Man of Steel (Review)

Contains spoilers.


The Superman franchise is one I’ve never previously had any interest in.  I’m not a great fan of the superhero genre as a rule – or at least, the generic Marvel/DC template which dominates the genre – but Superman always seemed exceptionally intolerable to me.  An unbeatable man who can do anything, only weakened by a metal which doesn’t even exist on Earth?  There’s really very little (interesting) that can be done with the concept.  But still, I thought, I’d better watch it for myself to truly judge the concept, so today I went to see Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.  …Oh boy, was I right.

I suppose I ought to start with the positives.  Most of the opening half hour or so was really enjoyable to watch.  The planet Krypton was revealed in a glory of computer-generated splendour and I actually felt invested in the characters, largely thanks to the great acting by Russell Crowe (aka the best singer of Lés Miserablesand Ayelet Zurer.  I was with the characters, desperate for their plan to send their baby Kal-El to a far-off world to save it from the planet’s destruction.  The moment the planet did explode was even rather moving.  This whole sequence was beautifully directed – along with most of the film – and gave me high hopes for the rest of the film.  If only it had stayed like this…

There were other aspects of the film I liked.  The acting all-round was pretty good: Henry Cavill is decent as Clark, the character’s failing not being a result of the acting, while Amy Adams played Lois Lane well (again more than can be said for the writing; she starts off a feminist because, you know, she continually mocks men through her first scene – but gradually her independence erodes and she relies more on Clark).  Clark’s adoptive parents were also well-acted, if generic, and Laurence Fishburne has improved since The Matrix now his character actually has a personality.  General Zod, unfortunately, is too great a mesh of testosterone and military stereotypes to be, uh… oh…

Yeah, positives didn’t go so well.  One of the most distracting elements of the film was its fragmented plotting.  After the glorious opening sequences we’re subjected to constant switching between Clark’s upbringing to random moments in his progression to becoming the Superman.  This would be fine if the scenes were made clear to be flashbacks, but they weren’t, which left me wondering where each scene fitted in to his life.  To be fair, most of these scenes judged individually were fairly good but they just didn’t slot well into the film as a whole – with the exception of his father’s death, which showed Clark to be a heartless monster for doing nothing and his father to be a saint – a superman himself, if you will.  This issue of structuring had a particular impact upon Clark and Lois’ ‘relationship’ – they’re barely acquaintances throughout the film but suddenly kiss at the end because… that’s what’s supposed to happen?  This happens a lot, actually – the script will demand something happens so the film can go through the superhero genre motions, but it often feels forced.  Then the whole thing really collapsed the moment he put on that ridiculous cape and begin to fly – the moment he became Superman, basically – and the film never recovered.

Quite simply, the concept of Superman doesn’t work for me.  His abilities are supposedly endless but the most significant ones are flight, super-strength, super-speed, super-thought – and laser eyes for good measure.  Ignoring the science (he can fly because gravity is stronger on Krypton?  That explanation is painful), from a literary sense this ruins the character because he is not someone who can be defeated.  He can barely even be challenged.  His one weakness is to be removed from Earthlike conditions which, since he’s invincible, is pretty hard to do.  It only happens in Man of Steel when Zod threatens to wipe out humanity.  He also supposedly becomes weaker when flying near the terraforming machine – despite the fact the film has already made clear terraforming doesn’t work like that!  It’s not a bubble expanding outwards, rather changing the conditions of the planet as a whole.  So really, he’s pretty undefeatable.  Now, this could have interesting connotations – the struggle of such powers, the morality of any individual becoming a God – but instead Clark is so perfect with his chivalry and American values that it’s just incredibly dull.  This also results in easy plot resolutions: did he really defeat the terraforming device by flying through it to make it explode?  My word, that’s lazy.

Like any blockbuster, the main focus of Man of Steel was the action scenes.  This is occasionally bearable if the action scenes are interesting, which was not the case here.  Most of the second half was comprised of endless shots of various characters flying about, punching one another, zipping through buildings and causing intense destruction.  It became repetitive after a minute, let alone 30.  Granted, still better than The Matrix (though it’s a tough one!).  You’d be better off going to see a wrestling match; as much is achieved in less time and the result no less pre-ordained.  I left the cinema wondering, quite simply, why had I wasted that last hour of my life to watch money be wasted on endless sequences of pointless violence?  It’s as if there was an ‘action scene quota’ – I’d finally breathed a sigh of relief when Clark destroyed Zod’s spaceship, only for Zod to have miraculously survived – uh, somehow – and another inspid fight ensued.  The climax where Clark was distraught over the possible death of a family by Zod’s laser vision felt utterly unconvincing considering how many innocents he’d allowed to die by fighting in an urban area, by bringing skyscrapers crashing down and debris falling everywhere, by flying through a petrol station and causing it to explode – oh, I forgot, in blockbuster land you can have limitless destruction without any such moral qualms.  How silly of me.

Man of Steel is a mind-numbingly poor film at times.  It’s so dull that I’ve even struggled to find interesting pictures for this review!  The first half is moderately decent and it is saved by skilled direction from time to time, but the endless violence and repetitive action completely destroys the film.  I’m getting so sick of blockbusters – I think I’ll do my utmost best to avoid any more this year.  And I still need to be convinced that there’s a superhero film worth watching.  The Watchmen – also by Snyder – looks interesting, at least, though not a candidate to solve my issue with gratuitous violence.

Final rating: 4/10

Les Miserables (2012 Film) Review

Contains Spoilers.

I have to admit it: I’m not a great fan of musicals.  The bombastic musical numbers, stereotypical jazz hands and lack of realism usually grate heavily on me.  I’ve never seen classics such as Grease or Mamma Mia, and I never plan to, since I have no interest in watching clichés in action.   But Les Miserables was always clearly going to be different.  I didn’t know much about it, other than being set during revolutionary France – which, honestly, is alone enough to sell a film for me – and that it features much misery.  And I’d heard glowing reviews for it.  So, I thought I’d go see it;  this was not a mistake.

At 157 minutes in length, my intolerance of sitting through whole films was sure to be tested to its limit, much as it was during my viewing of The Hobbit.  I had no reason to fear, for the film was a thoroughly engaging experience from beginning to end, and I only looked at my watch four times – low for my standards!  This is in part due to the very interesting way in which the film tackles the plot.  It’s set primarily across three time periods: 1815, 1823 and 1832.  In 1815, Jean Valjean has just been released from servitude for the crime of stealing bread, and the story covers his refusal to report for parole and attempts to escape from capture by the policeman Javert.  The events of 1823 include Valjean, now a successful businessman, continuing to avoid Javert; his worker Fantine’s descent into poverty, prostitution and eventually death; and Valjean’s adoption of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  In 1832 the events of the failed June Rebellion play out and brings together every character.  More a tribute to the original Victor Hugo 1862 novel than this adaptation, the plot skillfully develops the characters and themes, perfectly intertwining them together.  Not until the final twenty minutes does Les Miserables begin to feel repetitive and dragged out, and even here the film is such an enjoyable watch that I hardly noticed.

The acting is terrific.  Hugh Jackman is the undeniable star as Valjean, hardly identifiable as the same actor between 1815 and 1832.  I actually was quite confused about who was whom to begin with, partly down to my inability to instantly recognise faces but also due to his incredible acting.  Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and I’m just going to admit that I liked his singing, too.  This might not mean much coming from someone who enjoys atonal music (I suspect I’m slightly tone deaf) but I don’t understand all the negativity towards his performance.  The entire cast seemed so perfect in their roles that unless you’re an experienced music critique (I’m not) then it isn’t worth mentioning everyone individually.  The only characters I didn’t enjoy were Thénardier and his wife, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  This wasn’t down to their acting, I just found their comedy roles grating and went against the tone of the film.

In terms of writing, I was heavily impressed by the development of the characters.  To praise him again, Valjean must be one of the most realistic, developed and three-dimensional characters in the history of literature.  The fact that this comes across in a musical is truly remarkable.  Fantine, Marius and Éponine are, likewise, also developed to an astonishing degree.  Less so is Cosette, who while excellently portrayed as a child feels underdeveloped as a teenager.  This is largely down to the ‘love at first sight’ method of introducing her romance with Marius, where they look at each other and are suddenly a couple.  For such an important feature of the story, there’s not much excuse for this – particularly considering the high standard of everything else.

I’m torn over the film’s depiction of historical events.  While someone without a knowledge of French history between 1789 and 1848 will undoubtedly allow most historical references to go over their head, I’m debating whether this is a bad thing.  The film is not worse for omitting explanations of who the monarchs were, of leaving no reference to the 1830 revolution only two years previous to the events in 1832, or for lacking much mention of the Napoleonic Wars.  I have located one area which could have had a bit more development however.  It’s never clear precisely why the students want to get rid of the monarchy; while there are mentions of “King after King” being no better than each other, and the social environment definitely shows how a revolution would be desirable, perhaps another line or two wouldn’t go amiss – it almost seems like a student project for some Practical Politics degree.

Most of my comments may be more suited to a critique of the novel – which I plan to read someday – so I need to mention the music.  From the very beginning, it’s apparent that the music is utterly fitting and beautiful.  Whether singing in desperation, (such as Fantine’s famous ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), resolve (‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’), love (‘A Heart Full of Love’), sadness (‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’) or hope (‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), each song is a heart-swelling wonder.  Even Javert’s ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ I enjoyed.  The only song which grated was ‘Master of the House’, for the same reason I didn’t like the Thénardiers which I mentioned above.  Outwith the context of the film the soundtrack stands up as nothing short of brilliance.  Particular standouts are ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘One More Day’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

The direction was also completely captivating.  Tom Hooper really brings the historical setting alive with wide, sweeping shots interspersed with close ups which bring the intensity of emotion directly to the viewer.  Mark Kermode commented on the wisdom of avoiding medium shots, to truly create an experience which would be impossible to witness in a theatre.  The shot which pans down on 1832 Paris, past the elephant, has to be my favourite moment in the film.

Les Miserables is a film which has refused to leave my thoughts since I saw it.  I’m possessed by a fervent desire to re-watch it, which is always a good thing.  The characters, the music, the setting… Virtually everything is perfect.  By far it’s the best film I’ve seen for a while, and I would highly recommend it.

Coming Soon: Les Miserables (musical) review & Les Miserables (novel) review.

Final Rating: 9.5/10