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The Death of Supermanis one of the bestselling comic books ever published, shifting over six million copies upon its release in 1993. The story’s bold premise and provocative artwork is turned into animated pictures, complete with a fine ensemble of voice actors. The Death of Supermancharts the arrival of the seemingly indestructible alien beast Doomsday, its rampage through Metropolis (and the Justice League) and its battle with the Man of Steel. Like many a superhero tale, The Death of Supermanalso engages with ideas of identity and roles. A romance blossoms between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the latter of whom struggles to reconcile his public and secret identities. The other members of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, as well as Lex Luthor, also worry about Superman’s role, and these concerns run throughout the film and its sequel.
The adaptation struggles to bring the emotional heft to the screen, not least due to rather stilted animation. Compared to recent fare likeIncredibles 2and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this superhero adventure feels lacklustre and uninspired. Character movements lack fluidity, backgrounds are often under-developed and the film falls into an unfortunate space between comic book and animation, lacking verve and dynamism. Where The Death of Supermandoes succeed, perhaps surprisingly, is in its brutality. The violence inflicted by Doomsday is bloody and often graphic, from crushed and severed heads to battered and bloody heroes. The eventual conflict between Superman and Doomsday is compelling and does deliver in the physical and emotional stakes, even though the end is known. While the journey to the climax is not always engaging, it is a hard viewer who does not experience a lump in their throat
The follow-up, Reign of the Supermen, is more successful in the animation stakes, offering greater vibrancy and movement. It also has a good line in humour, which is while present is less at home in The Death of Superman. In Reign of the Supermen, the humour is effective, especially the comedic quips of the Flash and Green Lantern. The film also does some exploration of power and its proper uses, the various ‘Supermen’ offering different takes on the concept. On the downside, the Supermen as well as the overarching plot seems overtly derivative of other cinematic superhero adventures, which leads to the film feeling like a half-hearted imitation of The Avengers. Overall, this double bill falls short in several ways, but does provide thrills and laughs in others.
A little late, it’s time to re-pile stuff in front of the Christmas decorations, resume speculation about summer holidays before realising way too late that the prices have risen, and to reflect on the previous year in film. As always, there was far more I wanted to see than I was able to due to time and money constraints, with my total of 2017 releases (in the UK) coming to a grand total of 51. Even working from such a small sample, however, 2017 was a brilliant movie year, in terms of the sheer range in quality that helped me appreciate afresh just how much is out there. From Oscar upsets to Marvelous blockbusters, long-mooted sequels to alluring animation, 2017 offered much and delivered more than it disappointed. Of the 51 releases I saw, these are my top twelve, in musical form:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven Hidden Figures
Ten runs with Logan
Nine men in Moonlight
Eight Blade Runners
Seven pregnant mothers!
Manchester By The Six
Five Red Turtles
Four Wonder Women
Two Detroit riots
And escape from the beach at Dunkirk.
And now, with review tweets and full access to my archive, here are Vincent’s Views of 2017 in full.
A ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly tense, mercilessly immersive triptych on trauma, time and terror.
A harrowing, immersive, unflinching portrait of prejudice, brutality, societal tension and being the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.
A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.
A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.
An exquisitely unhinged, utterly delirious, relentlessly deranged, headlong charge into unmitigated chaos.
A spellbinding, suffusive, mind expanding exploration of identity, humanity and mediation.
A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.
A brutal, melancholic and intimately violent portrayal of running from and living with your past.
An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.
A colourful, eclectic, highly Antipodean adventure of friendship, memory and powers old and new.
A crisp, clockwork lattice of motives, suspects, histories and ethics, engineered into a probing investigation of morality and balance.
A whipsmart high school action comedy of superpowered growing pains.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely restrained portrait of devastating disruption.
A wonderfully wacky and dizzily dazzling space opera of wit, warmth, adventure, family and reconciliation.
A subtle, enveloping, achingly sad tale of grief, isolation and the experience of time.
An overlong but still thrilling multi-stranded space chase of divination, intuition, legends, legacies and lightsabres.
A thrilling ride through the wild side that reminds us of our place in nature.
A ripe, sumptuous Gothic romance of obsession, ambiguity and multiple planes.
An atmospheric and genuinely scary tale of fear(s), friendship, nostalgia and growing pains.
A gleefully absurd, riotously funny, thrillingly immersive action adventure of nostalgia, identity, growing pains and working together.
A ripe, grisly period murder mystery of roles both social and theatrical.
A overly portentous but visceral and at times orgiastically violent film of faith and courage under fire.
A vibrant, colourful medley of nostalgia and dreams both lost and won.
A coldly beautiful, brilliantly realised and unrelentingly grim epic of grief, revenge, cruelty and compassion.
An atmospheric, muscular and very cold thriller of borderlands both geographical and societal.
A gripping, twisting and enthralling journey through corridors of power and landscapes of laws, ethics and conscience.
An achingly 80s, super slick and stylistically bravura period spy thriller of crunchy action, double-crossing and neon.
A compelling if inconsistent collation of coherence and chaos within community.
A somewhat unbalanced yet stylish, witty and punchy super smackdown of power, fear, courage and the strength of unity.
A gripping, thrilling and disturbing horror of racial attitudes and oppression.
A visceral, enthralling exploration of mind, body and the cinematic space.
A slick, funky heist thriller with musical flow albeit an imbalance of grit and sentiment.
A gorgeous, moving drama of family and class, and the most compelling film you may ever see about golf.
A twisting, gripping and gritty espionage thriller that just avoids collapsing under its own contrivance.
A cine-literate, thrilling and suitably grisly space body horror.
A grand, visceral and sometimes witty monster movie with plenty of bang if lacking in awe.
A beautifully transnational, intense yet never melodramatic portrayal of youth, sexuality and awakenings.
A baggy, overly referential and yet surprisingly funny buddy comedy of sun, sand and silliness.
A sometimes moving but ultimately uneven Holocaust drama of compassion and cruelty towards our own and other species.
A handsomely mounted if somewhat repetitive home front political drama.
A sometimes sweeping if rather disjointed musical fantasy romance.
A somewhat stage-bound domestic drama of family and racial tensions, elevated by powerhouse performances.
A visually arresting if narratively cumbersome sci-fi thriller of memory, identity and technology.
An over-determined, clumsily directed and ultimately anemic cosmopolitan drama of loss.
A handsome but hollow period gangster film.
A gory, sumptuous but overly panicked sci-fi horror of ambition and hubris.
An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.
A limp, lifeless, messy squandering of great potential.
- The Snowman
A ham-fisted and mechanically clichéd thriller that is more creaky than creepy.
After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.
Earlier in 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice began the assembly of a super team, but before Justice League arrives, DC offers Suicide Squad, a colourful collection of nefarious folks including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Assembled by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller (a supremely supercilious Viola Davis) and led by crack commando Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), these misanthropic personalities are typical fare for writer-director David Ayer, whose previous films Fury, Street Kings and Harsh Times featured violent men doing violent work. Suicide Squad lacks the savagery of those films, the supposed ruthlessness of the super villains largely toned down, while the meandering plot repeatedly introduces characters and replays events unnecessarily, and the various pop songs associated with particular characters are more distracting that engaging. Worse, the charismatic and potentially terrifying Joker (Jared Leto) is sidelined and feels like an intrusion from another film, and might have been better left for a future instalment.
Ayer redeems himself with some stylistic set pieces, the Squad hurling bullets, mallet, flames, boomerangs and bodies with elegant brutality. Central to these and probably the best thing in the film is Deadshot, a smart combination of wisecracking humour and deadly precision, and the character with the most relatable arc. Smith and Ayer make a virtue of the clichéd character traits to create a wounded but unquestionably badass antihero. Smith could have been in Independence Day: Resurgence this year, and based on the evidence, he made a wise decision.
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.