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.

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.

Comic Review: ‘Doomsday Clock’ #1

DC’s Rebirth collides with the world of Watchmen…

 

Spoiler-free review

Doomsday Clock #1

When universes collide: Gary Frank’s beautiful variant cover for DC’s ‘Doomsday Clock’ #1.

Written by:  Geoff Johns / pencils and inks by:  Gary Frank / colours by:  Brad Anderson

What’s it about?

In an alternate 1992, as the U.S. is on the verge of nuclear war, the vigilante ‘Rorschach’ sets about assembling a team to save the world…

In review

Here it is – the much mooted (perhaps feared) collision of the current DC Comics universe and the alternate world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s undisputed and eternally celebrated series Watchmen.  First teased in last May’s DC Universe: Rebirth #1 and touched upon further in the brief Batman/Flash crossover “The Button” from earlier this year, Doomsday Clock #1 begins the culmination of one of the most daring projects DC Comics has ever attempted to tackle.

The first chapter of a twelve issue maxi-series, Doomsday Clock #1 is both a beautifully constructed homage to the original Watchmen and a worthy successor.  There could be no better creative team to bring this story to life, Geoff Johns – DC’s premier writer – and Gary Frank – one of the most exciting artists working in comics today – (both of whom have collaborated before on the critically acclaimed Superman stories “Secret Origin” and “Brainiac”) are a match made in heaven.  Whilst this first issue takes a slow-burn approach that doesn’t immediately thrust the narrative into the impending conflict between two universes, it’s a welcome one as Johns takes the time to immerse the reader in the gloomy dystopia of the world created by Moore and Gibbons and remind us of those elements that made that particular series such a masterwork, it’s simple, yet effective panel construction, focused dialogue and narration and political and social commentary faithfully replicated.  It’s seven years since the end of Watchmen as we follow Rorschach (who of course died…so how does he exist here? You’ll have to read to find out) as he seeks to assemble a new team to once again save a world that’s still under threat from crime, international conflict and a U.S. President driven by ego and his own interests (Johns’ substitution of President Redford for Trump being glaringly obvious).

The writing is great and the strong, cinematic visuals are the icing on the cake, Gary Frank’s realistic and detailed layouts enhanced by the rich and moody palette of Brad Anderson’s colours.  It’s a comic that looks and feels like the true Watchmen sequel this is, as for how things tie into the main DC universe, Doomsday Clock #1 provides a small but significant taste of what’s to come…we yearn to see the inevitable confrontation between Superman and Doctor Manhattan but good things come to those who wait and Geoff Johns clearly wants to take us on a journey and one that has the potential to become a modern classic in its own right.

The bottom line:  A gripping and compelling read, Doomsday Clock gets off to a strong start thanks to a phenomenal creative team.

Doomsday Clock #1 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Comic Review: ‘Batman’ #21

DC Comics’ greatest detectives open the casebook on the mysteries of the DCU’s Rebirth…

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / pencils and inks by:  Jason Fabok

What’s it about?

“The Button” Part One : Batman enlists the Flash to aid in his investigation into the mysterious smiley button found in the wall of the Batcave…

In review

Almost a year on from DC’s relaunch initiative under the now iconic (and for the most part creatively successful) Rebirth banner, one of its most tantalising mysteries is about to be explored in “The Button”, a four part crossover playing out across Batman and The Flash.

For this opening chapter, writer Tom King takes a simple and steady approach to a slowly unfolding narrative that spends a chunk of its page count depicting a violent brawl between Batman and a returning villain long thought dead.  If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t, as Tom King masterfully eases the reader in to a story that answers little about those lingering threads from Geoff Johns’ triumphant DC Universe Rebirth #1 but manages to remain non-the-less intriguing whilst setting the stage for what’s to come.  If there’s any concern at this point it’s that four issues may not be long enough for this particular arc, given the potential ramifications it may have for the overall DCU.

As regular DC Comics readers will know, DC Universe Rebirth #1 established a startling and enigmatic connection to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal masterwork Watchmen, the discovery of a certain blood-stained yellow smiley button embedded in the Batcave wall leaving the Dark Knight Detective with the promise of the most challenging investigation he’s likely ever to face.

Tom King (whose run on Batman is only getting stronger) makes good work out of a minimal narrative, throwing in a few shocks and surprises that help hold the reader’s interest through to a feverishly good cliffhanger.  King realises that the strengths of Batman #21 lie in its visuals – so thank the stars Jason Fabok is on hand to provide the art here.  Fabok has been sorely underutilised since Geoff Johns’ pre-Rebirth run on Justice League wrapped and it’s a real treat to see his meticulous, powerful and lavish layouts on show (Howard Porter will certainly need to up his game for The Flash issues), particularly during those pages in which Batman fights for survival against his opponent, whilst the Flash speeds his way through a fight of his own (King proving he has a good handle on the Scarlet Speedster in these moments as he dashes and quips his way through the action) before racing to the Batcave and into the heart of this mystery.

To say too much specific about Batman #21 would spoil the fun but it’s rewarding to see this story have ties to not only the DC Universe Rebirth special but also to DC’s earlier continuity twisting and New 52 birthing event, Flashpoint and of course, Watchmen, which King and Fabok pay homage to with some nifty panel construction that’s pleasingly reminiscent of that classic piece of work.  Although it may seem there’s little narrative progression in Batman #21, it’s via these connections that it actually offers far more than casual readers will appreciate but still provides enough visual thrills to keep any comics fan happy.

The bottom line:  Tom King delivers an intriguing and surprising opening to “The Button”, made all the more enjoyable by the exciting visuals of the stellar Jason Fabok.

Batman #21 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Batman #21

Jason Fabok’s incredbile art adds to the excitement of DC’s ‘Batman’ #21.