Man of Steel (Zach Snyder – USA/Canada/UK) 143 minutes
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro – USA) 130 minutes
Christopher Nolan, at the end of his career, will be able to say one thing: he single-handedly made comic-book adaptations very serious indeed. Many comic fans date the start of the super-hero seriousness to Frank Miller’s refitting of Batman in The Dark Knight but it was Nolan that brought that extra gravitas to the summer blockbuster. Batman Begins started it all off, a post-9/11 muscular liberal fantasy for tough-but-fair Americans paralysed by the Bush presidency. After a decent enough sequel in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan went full-Samuel Huntingdon with the thinly-veiled millenarianism of The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan now has got his mitts on Superman for the latest renewal of the franchise, Man of Steel. Comic aficionados have long considered Superman a slighter creation than its DC Comics stablemate from Gotham. All film adaptations thus far have been duly hokey and comical, including the most recent – Brian Singer’s mishit Superman Returns, which made the error of building the film around Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. Man of Steel, produced and written by Nolan, is not in the business of such frivolity. The traditional Superman villain Luthor is jettisoned, in favour of General Zod, who last appeared in Richard Lester’s splendidly enjoyable 1981 Superman II. This affords more capacity for Nolan’s civilisational concerns. Zod, played by the gnarled, doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly Michael Shannon, is a Coriolanus figure, who has been exiled from the doomed planet of Krypton after a failed coup, around about the same time the infant Kal El is sent into space to maintain the planet’s lifeblood. Zod and his cronies, in Superman II, were dispatched trapped in an oversized make-up mirror; this time they are rather humanely placed in giant dildos, in one of the rare unwitting moments of humour in an undertaking of otherwise great import.
If I have spent more time so far talking of Zod than Superman, that is because he is a far more interesting character than the buff cipher at the centre of the piece, played by Henry Cavill, who is all alpha pecs and beta countenance and is as unlikely to linger in the popular consciousness any longer than the last Clark Kent, Brandon Routh. Shannon as Zod is a steely military realist, one you find yourself nodding along in agreement with, even as he openly advocates genocide to clear Earth for Krypton colonisation. Superman, on the other hand, is despairingly wispy, saddled with even more backstory than ever. Two father figures loom heavily, played by Kevin Costner, in folksy Mid-Western mode, and Russell Crowe, as Jor-El, increasingly ludicrous as he yaws about in the Sunday best of his faux-RADA accent. Lois Lane is, of course, in the mix too, this time played by a suitably girl-next-door Amy Adams, who even passes muster somewhat as a Pultizer-prize winning journalist.
All this though is to accord more significance to Man of Steel than is really warranted; there is little more than your average mega-budget action movie on display. Zach Snyder (he of Watchmen and 300) films in the Nolan manner but directs with far less verve; the movie strains for the epic but its dun tempera palette reminds you too often of a heavy metal album cover. The music couldn’t get any more intrusive – Hans Zimmer’s score practically shits Valkyries; if I never hear a bassoon again in my life, it won't be too soon.
But if the film’s execution is questionable, it is the tone that ultimately sinks it. Dredging up underlying themes and subtexts in popular comic books is a legitimate endeavour (Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son is a fantastically inventive variation on the original Superman) but need it all be done with such overweening urgency? The original Superman films starring the late Christopher Reeve (OK, with the exception of the fourth) were well-packaged entertainments with just enough intelligence to anchor them in a recognisable narrative discourse. They were also packed with wit and had a winning sense of their own playfulness (who can forget Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman II remarking of the US president kneeling before him: "this man cannot be your leader if he kneels so easily"?) A light touch is no guarantee of success in a comic book adaptation – Singer’s Superman Returns and Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films are both immeasurably worse than Man of Steel – but the more I see these Nolan-produced works the more I think erring on the side of levity is the way to go. Besides, if a film like Man of Steel is so determined to be taken seriously, why give it a title that evokes none other than one of the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century?
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite grappling with similar issues such as the possible eradication of human life from Earth to benefit a more advanced species, is an altogether less serious film than Man of Steel. It also feels like a throwback to blockbusters of the 1990s, resembling at times Independence Day, Men in Black, Armageddon and, naturally, Godzilla. That is hardly the greatest of pedigrees but del Toro’s film, while it is nothing special, is still better than all but the Tommy Lee Jones/Will Smith vehicle. Like Man of Steel, it struggles to bring some freshness to a very limited genre in a similar way to how designers must re-work an iconic football shirt every year or two. Pacific Rim does manage though to occasionally step outside the blockbuster’s traditional comfort zone.
The film, despite being a little overlong, is also admirably economical with its story-telling. A brisk voiceover sets the scene in the opening few minutes: alien life-forms have begun to attack Earth from a portal called ‘The Breach’ that reaches deep under the Pacific Ocean. These huge monsters, called Kaiju, look like they share some DNA with Godzilla, and carry out relentless raids on the agglomerations on each side of the ocean. An international coalition develops the Jaeger, a massive human-like machine that is powered by melding the consciences of its two pilots with technological interface. In the prologue, we see two pilot brothers, Raleigh and Yancy Becket, bested by a Kaiju, costing Yancy his life. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam, of Queer as Folk by way of Sons of Anarchy) then drifts into casual labour as governments decide to withdraw support for the Jaeger project. Commander of the project Stacker Pentecost (Idriss Elba) decides to go rogue and summons the remaining pilot teams to his base in Hong Kong, including Raleigh, whom he feels still has something to give.
Raleigh is paired with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel and the brilliant Japanese comedy A Taste of Tea), orphaned in a Kaiju attack on Tokyo, the trauma of which causes Pentecost to doubt she is temperamentally capable of graduating to being a pilot. The film from hereon out is predictable enough. Even so, there are a few pleasing innovations – the technological process that allows the pilots to merge with their machines is intriguing and even has an elegant name: the ‘neural handshake’. The film, while it has American heroes (though, interestingly, both played by Brits), is de-centred for a summer blockbuster. You get the real sense that a large tranche of humanity is in danger from the Kaiju, not simply those that happen to live between the Rio Grande and the 49th Parallel. No doubt this is partially to do with marketing but it is surely no accident either that a Mexican filmmaker might have a wider scope than your average studio hack. If, as Ambrose Bierce said, war is God's way of teaching Americans geography, maybe action movies can fulfill a similar function in the future. The villain is even a cocky loud-mouthed Australian (played by EastEnders alumnus Robert Kasinsky) – you wonder why nobody has ever thought of that before.
Del Toro has flitted between arty horror films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) and second-rank Hollywood action movies (Blade 2 and Hellboy). They have almost all been more interesting in their details than in their entirety but he brings enough to Pacific Rim to lift it above your run-of-the-mill blockbuster. It’s by no means a great film – the plot is clichéd, the script deliberately corny, and many of its characters hug the touchline of grating annoyance – but there is a refreshing honesty about Pacific Rim, a sense that it has no intention of short-changing you nor does it ever have ideas above its station. Christopher Nolan ought to take some notes.