor-El (a sweaty Russell Crowe) who seizes control of their ancestral DNA and places it in a small spacecraft with his newborn son Kal (Krypton's first natural birth in centuries) who he hopes might forge his own destiny on a new planet - Earth. While Jor's wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) worries that his superior strength and abilities will see him classed as an outcast or freak, Jor assures her that Kal "will be a god to them". Zod just simply swears to one day track him down.
Let's establish one thing, Henry Cavill (TV's The Tudors) is a far more convincing and imposing presence, both in and out of the red jumpsuit, than either Reeve or Returns' Brandon Routh and his character, like his jaw, is set "squarely" to brood. He's like Daniel Craig's Bond compared to Roger Moore's and George Lazenby's. There's a little bit of The Littlest Hobo vibe about his initial adult adventures attempting to hide his mad skills, but Cavill's intensity carries the day (he even rocks a beard - a far better disguise than the usual black frames).
Likewise, despite disappointingly slim screentime, Amy Adams' Lois Lane (The Fighter) is an agreeably feisty dame and flame (although she's no Selina Kyle), more 1930s and 40s screwball comedy female journalist than the simpering Teri Hatcher of TV's Lois and Clark or Kate Bosworth's (Returns) bland Pulitzer Prize winner.
But despite a seriously impressive supporting cast - the film also features Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Kal's earthly alter-ego Clark Kent's parents and Lawrence Fishburne as the Daily Planet's editor, Perry White, there's just an overall feeling of déjà vu about the events that unfold. How many times in the past decade have we witnessed an alien invasion that destroys downtown and needs some sort of portal/black hole/gateway to another dimension either created or destroyed to send them packing? Oh, I don't know, but it sounds exactly like the plot of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Avengers (and a lot like Green Lantern), plus multiple Doctor Who episodes. And they all "borrowed" it from Ghostbusters anyway.
Throw in elements of Prometheus (godlike creatures causing all sorts of mayhem across the universe), Oblivion and War of the Worlds (aliens re-engineering our atmosphere) and the whole thing gives off a slightly stale whiff. Then, when it's coupled with an over-reliance on fisticuffs (yawn) and director Zack Snyder's (300) insistence on shooting everything on handheld cameras and in a moody blue-grey palette, it just leaves you feeling a little seasick, especially in 3D.
That said, it's a more interesting and intriguing stab than Routh's Returns and think back - eight years ago many were on the fence about Nolan's dark knight after Batman Begins was released. Better times may well be ahead (a sequel has already been greenlit), but with the fearsome Zod having been slightly squandered here it will need a better villain and more inspired plotting to make Superman really fly once again.
An abridged version of this review plus reviews of the week's other new releases will appear in Saturday's Your Weekend publication in The Press.