Man of Steel review

On Friday, 15 June 2013, I met Ken G., Michele L.D. & Paul D., Beruk A., and Josh C. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie featured solid acting and spectacular fight scenes, if shaky direction and plot.

Superman movie poster
Superman soars again

Plot: I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” here, but note that several of the reviews I’m linking to will have some. Man of Steel is a reboot/retelling of Superman’s origins. Most of the traditional elements are present from the 75-year legacy of DC Comics — to quote All-Star Superman: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.”

Man of Steel shows the political and scientific stagnation of Krypton. Megalomaniacal General Zod and hopeful researchers Jor-El and Lara-El realize that the end is near for their world and come to different conclusions. Jor-El and Lara send their infant son Kal-El to Earth, where he is raised by Midwestern farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.

After wandering the world, trying to use his amazing powers to help people, and keeping his identity secret, Clark Kent must face his destiny when Zod and his ruthless followers escape their exile and arrive on Earth. Plucky reporter Lois Lane and the U.S. military have many questions for him, as does a fearful public….

Script: As a longtime comic book fan, I didn’t need to see Superman’s backstory again, but I appreciated that scenes of Clark’s childhood in Smallville, Kansas, and his adult search for direction were handled through flashbacks rather than told in linear fashion. This is not surprising, given writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan’s past works.

I also liked Man of Steel‘s allusions to past Superman comics, films, and TV shows. The dialogue was a bit stiff, with little of the humor of other superhero movies (I’ll compare Man of Steel with some of these below). The cast made the best of it, however.

Acting: Englishman Henry Cavill did a good job of conveying Clark’s everyman charm and Superman’s physicality. His expressions of grief and hope showed how Kal-El was torn between Jor-El and Jonathan Kent before combining their best qualities. Cavill is a worthy successor to the actors who have worn the red cape and blue tights.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer get a surpising amount of action as strong-willed Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are good choices to represent Middle American decency as the Kents.

As determined and curious journalist Lois, I thought that Amy Adams was more credible than too-young Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns. Laurence Fishbourne doesn’t get to do much besides argue with Lois and duck collateral damage, but he was appropriately paternal as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

Michael Shannon had a fanatical glint in his eye as General Zod, who was less regal than Terence Stamp in Superman II. Antje Traue is just as chilling as Zod’s follower Faora as Sarah Douglas was as Ursa in Superman II.

Even the minor supporting roles were filled by decent actors, such as Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton and Christopher Meloni as Col. Nathan Hardy, who represent Americans initially distrustful of Kal-El but who learn to respect his patriotism. It was also nice to see ordinary soldiers, so often portrayed as antagonists or incompetent in superhero flicks, as professional and capable of making independent decisions.

Direction: I’ve enjoyed Zach Snyder’s action-packed movies, including the over-the-top 300 and Sucker Punch, fantasy Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole, and the surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Watchmen graphic novel, which deconstructed superhero tropes.

He was a good choice to reinvigorate the franchise after Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which was overly reverential to the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner films. Unfortunately, some scene transitions in Man of Steel are very abrupt, and the Krypton’s apocalypse, Clark’s idyllic but troubled adolescence, and huge battles in Metropolis and elsewhere don’t hang together very well.

As with the long-running TV series Smallville, I understand the desire to get away from the campy adventures of past decades, but Superman should be bright and heroic, unlike many of the costumed vigilantes he inspired.

Man of Steel is still clearly in the shadows of 9/11 and Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman trilogy. I think Warner Bros/DC has swung too far in the direction of grim and gritty, even as Disney/Marvel’s Avengers embraced four-color action and fun character moments.

Like Star Trek: Into Darkness, the producers have gone back to a popular sequel villain rather than take a truly fresh approach to recapturing a franchise’s essence while winning new audiences.

Cinematography: Not surprisingly for a Snyder film, the visual effects were top-notch in Man of Steel. We saw more of Krypton than in previous adaptations. It’s no longer a sterile ice planet as in 1978’s Superman but more of a baroque world as in more recent science fiction. I liked the alien technology, armor, and creatures, even if I still miss Superman’s red shorts and less overdesigned costumes.

The fight scenes were very impressive, as Kryptonians pit their super strength, speed, and heat vision against the U.S. military and one another. I was pleased to see full-body, tracking shots in daylight, and I had no difficulty tracking who was fighting whom, unlike many other superhero flicks.

With so much violence and destruction in the real world, it was upsetting to see Smallville and Metropolis get so thoroughly trashed in Man of Steel. Even though we didn’t see civilian casualties, tens of thousands would die as skyscrapers collapse. I would have liked to see Superman make more of an effort to protect innocents, but his feelings of guilt late in the movie were believable.

Score: Hans Zimmer is no John Williams, but his moody and classical soundtrack is a good fit for the Nolan-influenced Man of Steel. There were no memorable musical themes, as in Superman or most of the TV series.

Ratings: Warner Bros. and DC have a long way to go to catch up to Disney/Marvel’s popular movies. Man of Steel is less self-contained than the Nolan/Bale Batman trilogy, but the issue of tone will still need to be fixed if Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern are to be reintroduced as peers of Superman in an eventual Justice League movie.

I like Man of Steel as much as Iron Man 3 and more than Superman Returns, but not as much as the first two Christopher Reeve films or The Avengers. I’d give Man of Steel about a 7.5 out of 10, three out of five stars, or a solid “B.” The consensus of my group was closer to a 7.

I would recommend Man of Steel, which was rated PG-13 for unnecessary language and lots of violence, to fellow superhero fans and to those who hope that DC’s iconic characters will eventually receive their due in modern movies. A new generation has yet to learn what makes Superman the first and finest. Warner Bros. has green-lit a sequel, so let’s hope the next one is better.

Here’s how I’d rate the Superman films, from best to worst:

  • Superman II (1980) ****
  • Superman: the Movie (1978) ****
  • Serials with Kirk Alyn (1948) ***
  • Man of Steel (2013) ***
  • Superman Returns (2006) ***
  • Superman III (1983) **
  • Superman IV: the Quest for Peace (1987) *

After the movie, we went to Lizzy’s on Waltham’s Moody Street for dessert and discussion. After meeting Josh and Rich C.G. for Free RPG Day at the Compleat Strategist in Boston this morning, Janice and I returned to downtown Waltham for the Waltham Riverfest.

The next movies I’m looking forward to are Pacific Rim, Elysium, and Thor 2. In the meantime, may Superman continue to inspire hope and courage….

Latest Comics Wednesday lists

100 comic book characters

Since today is when many comic book fans visit their local shops to get the latest issues of their favorite titles — and I’m still catching up on work and gaming notes — here’s a quick rundown of what I’m currently subscribing to.

In particular, as DC Comics’ renumbering/reboot continues, the initial reviews have been mostly positive. So far, I think the experiment has been a success at getting print and digital issues out on time, increasing awareness in the wider public, shaking up continuity, and reviving characters such as Aquaman. We’ll see whether DC can keep up its sales numbers.

Yes, several of the costume redesigns aren’t especially good (Teen Titans and Birds of Prey), there’s an emphasis on horror (Justice League Dark) over all-ages superheroes. While DC’s reboot includes a few well-written female characters (Batwoman), other titles feature blatant pandering and sexism (Red Hood and the Outlaws). Overall, however, I’m still buying and reading more DC than Marvel.

Good, already subscribed to Issue 2 and beyond:

Batfamily: Batgirl, Batman and the Brave and the Bold (animated), Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Detective Comics

Other DC Universe: Action Comics (young Superman!), Aquaman, Green Arrow, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Young Justice

OK, might keep buying:

Batfamily: Catwoman, Batman, The Dark Knight, Huntress, Nightwing

Other DC Universe: Static Shock, Superman, Teen Titans, Zatanna

Dropped: Red Hood and the Outlaws

-David I.S. getting: All-Star Western, DC Universe Presents, Mr. Terrific, Resurrection Man

Not getting (doesn’t include Vertigo): Animal Man, Batman Beyond, Batwing, Blackhawks, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Flash, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, Fury of Firestorm, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lanterns: New Guardians, Grifter, Hawk and Dove, I Vampire, JLA Beyond, Justice League Dark, Justice League International, Legion of Superheroes, Legion Lost, My Greatest Adventure, OMAC, Red Lanterns, Savage Hawkman, Sgt. Rock and the Men of War, The Shade, Stormwatch, Suicide Squad, Superboy, Supergirl, Swamp Thing. Voodoo

Marvel: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Captain America, Mystic

Other publishers: Conan, Doctor Who, Flash Gordon, Godzilla, Guns & Dinos, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Liberty Meadows, Red Sonja, Rocketeer Adventures, The Shadow?, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, Star Wars: Old Republic, Steampunk Fairy Tales/Women of Steampunk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Warlord of Mars, Zorro Rides Again

Done/dropped: Aladdin/Sinbad, Buck Rogers, 50 Girls 50, Green Hornet, Jungle Girl, Magnus Robot Fighter, New/Mighty/Secret Avengers, Ruse, Thor, Turf, Umbrella Academy

To borrow from David I.S.: Angel & Faith/Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Domino Lady, Echo, Farscape, Firefly/Serenity, Ghostbusters, Knights of the Dinner Table, Mystery Society

Trades only: Age of Bronze, Astro City, Girl Genius, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mouse Guard, Powers, Wizard of Oz

What are you reading, and why?

Superman, DC redux

Justice League revised
The DCnU Justice League

A few months ago, the editorial management at DC Comics announced plans to renumber or relaunchbut notreboot” — its fictional universe. Characters would be de-aged, costumes redesigned, and relationships shaken up. Most of the initial reactions from fans, competitors, and the mainstream news media were negative, but I want to wait and see if DC’s moves can renew interest in its iconic superheroes or if the changes are costly missteps in entertainment’s ongoing migration online.

The cornerstone of the DC universe has always been Superman. DC has had to react to lawsuits from the heirs of creators Siegel and Shuster, who were among the numerous writers and graphic artists who were poorly treated by the companies that made billions of dollars from their creations.

I understand the desire of Warner Brothers and Disney to hang onto profitable intellectual properties, but it’s a shame that popular characters Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Sherlock Holmes can’t enter the public domain.

Today marks the beginning of DC’s updated continuity. Sure, I wish that some things hadn’t changed. For example, I would have preferred that Clark Kent/Superman & Lois Lane and Oliver Queen/Green Arrow & Dinah Lance/Black Canary — not to mention Peter Parker/Spider-Man & Mary Jane Watson — had stayed married.

I also would rather that DC’s Jason Todd and Marvel’s Bucky Barnes had stayed dead rather than experience dubious resurrections, and that Barbara Gordon, paralyzed in The Killing Joke, continued to lead the Birds of Prey as the savvy Oracle rather than revert to Batgirl and displace Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown.

On the other hand, given the serial nature of comic books (and television and movies), periodically “hitting the reset button” makes sense. Despite the popularity of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond, I generally don’t want to read about the adventures of an old Bruce Wayne or his protégés, so keeping our heroes forever young requires tinkering with continuity. Here’s how I’d handle Superman:

There are a few ways to recalibrate the timeline of the last son of Krypton, and by extension, the entire DC universe. Rather than use parallel universes, convoluted continuity, or an inconsistent mix of time frames, I’d do something like what I recommended for Wonder Woman.

-Kryptonians age differently. What if Kal-El had arrived in during the Great Depression? Clark Kent could have learned traditional values in Smallville, Kansas, observed World War II as a youth, and participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. What would Superman have done during the U.S. troop deployments in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East?

If he’s still at the height of his powers, Superman could help found the Justice Society and the Justice League, plus marry Lois Lane, anytime in the past few decades. In DC’s Multiverse, similar Supermen existed in the Earth 2 of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Elseworlds such as Kingdom Come. However, this doesn’t help determine evergreen timelines for anyone else.

-Always the present: Marvel Comics has been fairly successful with this sliding timeline. For example, Tony Stark is a wealthy industrialist who turned from producing weapons to being an armored vigilante as Iron Man. Did the ambush and injuries that awakened his altruism happen in Vietnam or Afghanistan? When did he help create the Avengers — the 1960s or the 2010s? Whenever suits the current readership. This had the advantage of keeping past storylines in the vague backstories, but the buildup of history can be like barnacles on a boat, dragging down creativity and making stories less accessible to new readers. Hence Marvel’s Ultimates line and DC’s “softreboots.

-Fathers and sons: I find this idea somewhat intriguing, because it reflects the multiple generations of readers, fans, and characters. Instead of beginning his career or being born in 1938, what if Superman’s father and stepfather were both born that year? Jonathan and Martha Kent could be of the generation that remembers the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the U.S.’s supposed halcyon days of the 1950s before societal turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s.

Disclaimer: My parents were born in the 1930s, so I can identify with this as a reader and writer, but I also think this possible timeline can help ground Superman’s values. Speaking of values, I’d want the tone of Superman to be lighter than for Batman or the X-Men, and more grounded than the Fantastic Four. Thor or Captain America (or a good Spider-Man) are closer in mood.

If Jor-El was also born in 1938, and he and Lara had Kal-El around the age of 40, the destruction of Krypton could have happened in 1978, the year of Christopher Reeve’s seminal cinematic portrayal. For the kindly Kents to be middle-aged and wanting but unable to have children, putting them in their 40s makes sense.

Clark would have grown up during the 1980s and 1990s, a solid product of the Midwest even as smaller family farms became endangered. Around 2000, he would have finished college, traveled the world, begun mastering his abilities, and moved to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet in the last gasp of print newspaper popularity. This is similar to Birthright in the comics and Lois and Clark and Smallville on television.

In the past decade, Superman would have become aware of technocratic nemesis Lex Luthor, helped found the Justice League, and inspired many other heroes — and villains — to don colorful costumes (perhaps inspired by the Justice Society of many decades prior). At 33 in 2011, he would be reaching the prime of his powers, like an NFL quarterback.

Pa Kent would have died of a heart attack around the age of 65 — long enough to have guided his son to adulthood, but early enough to be traumatic. I’d make Lois Lane about the same age as Clark but impatient, accomplished, worldly, and ready for a relationship, even if she wouldn’t admit it. Clark’s secret identity should be at least a little believable. In the end, I’d recommend a balance between the revised timeline and the timeless approach. The revised official continuity, or “DCnU,” states that Superman has been active for only five years.

While I don’t think that Superman’s origin story should be endlessly rehashed, a universal starting point is helpful to new writers and fans. As Marvel has often done, I’d start each new issue, TV show, or movie with a concise retelling a la Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” New stories could start from that timeless point.

As for costume and abilities, I’d try to keep them simple. The new movie and relaunched comics use an overly textured, militaristic look, but I prefer the blue-collar (but not dumb) hero of the 1940s. I’m not a fan of the “ribbed for your pleasure” look that started with Raimi’s Spider-Man and has continued through Superman Returns and the Star Trek reboot to this past summer’s Green Lantern and Captain America. (The black leathers of the Matrix, X-Men, and Batman Begins — and the upcoming Catwomanhave also become just as clichéd as the bright, ill-fitting spandex of previous live-action attempts.)

The red briefs on the outside (now omitted) may resemble those of a circus strongman or a professional wrestler, but that’s kind of the point — Superman is powerful and direct, not an ironically cool or an angsty poseur. Kal-El is an alien who has taken it upon himself to defend humanity, not someone who needs armor, intimidation, or shadows to cloak his role as a beacon of hope.

Superman should be “faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but he doesn’t need to be able to erase minds with a kiss, reverse the Earth’s orbit and time, or be strong enough to lift entire cities or the moon.

Kal-El can have “cousins” such as Kara Kent/Supergirl and Karen Starr/Power Girl and a clone in Connor Kent/Superboy, but he should still be the last direct survivor of Krypton as well as the alien who eventually most identifies with humanity (in contrast, say, to J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, or others).

The man of tomorrow should be smart enough to deal with weird science but not afraid to roll up his sleeves to smack down supercriminals, common thugs, corrupt politicians and businessmen, dictators, mad scientists, metahuman menaces, and alien horrors.

Kryptonite, magic, and his human heart should remain vulnerabilities. Many of Superman‘s villains are humans twisted by greed, ambition, belligerence, and selfishness, the opposites of his virtues and manifestations of our own darker sides.

Superman should still be the benchmark against which we measure all other superheroes, not just for powers, but also for their dedication to the “never-ending struggle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Let’s hope that those working on the DC Comics and Warner Bros. refreshes remember, don’t mess with the S!

Superheroes fly off of TV

Season 6 cast of Smallville
Smallville's cast as of Season 6

Genre television has experienced a virtual bloodbath in the past few weeks, with numerous shows getting canceled. Granted, many were doing poorly in the ratings, but that’s partly because broadcast and cable TV haven’t caught up to the increasing use of DVRs and Netflix for time-displaced viewing. It’s also a tricky niche.

Of the shows that are ending, I’ll miss The Cape and No Ordinary Family, which tried to capitalize on the popularity of superhero movies. Like Heroes, they had difficulty balancing the perspectives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances with showing more and more metahumans (and exhausting limited special effects budgets).

Unlike the surprisingly successful Smallville, most of this recent batch of superpowered shows got bogged down with increasingly complicated and implausible scenarios. Of course, comic books often have the same problem of mistaking melodrama for character development. I’d contrast this with the retro, campy, and episodic fun of the also-ended Spectacular Spider-Man and Batman and the Brave and the Bold.

Speaking of Smallville, it’s hard to believe that what many critics originally dismissed as “Superboy meets Dawson’s Creek” became the longest-running live-action superhero show on U.S. TV. As David I.S. and I have discussed, Smallville wisely made the transition from “kryptonite monster of the week” to the larger DC universe as its characters and audience matured.

The show was far from perfect, with erratic villains, dropped storylines, and much-loathed bans on “flights and tights” and cameos by Batman and Wonder Woman (because of movie rights). I know that some fans will be disappointed by Superman’s rare computer-generated appearances in flash-forwards, but the Kirk Alyn serials from the 1940s also used animation for the tricky flying sequences.

On the other hand, Smallville (even up to its finale) provided new insights into the self-doubting young Clark Kent (played by Tom Welling), his nurturing human parents (played by John Schneider and Annette O’Toole), and his friends and foes.

I thought the supporting performances of Alison Mack as Clark’s pal Chloe Sullivan, Justin Hartley as colleague Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, and Erica Durance as rival/love interest Lois Lane were all strong, despite inconsistent writing, often silly costumes, and slow individual arcs. Michael Rosenbaum was one of the best Lex Luthors ever, with able assistance from John Glover as his domineering father Lionel and Cassidy Freeman half-sister Tess Mercer.

Numerous other DC Comics characters eventually appeared, including the Justice Society, Legion of Superheroes, Legion of Doom, and a mix of Teen Titans and a proto-Justice League. Like the first appearance of Jimmy Olsen in the radio show, aspects of Smallville eventually influenced comics in return.

In addition, the show paid homage to its predecessors with cameos by Chris Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Helen Slater, Dean Cain, and Teri Hatcher. Like Stargate SG1, many young actors like Amy Adams got their start thanks to Smallville. I’ve been fortunate to meet several cast members at various conventions over the years.

Although I’m more of a fan of most Batman incarnations than of Superman, I think Smallville deserves to be considered alongside the George Reeves, Dean Cain, and Bruce Timm-animated versions. Let’s hope that Zach Snyder’s attempt to reboot the first true modern superhero on the big screen is successful!

Coming soon: More SFTV turnover and how I would revive Wonder Woman!

All-Star Superman review

Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's Superman
All-Star Superman

Just over a week ago, Janice and I watched All-Star Superman, the latest in DC Comics/Warner Brothers’ direct-to-DVD animation line. It’s based on a well-received story by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly, who respectively also wrote and illustrated runs of the X-Men, Justice League, Doom Patrol, and Batman.

The cartoon adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material, including its concise retelling of Superman’s origin and allusions to the character’s science fiction adventures of the 1950s and 1960s. While I’ve found some of Morrison’s writing to be too densely self-referential, the 12-issue All-Star Superman is much more successful as a timeless tale of our would-be savior than Frank Miller’s over-the-top and incomplete All-Star Batman.

The animation captures some of Quietly’s style, especially in farmboy/reporter Clark Kent’s slouch or Lex Luthor’s egotistical posturing. The action scenes are well-choreographed, and like in Young Justice, the urban landscape of Metropolis is ironically more realistic than its current Marvel animated counterparts.

As usual, Andrea Romano has assembled a strong voice cast, including James Denton as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, Christina Hendricks as Lois Lane, and Ed Asner in the role he was born to play, Daily Planet editor Perry White. Anthony LaPaglia doesn’t have the menacing gravel of Clancy Brown, but he’s a decent Lex Luthor.

I’d give All-Star Superman three stars, a B+, or an 8 out of 10. It’s rated PG for some violence. I like Justice League: the New Frontier, Batman: Gotham Knight, and the Green Arrow short that was packaged with Superman/Batman: Apocalypse more.

I’m also looking forward to Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and Batman: Year One. Miller’s oft-praised Dark Knight Returns would be better as an animated feature than a live-action movie, even though his vision of Gotterdammerung has influenced many Batman depictions in the past 25 years.

Coming soon: Belated Megamind review and Rango!