Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Superman II’

It’s Superman vs. General Zod in the 1980 sequel to ‘Superman: The Movie’…

Christopher Reeve returns as the Man of Steel in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1980

Starring:  Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Jack O’Halloran, Susannah York

Directed by:  Richard Lester / written by:  Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman (Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)

What’s it about?

Relinquishing his powers to become mortal so that he can be with Lois Lane, Superman soon faces the threat of General Zod and his fellow Kryptonian criminals who have escaped the Phantom Zone…

Retrospective/review

Not quite the classic that Superman: The Movie is, Superman II is still a fun and generally pleasing sequel with its light-hearted, family-orientated and occasionally goofy approach making it a product of its time.  As is now widely known, Superman II began shooting back-to-back with Superman: The Movie under the direction of Richard Donner.  The demands and pressures to get the first Superman completed in time for its December 1978 release resulted in suspension of work on Superman II and mounting tensions between producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Donner would see the filmmaker’s departure from the sequel.  This led to Donner being replaced by director Richard Lester who would go on to reshoot much of what Donner had already filmed, establishing a slightly less dramatic and more comic strip tone.

Debuting in time for Christmas of 1980, Superman II sees the return of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman who finds he is forced to reveal his true identity to an increasingly suspicious Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and decides to relinquish his powers in order for the pair to be together.  It’s a sacrifice that comes at a cost when Kryptonian criminal General Zod and his cohorts are released from imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (as per the opening act of Superman: The Movie) and arrive on Earth, the yellow sun’s radiation blessing them with super abilities.  Realising his advantage, Zod sets about subjugating the people of Earth and seeks vengeance against the son of his jailor, Jor-El – Superman himself!  The de-powered Man of Steel has no choice but to find a way to defeat Zod before it’s too late.

Superman II is pure comic book entertainment of a simpler time and whilst inferior to Superman: The Movie it’s a highly enjoyable follow-up.  Unsurprisingly, Christopher Reeve shines as the Man of Steel with all the confidence, nobility and humanity audiences expected.  Margot Kidder likewise puts in another sparky performance as the determined Lois Lane and shares great chemistry with Reeve.  Terence Stamp is excellent in the role of General Zod, with a lighter take on the villain that can’t really compare to the fiercer and more formidable version portrayed by Michael Shannon in Man of Steel but Stamp brings gravitas and a believability to the character and together with Sarah Douglas’ uber femme fatale, Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran’s hulking mute, Non, provide a suitable threat to challenge Superman.  The central hero has more than ‘just’ a trio of Kryptonian adversaries to contend with as Superman II brings back Gene Hackman (once more receiving top-billing) for another enjoyably sinister turn as the devious Lex Luthor, who having escaped prison (facilitating a cameo by Ned Beatty as the bumbling Otis) locates Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and unlocks its secrets, then seeks to form an alliance with Zod to achieve his own villainous ends.

Terence Stamp stars as General Zod in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

The script from Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman is fun, balancing humour, drama and action with numerous heart-felt moments.  Whilst some of the effects work now appear a little dated, the action sequences remain engaging under Richard Lester’s capable direction – especially Superman’s battle with Zod in the heart of Metropolis and the climactic face-off in the Fortress of Solitude.  There are some odd abilities on display in terms of powers – Zod’s telekinetic eye beams, the Kryptonians’ game of teleportation during that aforementioned showdown in the Fortress of Solitude and of course, Superman’s throwable chest symbol (affectionately parodied in the hit animated comedy, Family Guy)…a little bizarre, but not totally ridiculous when considered alongside Silver Age Superman comics.  The resolution to the restoration of Superman’s powers is a little quick and convenient as is the amnesia kiss Clark employs to erase Lois’s knowledge of his identity, acting as a reset button for further instalments.  These are all little moments that although a tad silly, have their charm if accepted at face value and taken in the right context.

In 2006, Warner Bros. Home Video would release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, where all of the footage shot by Richard Donner would be restored and edited with the gaps filled in by sequences from Richard Lester’s theatrical version of the film, screen test footage and some CGI elements.  In a number of ways it’s a superior version, not in the least for the restoration of scenes with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (replaced by Susannah York as Lara-El in the theatrical version to avoid having to pay Brando another hefty fee), a more serious tone and the incorporation of music by John Williams from Superman: The Movie.  It’s definitely worth checking out but the at times cumbersome assembly of the cut (Donner’s Superman II was after all an incomplete production) leaves it feeling less definitive and admittedly there are some moments from Lester’s film that are arguably better…Superman asking Zod if he’d care to “step outside” has much more impact than the original line regarding “freedom of the press”, a small but significant example.  There’s no doubt that if Donner had been able to complete his version of Superman II back in 1980 there’s every chance that it would have been something special but as it stands the Donner Cut is a curiosity that’s a treat for fans to be able to experience.

Superman II is solid entertainment and despite falling short of the high bar set by Superman: The Movie is a worthy sequel to a beloved classic and a comic book adventure that’s suitable viewing for all ages.

Geek fact!

Appearing in Superman II is the late Shane Rimmer, voice of Scott Tracy in Gerry Anderson’s classic puppet series Thunderbirds and would also go on to have a small role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Flashback: ‘Man of Steel’

DC’s cinematic universe began with a fresh take on the world’s first superhero…

Man of Steel flight

Superman takes flight in ‘Man of Steel’ (c. Warner Bros).

 

Year: 2013

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Zack Snyder / written by: David S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan)

What’s it about?

Transported to Earth as his home world is destroyed, the infant Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a kind farmer and his wife. As an adult, Clark struggles to find his place in the world until he discovers his true heritage and sets on mastering his amazing powers…

Retrospective/review

With Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failing to connect with audiences and plans for a sequel abandoned, the summer of 2013 saw the release of Man of Steel – arriving just in time for Superman’s 75th Anniversary. Whilst Superman Returns sought to be a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s seminal Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel would take a slightly edgier and more modern approach in an effort to make the iconic superhero more relatable. The film would also be seen by Warner Bros. Pictures as the first entry in a Marvel-style shared universe (once unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, but now officially branded as ‘Worlds of DC’) featuring DC’s stable of comic book characters.

Enlisting The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan as a producer and to craft a story with screenwriter David S. Goyer (who previously worked with Nolan on his Batman films), Man of Steel was built from an intriguing premise – what if Superman existed in the real world, today? How would humanity react and what would a man with incredible abilities choose to do with them? Given the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Warner Bros. naturally felt a similar take was needed for Man of Steel in order to make Superman a more identifiable and dramatically engaging character for a contemporary audience without intentionally alienating existing fans.

Directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is a Superman film for more complex and troubled times whilst still conveying an underlying sense of hope and providing the blockbuster spectacle viewers had come to expect in the wake of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It may have become divisive, but it works rather well and favours that Nolan ‘heightened reality’ over the family-friendly fantasy of Superman: The Movie.

The story is solid – there’s the traditional opening on Krypton (depicted as a more organic Star Wars-esque world in comparison to the cool crystalline aesthetic of Donner’s Superman), its ultimate destruction and the baby Kal-El escaping doom to arrive on Earth. Shifting to some thirty years later, Kal-El is now Clark Kent, a drifter who finds himself lost and without purpose but often faced with the urge to help those in need. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of Clark’s struggles to reconcile his abilities with the life of a normal person. Searching for answers, Clark ultimately discovers his origins and embarks on a journey to master his gifts and utilise them for good, but the arrival of Kryptonian survivors, led by the militant General Zod presents an unexpected threat to Earth and its people and throws an inexperienced Superman into a dangerous conflict.

Man of Steel Zod

General Zod: a formidable foe.

The cast is equally as good. Henry Cavill has a firm grasp of the central role and provides a grounded and very human portrayal of the man who will become Superman. Amy Adams is impeccably cast as the Daily Planet’s star reporter Lois Lane, bringing dramatic weight to the requisite qualities of professional drive and personal strength. As General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers a powerful and formidable antagonist whose threat is further enhanced by Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul. The casting is made all the more impressive by the inclusion of Russell Crowe, who succeeds Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The action is exciting, especially during the film’s final act. Some have found themselves at odds with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, but it both shocks and enthrals in a way that’s realistic and entertaining. It’s also seemingly a response to the reception of Superman Returns which many felt was too slow and lacked action and physical conflict. Zod’s death has also proven controversial, yet it’s arguably one of the film’s most emotionally effective and powerfully acted scenes. Henry Cavill’s performance in that particular moment is gripping – his gut-churning yell grabbing the viewer and making you feel all the anguish, frustration and regret of the situation.

Man of Steel Lois & Perry

Laurence Fishburne joins Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as Daily Planet Editor Perry White  (c. Warner Bros).

The production design is accomplished (particularly in respect of Krypton), the costuming superlative and the effects are great, all captured beautifully via Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Zack Snyder’s kinetic direction. A real highlight of Man of Steel is Hanz Zimmer’s wonderful score – atmospheric, emotional and exciting it’s one of Zimmer’s finest providing themes that enhance the visuals greatly (especially during Superman’s exhilarating first flight). As classic and unforgettable as John Williams’ Superman theme is it would feel out of place here and not fit the world of Man of Steel.

Ultimately, Man of Steel establishes hope as Superman makes it known that he’s here to help. The events of the film would end up driving the titanic clash of 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but as it stands, Man of Steel is highly underrated and a superbly executed redefinition of Superman for modern times.

Geek fact!

Man of Steel cleverly incorporates a Christopher Reeve cameo with a brief glimpse of the actor’s face inserted into Henry Cavill’s performance during Superman’s battle with Zod’s Kryptonian World Engine.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Have you read… ‘Superman Unchained’ ?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out…

superman unchained

Art for ‘Superman Unchained’ by the phenomenal Jim Lee (image credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  2013

Written by:  Scott Snyder / pencils by:  Jim Lee (main story) & Dustin Nguyen (epilogues) / inks by:  Scott Williams / colours by:  Alex Sinclair

What’s it about?

As Superman tries to prevent the escalating attacks of a cyber-terrorist group, events lead to him crossing paths with General Lane and a mysterious and powerful alien being called ‘Wraith’…

In review:  why you should read it

Originally published as a nine-issue limited series, launched in June 2013 to coincide with Superman’s 75th anniversary as well as the release of Man of Steel on the big screen, Superman Unchained is a bright spot in DC’s divisive ‘New 52’ reboot.  Whilst other DC characters and titles such as Batman (for the most part) and Justice League were well served during the New 52, Superman, generally, was not with both Superman and Action Comics something of a mixed bag, if not mediocre.  Superman Unchained remedied that with an epic and exciting story that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Written by Scott Snyder, who was already in the midst of his popular run on Batman (with artist Greg Capullo) and with pencils by Jim Lee (with inks and colours by his regular collaborators, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair), Superman Unchained sees the Man of Steel faced with the threat of a cyber-terrorist group known as Ascension, whose attacks lead to an encounter with General Lane and his forces, the discovery of a military facility called ‘the Machine’ and a secret weapon: Wraith, an alien being – with powers to rival that of Superman – who arrived on Earth in 1938 with an equation that is the key to unlocking technological advancements.  Amidst this, humanity faces even greater danger as a further threat from the stars looms.

As well as drawing in appearances from Batman and Wonder Woman, Unchained also gives Lois Lane her own share of the action as she investigates and is ultimately captured by Ascension, learning that they are in possession of a powerful crystalline technology known as ‘Earthstone’ which they plan to utilise to devastating ends.  It also wouldn’t be a good Superman story without Lex Luthor and Snyder has fun with him, presenting a Luthor who’s at his megalomaniacal and ingenious best.  Luthor’s escape from maximum security detention (aided by a mech-suit of his own construction) and subsequent kidnap of Jimmy Olsen exemplify all of those qualities and remind us that he’s Superman’s most formidable nemesis.  The main story is complemented by back-up epilogues that run sporadically throughout, written by Snyder and pencilled by Dustin Nguyen and which provide tantalising teases of things to come.

Snyder creates a busy narrative, with multiple threats, fast action and several interconnected story threads but luckily it all hangs together quite successfully.  The fan-favourite writer has a good handle on the character of Superman in his New 52 iteration (later defined during DC’s ‘Rebirth’ initiative as an alternative version, whose essence would merge with that of the original pre-New 52 universe Superman…whoever said comics could be confusing?), who has a bit more of a gritty edge than the traditional take but still upholding those nurtured values of truth and justice.

Whilst Unchained may seem predominantly focused on Superman, there’s still a place for Clark Kent as we see his efforts to investigate Ascension and enlist the assistance of Bruce Wayne/Batman in tackling the group.  Snyder also incorporates a flashback of a traumatic event in Clark’s childhood that plays thematically into the present.

Although there’s a lot going on in Unchained and parts of it may seem overly wordy, it’s more a case of substance than waffle and Snyder does take time to focus on characterisation, even when there’s fists flying and satellites crashing and we get a sense of what motivates everyone.  The conflict between General Lane and Superman is a good example, both are sworn enemies with opposing viewpoints but Lane has an argument and a personal perspective with a commitment to duty and service that drives him, adding some dimension to the age old battle between the two characters.

Some of Snyder’s more recent works (and to an extent, the latter parts of his Batman run) tend to be a little overindulgent and unnecessarily convoluted but Superman Unchained is a more positive and coherent example of his writing and being paired with the amazing Jim Lee certainly helps.  Lee’s visual storytelling speaks for itself and his style here is as you would come to expect – powerful, detailed and cinematic – Superman Unchained reads and looks like a superhero blockbuster.  Lee’s renditions of Superman are confident and his depictions of the action scenes are exciting, all adding to the appeal.  Lee proves he can handle the scale and also the craziness of Snyder’s script, Superman’s battle against Lane’s forces in a Kryptonian armour suit being a particular highlight.  There’s also the design of Wraith, a hulking stone-grey creature emanating flaming tendrils of energy – simple, yet effective and when married with Scott Snyder’s dialogue together they create an interesting adversary for Superman with a foe who is not just physically imposing but also challenges the Last Son of Krypton on a philosophical level.  Having been in the service of the U.S. government since his arrival and intervening clandestinely in conflicts throughout history, Wraith believes in what he is doing just as much as Superman does and having our hero team up with Wraith against Ascension creates an unusual dynamic given Wraith’s declaration that once they’re done he has one more task to perform: kill Superman.

Superman Unchained is a highly entertaining read and easily one of the best Superman stories of the last decade and it wouldn’t be surprising if in the years to come it ends up ranking amongst some of the Man of Steel’s all-time greats.  Even if you weren’t a fan of DC’s New 52, it’s well worth the dive.

Read it if you like…

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis (as well as the writer’s current run on Superman with artist Ivan Reis), Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee and Superman: For Tomorrow written by Brian Azzarello with more fantastic visuals from Jim Lee.

Superman Unchained is published by DC and is currently available in print and digital formats.

Film Review: ‘Aquaman’

Warner Bros.’ Worlds of DC heads for the seven seas…

Aquaman 2

King of the sea: Jason Momoa leads the action in ‘Aquaman’ (image credit Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison

Directed by:  James Wan / written by:  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall (story by Geoff Johns, James Wan & Will Beall, Aquaman created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris) / 143 minutes

What’s it about?

As the kingdom of Atlantis prepares for war, Arthur Curry – aka ‘Aquaman’ – finds he must fulfil his destiny and take the throne in order to unite the underwater world and prevent a deadly conflict…

In review

Aquaman, the latest of Warner Bros. Pictures’ slate of superhero films under the ‘Worlds of DC’ banner (which was previously and unofficially referred to as the ‘DC Extended Universe’, or DCEU) is a fun, albeit partly derivative, comic book blockbuster that’s highly entertaining if inferior to previous Warner/DC outings Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.  It’s fair to say that some of the narrative beats are predictable and unoriginal and comparisons to Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are easily drawn but with that in mind, Aquaman holds its own and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is – a swashbuckling and visually jaw-dropping popcorn action adventure.

Picking up where he left off in Justice League (and with backstory that’s interspersed throughout in a series of flashbacks), Jason Momoa is the likeable lead infusing Arthur Curry/Aquaman with roguish charm and swagger, offset by just the right touch of vulnerability that provides the character with an essential element of relatability.  It sounds cliché, but it’s a significant part of what draws audiences (and readers) to these colourful heroes in the first place and through the efforts of Mamoa and the film’s screenwriters it’s hard to believe that Aquaman could ever have been one of DC’s most ridiculed characters.  Opposing Mamoa is Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson as Arthur’s half-brother Orm – aka ‘Ocean Master’ – whose militant rule of Atlantis and a desire for conquest threatens war with the surface.  Wilson is great and is a formidable presence, providing Aquaman with an effective villain.  Another standout is the reliably excellent Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s childhood mentor, Vulko and Nicole Kidman adds further star power in the role of Queen Atlanna.  Amber Heard is fine as Mera (whose father, King Nereus is played by action legend Dolph Lundgren) but is no Gal Gadot and unfortunately Yahya Abdul-Mateen II similarly underwhelms as Black Manta – it’s not entirely the actor’s fault given he’s handed some cheesy lines that undercut the threat value.

Whilst there are familiar tropes – the reluctant hero searching for purpose and fulfilment has been seen countless times – and there’s a shameless riff on Indiana Jones as Arthur and Mera search for a powerful Atlantean artefact, the writers of Aquaman deliver an enjoyable and fairly pacey tale that despite some droll dialogue is enhanced greatly by astonishing visuals.  Director James Wan (Furious 7) and his team take the fantasy of the lost city of Atlantis and really run with it, depicting vast and rich uaquatic realms teeming with a variety of life that’s wonderfully bizarre and inventive – the sight of an army of soldiers riding sharks and battling gigantic crab-like creatures is both odd yet strangely believable.  Wan executes it all rather well and injects the epic scale action of Aquaman with energy and skill, although the use of slow-motion in superhero action scenes is becoming a little tiresome.

In terms of the film’s tone it’s fairly light and family friendly with dashes of humour (that’s thankfully not too goofy or forced), continuing Warner Bros.’ plan of course-correction from Zack Snyder’s darker, more introspective and existential vision.  In some ways that’s a shame as there are some merits to the latter but from a crowd-pleasing perspective (and in pursuit of Marvel-level popularity and healthy box office returns) it’s understandable.  It’s also completely accessible to new or casual viewers – whilst Aquaman is certainly part of the overall main DC cinematic universe, bar a single reference to the events of Justice League it favours a standalone approach and that’s totally fine and allows Wan’s film to be what it needs to be and provide firmer foundations for the Worlds of DC going forward.

The bottom line:  A fun popcorn adventure, Aquaman doesn’t break new ground but is an enjoyable and visually exciting comic book romp.

Aquaman is in cinemas across the U.K. now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 21st December.

It’s a Classic: ‘Superman: The Movie’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Y-you’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Superman 78

The unforgettable Christopher Reeve as the iconic Man of Steel (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1978

Starring:  Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Marc McClure

Directed by:  Richard Donner / written by:  Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman & Robert Bento (story by Mario Puzo)

What’s it about?

Fearing his world is on the verge of destruction, an alien scientist sends his young son into space.  Arriving on Earth, the infant Kal-El grows up to discover he has great powers and becomes humanity’s greatest hero and protector…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Just as Superman himself celebrates the 80th Anniversary of his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (courtesy of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), 2018 also marks 40 years of director Richard Donner’s Superman – more commonly known as Superman: The Movie – the character’s first major silver screen outing.  Whilst parts of the film might now seem a bit camp when viewed in these more complex times, the film’s spirit is non-the-less timeless and Superman remains a landmark achievement that set the standards for which comic book film adaptations continue to strive toward.

Superman opens on the doomed world of Krypton as the warnings of the planet’s imminent destruction from Jor-El, one of Krypton’s leading scientists, are ignored.  Sending his baby son into the depths of space as Krypton crumbles to its death, Superman moves into more traditional comic book fantasy as the infant Kal-El arrives on Earth where he is found by the kind and loving Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Kal-El is subsequently raised by the Kent’s as their son Clark, who in his teenage years discovers his true origins and abilities and embarks on a journey to utilise his gifts for good as champion of truth, justice and ‘the American Way’.

It’s a first class production, with a strong story – from The Godfather’s Mario Puzo no less – and screenplay (which received uncredited re-writes from Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz), coupled with epic visuals and a cast which includes cinematic legends Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman – all brought forth confidently under the masterful direction of The Omen’s Richard Donner.  John Barry’s incredible set-design and the pioneering special effects add further to the majesty of Superman.

A huge part of Superman’s success is down to Christopher Reeve, whose performance as Krypton’s Last Son is unforgettable.  Reeve embodies the core principles that drive the iconic hero with strength (both emotional and physical) and believability, whilst conveying strokes of vulnerability that humanise the character.  Likewise, his quirky portrayal of the bumbling, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent is fun and endearing.

Margot Kidder is the quintessential Lois Lane for the era, plucky, headstrong and determined and has great interplay with Reeve, whether it’s in scenes with Clark Kent or Superman.  The supporting cast is bolstered by memorable performances from Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet ‘Chief’ Perry White, Marc McClure as budding photographer Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent and of course an introductory role for Terence Stamp as General Zod, who would return to cause trouble in Superman II.

Marlon Brando (who received top-billing along with a hefty $7 million fee), through his scenes in the grand, almost Shakespearean opening act and his later appearances as a hologram in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, delivers his portrayal of Jor-El with nobility, intelligence and an inherent goodness – qualities that, along with his upbringing by Ma and Pa Kent, would inform the character of Superman.  Gene Hackman brings an enjoyable measure of menace to Superman’s nemesis and self-proclaimed criminal genius Lex Luthor in an amusingly pompous performance.  His evil deeds are aided by the incompetent Otis, played by Deliverance star Ned Beatty.

Any discussion about Superman: The Movie would be remiss without mention of John Williams’ legendary score, indisputably one of the all-time greatest motion picture soundtracks – without which the film would simply be incomplete.  Williams’ soaring, spine-tingling Superman theme is obviously the highlight and one of the most instantly recognisable and celebrated pieces of film music.

35 years later, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel would thrust Superman into the modern era with a more layered and introspective approach but there will always be a certain kind of innocence and magic that comes with Superman: The Movie and its legacy continues to endure.

Standout moment

A helicopter accident leaves Lois Lane dangling from atop of the Daily Planet building, about to plummet to the ground.  As crowds gather on the streets below, Clark Kent decides he must take action…Superman swoops in to save the day.

Geek fact!

Richard Donner would revisit Superman: The Movie for a 2001 ‘Special Edition’ which restores eight minutes of footage originally cut from the theatrical release.  An overlong (at 188 minutes), yet interesting 1980 TV version was recently released on home video.

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Superman II : director Richard Lester takes over for an inferior but fun sequel that pits Terence Stamp’s Zod against Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel.

Superman Returns : Bryan Singer’s love letter to Donner’s Superman has its flaws but is seen as a spiritual successor and worth considering as a tribute to the classic 1978 original.

Flashback: ‘Superman: The Man of Steel’

Decades before the New 52 and Rebirth, John Byrne was tasked with redefining the Superman mythos…

The Man of Steel 86 #1

John Byrne’s cover art for ‘The Man of Steel’ #1 (credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1986

Written by:  John Byrne / pencils by:  John Byrne / inks by:  Dick Gordiano / colours by:  Tom Ziuko

What’s it about?

A young Clark Kent discovers his true heritage and decides to use his powerful abilities for the greater good to become the world’s mightiest hero, Superman…

In review

Following the multiverse shattering event, Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Comics proceeded to refresh their line and produce new, modern retellings of the origins of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that redefined the comic book titans in the age of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.  With Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli set to explore Batman’s beginnings with the four-issue “Year One” storyline and George Perez assigned to tackle Wonder Woman, DC enlisted writer/artist John Byrne to relaunch Superman beginning with a six-issue mini-series called The Man of Steel.

Having already crafted iconic runs on Marvel’s X-Men and The Fantastic Four, Byrne was the perfect choice to bring Superman soaring back into the eighties and give the character firm creative footing heading into the 1990s.  Each issue, or ‘book’, of The Man of Steel is a self-contained story that looks at the origin of Superman and a series of ‘firsts’ during the early days of his superhero career.  Book One opens with a prologue focusing on the destruction of Krypton before providing a glimpse of Clark Kent’s early years and the space-plane rescue that leads to the birth of Superman and his first encounter with his future love – Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane.

Byrne’s reimagining of Krypton has become highly influential, seen here as a scientifically and technologically advanced society that is relatively emotionless and where offspring are grown artificially inside egg-like genesis chambers are all ideas that would later be incorporated into Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s Superman: Birthright, in big screen feature Man of Steel and more recently SyFy’s Krypton television series.

Byrne also manages to re-establish other classic elements from the Silver Age and reinterpret them in a way that is less ridiculous than in their earlier iterations, specifically an updated take on the oddball alternative Superman known as ‘Bizarro’ who appears in Book Three as an imperfect clone of the original Superman created by Lex Luthor.  Speaking of Luthor, it certainly wouldn’t be Superman without him and the titular villain makes appearances throughout the series as he draws his plans against the Man of Steel, with a slightly more sophisticated and sinister take on the character in comparison to his portrayal on the big screen (as enjoyable as Gene Hackman was in that role).

The highlight of the series though is undoubtedly Book Four, which depicts the first meeting of Superman and Batman.  Byrne perfectly nails the relationship between the two, demonstrating the differences in viewpoints and the values each attributes to their pursuit of justice.  There’s some nicely executed tension as Superman arrives in Gotham City, initially butting heads with the Dark Knight Detective but both heroes ultimately develop a comradery as they set aside their differing ideologies and work together towards a common goal in pursuit of the criminal known as ‘Magpie’.

With The Man of Steel, Byrne goes beyond the comic book action to dig into the man behind the cape.  This focus on characterisation is one of the most appealing aspects of the series as readers get a sense of who Clark Kent really is and how his upbringing by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, together with his experiences growing up in Smallville shape the person he is to become.  It brings a human quality to Superman that adds layers to the character, making the hero more relatable and interesting.

It goes without saying that great writing in comics needs strong art to visualise it and John Byrne’s compositions are iconic.  Whilst modern art is often more flashy and energetic, Byrne’s style is classic and recognisable – his bold, assured character designs and intricate, realistic landscapes and environments give the series a pleasing look that combined with decent scripts makes The Man of Steel a defining point in the history of Superman comics.

Geek fact!

The origin of Superman would once again be revisited in 2009’s Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, following another DC multiverse cataclysm in Infinite Crisis.

All six issues of The Man of Steel are collected in Superman:  The Man of Steel – Volume 1, published by DC and is currently available in digital format.

Comic Review: ‘The Man of Steel’ #1

Bendis takes on the Man of Steel… 

Man of Steel #1.jpg

Cover art for DC’s ‘The Man of Steel’ #1 by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado & Alex Sinclair (image belongs: DC Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / art by:  Ivan Reis, Joe Prado & Jason Fabok / colours by:  Alex Sinclair

What’s it about?

A powerful threat from Krypton’s past looms as it’s Last Son prepares to face his greatest challenge…

In review

Following his short stories in Action Comics #1000 and DC Nation #0, former Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis presents his first full DC comic with The Man of Steel #1, commencing the weekly six issue series that will lead into Bendis’ run on Superman and Action Comics beginning next month.

Most would argue that Superman is in no need of a creative relaunch given that Patrick Gleason, Peter J. Tomasi and Dan Jurgens have been doing just fine with the character and given readers some of the strongest Superman comics since before the New 52.  Coupled with the fact that some people love Bendis and more and more these days seem not to, it’s understandable that a number of fans will be approaching this title with caution.  There needn’t be any worry because on the basis of this first issue, Brian Bendis clearly loves the character and has a strong handle on the Last Son of Krypton, whether he is soaring into the skies as protector of the innocent and vulnerable or seeking truth and justice as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent.  Unlike John Byrne’s 1986 Man of Steel mini series this one isn’t a reboot, just a little bit of a refresh and a new start without undoing any of the work produced over the last couple of years.

Bendis paces things gently in The Man of Steel #1 which functions very much as a scene-setter as he establishes the basics and teases the larger overarching narrative.  Via flashbacks, we’re reintroduced to Rogol Zaar, the brutish new villain designed by Jim Lee and introduced in the Bendis/Lee short in Action Comics #1000 and whereas that dropped readers straight into an all-out brawl here we get more character depth, an idea of his motivations and ominous hints at an intergalactic conspiracy relating to the destruction of Krypton.  Zaar could turn out to be both an imposing and personal threat for Superman (and his adopted home) with potentially high stakes so hopefully Bendis delivers.

Those set-ups aside, Bendis keeps things fairly simple (there’s some wordy exposition here and there but nothing too dense) as we see Supes tackle Gotham criminals Firefly and Killer Moth, out to cause trouble in Metropolis, whilst he investigates a series of electrical fires.  In these scenes, Bendis nails the core tenets of the character – conveying that sense of strength and inherent good but also dipping into those subtle nuances of loneliness that can occasionally haunt him.  Brian Bendis proves equally adept when dealing with Clark Kent as mild-mannered news reporter and family man, scenes with Lois and Jon being both heartfelt and fun.

The art by penciller Ivan Reis and inker Joe Prado (with Jason Fabok contributing the final two pages of the book) is pretty solid as is to be expected.  There are a few spots where it feels a little rushed (and unfortunately the red trunks are still here) but otherwise it’s business as usual from the pair with powerful, emotive characters and beautifully composed environments enriched by Alex Sinclair’s colours.

Anyone expecting explosive all-out action and gripping drama from the outset will likely be disappointed by this premiere issue, but if every Superman (heck ,any) comic was like that it’d soon become boring, right?  With The Man of Steel #1 Brian Michael Bendis and collaborators Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Alex Sincalir and Jason Fabok provide readers with a taste of potentially exciting things to come.

The bottom line:  A promising new beginning for Superman, The Man of Steel #1 demonstrates that Brian Michael Bendis has a good handle on the character and gives tantalising hints at what’s ahead.

The Man of Steel #1 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Wonder Woman’

DC’s iconic female superhero bursts onto the big screen in her first solo feature…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nelson, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Eugene Brave Rock

Directed by:  Patty Jenkins / Written by: Allan Heinberg (Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs) / 141 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescuing crashed pilot Steve Trevor, Diana, princess of the Amazons, leaves her homeland to bring an end to the Great War which is ravaging humanity…

In review

Despite the relative financial success of the DC Extended Universe thus far, there’s no escaping the divisive opinions from various fans and critics that loom over Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.  Could Wonder Woman turn the negative critical tide and foster some much needed appreciation for the Warner Bros’ DC Comics films?  Thankfully, Wonder Woman is a resounding success on various levels.  It retains a layer of gritty seriousness that will please those that actually enjoyed the previous DCEU entries and deftly marries it with a vision of hope and optimism in dark times and a heartening message that although humanity has it’s ugly side, good will ultimately prevail over evil…all it needs is a hero to lead us into to the light.

An origin story told via flashback, Wonder Woman opens on Themyscira, an island paradise populated by the Amazons – a female society of immortal warriors lead by the wise Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson).  It’s here that the Hippolyta’s daughter, Diana grows to adulthood and trains under the guidance of Antiope (Robin Wright – House of Cards).  When Diana rescues American pilot Steve Trevor after his crashes off the shores of her homeland, she learns of a great conflict raging across the outside world – one that she believes is being orchestrated by the god of war, Ares.  After German soldiers storm the beeches of Themyscira, Diana, in defiance of her mother’s wishes, decides to pursue the callings of a hero and accompany Trevor back to the war-torn theatres of the First World War and bring an end to the bloodshed and needless suffering of the innocent.

After making a memorable debut as DC’s iconic Amazonian princess (created by William Moulton Marston and first appearing in All Star Comics #8 in 1941) and champion of justice in Batman v Superman, Gal Gadot delivers a pleasingly nuanced performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a turn that conveys equal measures of strength (both physical and emotional), compassion and heart with a touch of innocence and naivety as she embarks on her hero’s journey.  Despite her relative inexperience as an actor, Gadot is actually quite wonderful in her first solo DC outing, demonstrating a clear affection for the character and embodying the values and spirit of an important and enduring pop culture icon with reverence and conviction.  Star Trek Beyond’s Chris Pine is the perfect co-star, infusing his portrayal of Captain Steve Trevor with charm, humility and a dose of earnest humanity.  He also shares great chemistry with Gadot, a key component to the film’s rich and often touching emotional core.

There’s some well implemented comic relief from Lucy Davis as Trevor’s plucky secretary, Etta as well as drunken marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and fellow comrade Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) that along with participation from Gadot and Pine provides dashes of levity that feels natural and fitting without compromising the film’s more dramatic moments.  Although underdeveloped, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya provide adequate enough villainy as devilish German General Lundendorff and the deranged Dr. Maru respectively, their plot to unleash a deadly new gas creating reasonably high stakes for Diana, Trevor and their group (which also includes “The Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock) to grapple with.  Ultimately, it’s the characters and themes, bolstered by a solid script that really makes Wonder Woman work.

Director Patty Jenkins (at one time in the frame to helm Marvel’s first Thor sequel) draws fine performances from her cast that lift the overall package whilst proving skilful in presenting grand visuals (enhanced by the finely tuned eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen) and staging some thrilling and slickly executed action sequences (with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams adding to the excitement as he incorporates Hanz Zimmer/Junkie XL’s WW theme from BvS).  Some viewers may feel fatigued by the bombastic CGI-laden finale, yes, we’ve seen it in numerous superhero films by now, but it’s arguably necessary to close the film on an epic high and it’s executed with some satisfying emotional beats.  Yet there’s no denying that Wonder Woman’s finest and most effective set piece comes from earlier in the film as Diana, frustrated by the horrors and injustices of war, emerges from the trenches as she heroically pushes her way across the battlefield, plunging through the barrages of the German war machine.

It’d be all too easy to cynically write-off Wonder Woman as a mere symbol of feminism, but peel away the layers and she’s so much more, with all that’s wrong in the world these days heroes are needed and though a work of fiction, blended with popcorn entertainment and comic book fantasy, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an inspiring tale and one filled with plenty of heart.

The bottom line:  A triumph for the DCEU, Wonder Woman is an exciting and epic story of a hero’s origin that’s enhanced by strong characterisation, dynamic action and great chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is in cinemas now.

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Ready for action: Gal Gadot stars in ‘Wonder Woman’ from Warner Bros.