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By Rima Sabina Aouf
June 28, 2013
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By Rima Sabina Aouf
June 28, 2013
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One scrap of detail sums up much about the new Superman reboot, Man of Steel: He doesn't wear underpants. The 75-year-old character's red underwear, worn on the outside, is among the silliest ensembles ever dreamed up, but it's also iconic. To take on the role of Superman is sometimes called 'donning the red underpants' for that reason.

The modern Superman interpreter can go one of two ways with this: 1. Keep the red undies, finding a self-aware spin on old anachronisms (we'll call this the 'Marvel way'), or 2. Ignore the undies, because contemporary superheroing is serious business (aka the Dark Knight way). So when you see Henry Cavill on the promo posters, looking pretty and pumped and decidedly sans contrast knickers, you should have a fair idea of what kind of Superman you're in for. And sure enough, it's Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer who are behind this story, along with director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen).

The costume is not the only beloved bit of camp that's gone: this Clark Kent is not yet trying to keep up his dorky cover as a Daily Planet reporter, and this Lois Lane (Amy Adams) won't be unable to recognise him just because he puts on some specs (that last change, at least, is way overdue).

Of the sprawling Superman mythos, Man of Steel tries to fit in the origin story and the bit immediately after. It opens on Krypton, as the planet is being torn apart following the over-mining of its natural resources (relevance!). General Zod (Michael Shannon) has also chosen this time for a military coup. Baby Kal-El's father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and mother, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), save him — and, with him, they hope, Kryptoniankind — by putting him on a shuttle bound for Earth.

We next see Kal-El as a young man, drifting around the globe trying to find clues as to his real identity. In a spaceship buried in the Arctic, he finds the answers, recounted to him in detail by a hologram of his father. It's all ready-made, including his suit, and the film quickly moves on to its bulkier second part: The hero working out whether his place is with the human or the alien. And General Zod is on his way back from the Phantom Zone to help with that quandary, by invading Earth.

Ahead of the screening, I thought there was no way the Dark Knight approach could work for Superman. Or any approach, nearly; he's a hard character to make interesting. He's not conflicted, he doesn't have a dark side and he's not funny. He's never going to have a battle 'with himself' or one that's morally ambiguous. His powers are perfect. He has no hubris. Like Captain America, he's just kinda lame.

As it happens, the team does surprisingly well with portions of the material. They find an involving moral question without descending into darkness, and their 'scientific' explanations of a lot of the mythology work well. Cavill is super-handsome but also reasonably charismatic, which is the more important draw. In many ways, this is the strongest Superman reboot for a long time.

Unfortunately, the story manages to be both rushed and overlong — because Clark finds the tell-all hologram in 30 minutes, there is no sense that he's struggled. The pace, afterwards, is flat. But Man of Steel has a bigger problem: director Snyder has no taste. Again and again, he's come up with some amazing visual styling and action sequences, but he doesn't know when to say stop. When to pull back. The fight scenes between super-strong characters, who destroy rows of buildings with a single punch, are repeated to the point of exhaustion. The final battle should have been two battles earlier. Lois isn't a 'strong female character'; she's superhuman herself. Exposition is heavy. It's all very loud.

So there you go: a Superman with both strengths and weaknesses. It's rumoured an Avengers-style team-up of dour DC heroes will follow, which isn't hugely thrilling. But with his own sequel, this Man of Steel could yet firm up.

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