Man of Steel (UK - BD)
Chris takes a look at the Blu-ray release of Zack Snyder's recent superhero film...
Zack Snyder directs this action adventure feature, produced by Christopher Nolan and based on the DC Comics hero. After being sent to Earth by his parents to prevent him from dying in the destruction of his home planet Krypton, an infant boy is taken in by Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife Martha (Diane Lane), who name the child Clark. Growing up Clark (Cooper Timberline/Dylan Sprayberry) begins to discover the true potential of the superpowers he possesses but with this comes a sense of responsibility. In his 20s Clark (Henry Cavill) gets a job as a newspaper reporter at 'The Daily Planet' where he meets and later becomes romantically involved with colleague Lois Lane (Amy Adams). When an evil force threatens the Earth and its inhabitants, Clark resumes his true identity as a superhero and fights to save the planet. Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe and Laurence Fishburne co-star. (Taken from the PR.)
I think it's fair to say that Man of Steel is a film that comes with a lot of baggage. Many consider Richard Donner's 1978 feature Superman to be the definitive cinematic vision of the character, but replicating the critical and commercial success of that film has been a struggle. After a string string of direct sequels to Donner's original it would be almost two decades before the Last Son of Krypton returned to the big screen in 2006's pseudo-reboot Superman Returns. Although financially successful in its own right the film was burdened by the legacy of years of abortive attempts to revitalise the franchise and was seen as something as a disappointment for Warner Bros. (in spite of some good reviews). It's hardly surprising then, that the studio decided to abandon the planned sequel and instead turn to director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer to deliver the next instalment of the franchise.
Now I should probably admit up front that, while I'm not a a Snyder-basher (I actually like most of his movies to some degree), I wasn't hugely enamoured with the film during its theatrical run. I had some fairly serious problems with the pacing and overall tone, but given some distance this second viewing has forced me to re-evaluate things. My biggest issue was with the way Superman's 'Boy Scout' image had been ditched in favour of the sort of brooding, angst-ridden characteristics more often associated with a character like Batman. Truth be told I still have a bit of a problem with the way in which he spends a lot of time alternately clenching his teeth or contorting his face in anger before letting out the sort of anguished 'Noooo!' that would make Darth Vader proud, but I wasn't bothered nearly as much as I was the first time I saw the picture. Another thing that didn't sit right with me was the whirlwind romance with Lois Lane, but while I'm still not terribly fond of that particular element it too makes more sense in the context of Snyder's Superman universe.
Unlike many others I never really had an issue with the changes to the character's origin and certain aspects of the mythos - after all, it happens all the time in comic books - and I really dug the first twenty minutes or so on Krypton (more so this time around), but I'm not going to pretend I didn't miss the lighter, comedic touches of the earlier films. Man of Steel is a decidedly humourless affair, but the bumbling Clark Kent of the Christopher Reeve movies would seem completely alien (excuse the pun) in the super-serious world presented here. Snyder, writer David Goyer and co. aren't interested in making the audience laugh; they're more concerned with depicting Kal-El's internal struggle and wowing us with spectacle. For the most part it works just fine, but there are moments - particularly during the third act - when I could have used a break from the relentless doom, gloom and wanton destruction. You think New York had it bad in The Avengers? It ain't got nothing on Metropolis!
As for the performances, well Cavill does his best with the material but the script calls for him to spend a lot of his screen time looking a bit mopey. I have to admit to preferring both Reeve and Routh in the role, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Cavill’s certainly not a bad actor and you can’t fault the amount of work he put in to attain the required physique, but something about his performance is just off. Then there's Amy Adams' Lois Lane, who is less of a spark-plug than Margot Kidder's interpretation of the character, but still feisty enough to be a convincing foil to Cavill's Kal-El. Unfortunately her chemistry with Cavill is lacking a certain something and their romance doesn’t feel like it has evolved organically, even more so when compared to the Reeve/Kidder pairing. Michael Shannon's Zod is appropriately intense when delivering monologues and spitting rhetoric, but the character himself is a one-dimensional slave to his biological programming and as such not nearly as interesting as Terrance Stamp's interpretation.
Generally speaking the supporting players have less to do than the principals, save for perhaps Russell Crowe's Jor-El, represented here as both a living, breathing father and a digital avatar offering support and guidance from beyond the grave. Far removed from the stuffy Jor-El of the Donner movie, this version of the character channels Maximus Decimus Meridius as he rides a giant flying space dragon and goes toe-to-toe (and hand-to-hand) with Zod and his forces, but Crowe lacks Brando's gravitas. Both Diane Lane and Kevin Costner bring some much-needed warmth to the proceedings as Ma and Pa Kent, Kal-El's adoptive parents, but the fragmented telling of our hero's back-story doesn't allow them to share as much screen-time as I'd have liked. The biggest disappointment here is probably Laurence Fishburne, who has very little to do as Perry White (and isn't nearly as much fun as the hard-nosed Jackie Cooper from Donner's film).
One of the biggest complaints levelled at Superman Returns was that its relative lack of action rendered it boring. Well there’s certainly no lack of action here, with the entire third act of the film comprised largely of the sort of Kryptonian vs Kryptonian smack-downs that fans have longed for. However, the problem here is that the excess of CGI leads to a cool detachment, at least if I’m any indicator. I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a ‘snore-fest’, but I definitely felt disconnected from the relentless carnage as the time wore on. It doesn't help that much of the action is plagued by the over-use of shaky cam and crash zooms, which serves only to further distance the viewer from the unceasing destruction. In fact, the scale is such that I found myself longing for some of the more personal moments from the previous films. On the positive side it was nice to finally see Superman in a convincing battle with equally powerful opponents. As much as I like Superman II the limitations of the time hampered the filmmakers' ability to portray the alien beings' sheer power (and don't even get me started on Superman IV). I just wish Snyder had shown a little more restraint.
Unfortunately the aforementioned tonal problems are also at their worst during the film's third act. There’s been a lot of online debate about whether Superman is responsible for just as many deaths as Zod and his cronies. I was certainly of that opinion at the time of the theatrical run, but after watching the film again it doesn’t seem quite as bad. Sure the Boy Scout Superman would probably have flown Zod to some remote location to continue their battle before the latter also learned to fly, but this is Snyder’s world and his Superman ain’t no Boy Scout. The same goes for the Man of Tomorrow’s willingness to use Kryptionian baddies as wrecking-balls, toppling almost as many skyscrapers as the World Engine. I don’t particularly like the fact that the character was complicit in the systematic destruction of both Smallville and Metropolis, but that dislike partially stems from my fondness for previous iterations of the character rather than hatred of the version presented here (if you watch some of the animated shows and movies Superman has no problem punching villains through buildings and the like). Even so, this time around I found I was able to overlook these annoyances to a large extent and just concentrate on the things I did enjoy. If I really wanted to pick holes, all of the death and destruction could have been averted if Kal-El had simply gone to visit Jor-El at the Fortress before giving himself up to the military (the plan to use the phantom drive in his ship would have worked just as well without the needlessly convoluted set-up), but you can find inconsistencies in anything if you look hard enough.
While I wasn't totally convinced or converted by this second viewing of Man of Steel, I was a lot happier than I was after my first encounter with this modern interpretation. I’m more than happy to hold my hand up and admit that my initial judgement was a little harsh, and I can happily see myself returning to the film for another viewing in the future. Can I just say one more thing though? Enough with the Christ metaphors! Thirty-three years old; sent by his father to save humanity; willing to sacrifice himself for mankind; hell, even Cruciform poses. We get it already; he's Space Jesus.
As previously stated, Snyder's film are almost always visually impressive if nothing else. This is true of Man of Steel, although some of its design does appear to owe more than a little to features like The Matrix (well, specifically The Matrix as it happens). Even so, the highly stylised visuals (2.40:1 1080/24p AVC) are extremely impressive and rank alongside some the best titles the format has to offer. Aside from some slightly soft CGI shots the image is wonderfully detailed (just look at the ‘dimples’ in the Kryptonian suits for an example), with a satisfyingly filmic layer of grain. As is usual for an effects-heavy blockbuster the image has undergone extensive digital grading, with the palette shifting subtly from ambers and browns during the opening scenes to colder blues and greys as the film progresses. Contrast and brightness are both spot on and I can’t say that I noticed the crushing that some people have complained about in other reviews. I did spot a couple of instances of mild banding, but these could quite easily be inherent to the source as opposed to encoding issues. Probably the harshest thing I can think to say about the visuals is that they’re boring to write about on account of there being nothing to criticise.
This is going to be another relatively short summary, because like the video the disc’s audio is also top-drawer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track offers up plenty of activity from the outset, with all manner of alien sounds zipping around the soundstage during the Kryptonian opening sequence (think futuristic blasters, aircraft and flying lizards). This continues through the aural presentation, with neat little touches used to illustrate Superman’s advanced hearing thrown in here and there. Of course it’s the action scenes where the track really comes into its own, delivering precise placement of effects, fantastic steering and some seriously powerful bass. (If you’re into a bit of sonic mayhem prepare to be beaten down by the sheer ferocity of the third act.) In spite of everything that’s going on in the mix dialogue is never unintelligible, although I would perhaps have liked it to be a little louder in the mix overall. That’s possibly just personal bias, as I'm often irritated by the way in which big event movies tend to prioritise effects over vocals. The overall clarity of the mix is fantastic though. Han Zimmer’s score is equally well-positioned, but the score itself is unmemorable when compared to John William’s iconic music. Of course that’s an entirely subjective opinion and as with the video there’s nothing particularly negative to say about what is a very impressive soundtrack.
Does Warner have something against the UK market? Following the recent decision to omit the English 7.1 track from our release of Pacific Rim, we now have a scenario whereby Man of Steel is missing a number of supplements found on the US release. Well, sort of. I'll elaborate after this run-down of what you can expect to find on the disc.
- Strong Characters, Legendary Roles
- All Out Action
- Krypton Decoded
- 75th Anniversary Short
- New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth
- Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel
- Ultraviolet Digital Copy
The 'Strong Characters, Legendary Roles' featurette discusses the various iterations of the character and supporting players, with the primary focus being on Snyder's film and the alterations made to bring his vision of Superman to the screen. 'All Out Action' deals with - you guessed it - the film's numerous action sequences, spending a significant amount of time examining the actors’ training regimens. In 'Krypton Decoded ' Dylan Sprayberry (who portrays the teenage Clark Kent in the film) and one of the effects gurus guide the viewer through the opening act and specifically the destruction of Krypton. One of the coolest features is the ‘75th Anniversary Short’, which is a sort of whistle-stop tour of the character from his first appearance in Action Comics #1 right up to Man of Steel, but in animated form. ‘New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth’ is a really incongruous cross-promotional featurette for The Hobbit.
What we don't get is a sort of 'what if?' feature entitled 'Planet Krypton', which takes a look at the events of the film as if they were real. From what I've read we're not missing much. Of greater concern is the omission of the second disc housing the 'Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel' feature, which is basically a sort of half-arsed Maximum Movie Mode. Instead of watching the film with various video segments popping up via a picture-in-picture track, the US release has the entire film on a second disc with these featurettes shoehorned into the running time. This means that you can't watch them individually and as such it is one of the more ridiculous PiP experiences I've heard of.
Now we don't get this feature on a second disc, but we do get it as an Ultraviolet download. Yes that's right, in addition to the UV copy of the film itself, inputting your code into Flixster will also add the near three hour 'Journey of Discovery' to your library for you to stream or download for offline use. I guess Fox thought that this was a way to cut costs, but it took ten minutes to download even on my 120Mbps service and then it is only available in standard-definition. I'm not really a fan of distributing bonus material this way, especially when the US gets the full on-disc treatment, but I guess it's better than omitting it entirely.
My feelings towards Man of Steel have gone from lukewarm indifference to mild enthusiasm. I didn't particularly like it during its theatrical run, but when watching it again on Blu-ray I was able to filter out many of the things that annoyed me and instead concentrate on those things that do work. Snyder and Goyer will be shaping Superman's immediate future so it’s better to get on board and hope that they continue to develop the character that I love, rather than bury my head in the sand and hope that it all goes away. That’s not a ringing endorsement I know, but I was honestly much happier the second time around. I am still a little concerned by the decision to move the franchise forward with a cross-over movie, as they haven't yet crafted their ‘Cinematic Universe’. Marvel spent years building momentum before throwing their heroes together, and introducing characters as popular as Batman (played by Ben Affleck no less) and Wonder Woman (or so I've just heard) into the fledgling Superman universe threatens to overshadow the Man of Steel himself... However, the fan in me will be more than happy to be proved wrong.
What is there to say about the disc itself? It’s damn near reference stuff, with both a marvellous visual transfer and atmospheric, engaging audio mix that rival the best I’ve seen this year. The on-disc supplementary features are a little lightweight, but the addition of the feature-length documentary in Ultraviolet format goes some way towards compensating (even if I’m not a fan of the delivery method). That’s not enough to seriously damage the overall package though, so I’ve no hesitation in recommending this release.
Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 2nd December 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish,
Extras: Featurettes, Ultraviolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Antje Traue, Laurence Fishburne, Ayelet Zurer
Genre: Action and Sci-Fi
Length: 143 minutes
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