Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fly like a Beagle

We're about to be woken by distant cannon fire,
and the strains of "O Tannenbaum"...   

It’s December – how did that happen?   Well, the same way it does every year presumably, with Christmas trees and promotions now firmly established in shop windows, ferry sailings all but booked out and intensifying scarlet splashes appearing among the leaves of the cities many pohutukawa trees.
At my house, December 1 also marks an occasion eagerly anticipated but dreaded in equal measure by a significant other.  This Sunday will mark the dusting-off of Snoopy’s Christmas (and various other cheese-and-tinsel infused Yule-tide ‘favourite’ songs) for the annual festive thrashing - lasting until I’m made to put the CDs away on Boxing Day.  The above image is the cover for a compilation album I created a couple of Christmasses ago, so that others can do the same... or possibly not.
How did this novelty hit, released by The Royal Guardsmen, become so firmly established in contemporary Kiwi culture, and why do I love it so much?
As with many things, there might be a personal degree of perversity involved. The more people I meet who want to pour scorn on this feel-good favourite, the more I want to profess my devotion to it.  I even went as far as sending a card containing this message to a well-known journalist who was somewhat un-Christmassy about the best canine pilot in Allied Command in his column (and fortunately he saw the funny side).  
 There’s much more to it than contrariness of course, so let’s first see how this festive duel of aerial aces began.

The Royal Guardsmen were actually six young men from Florida, most of them still at High School when they formed in 1965.  The name was chosen to reflect the popular ‘British music invasion’ on American pop charts at that time, and their original aim was to become a ‘cover band’ (long before the expression was ever coined), performing authentic versions of current hits live. 
Meeting a talent scout in a music store led to them recording a demo record which in turn led to a proposal from record producer Phil Gernhard.  He was asking local bands to take a look at the lyrics for a novelty song called Snoopy vs The Red Baron, with the aim of releasing a record of the ‘best’ treatment.  The Guardsmen unenthusiastically composed a self-professed ‘hokey’ arrangement, which Gernhard liked, released, and it shot to the top of the American charts in November 1966, catapulting a student garage band to something approaching fame. I love the fact that their first television appearance was hosted by Khan himself, Ricardo Montalban.
 Although our adversaries are in place for this ‘proto-Snoopy’s Christmas’, along with the military drum beat and aeroplane sound effects, obviously the most important element (the clue is in the second word of the title) is missing.
Sadly the band’s ambitions to become serious musicians were thwarted by Gernhard’s insistence that they record two further ‘Snoopy’ songs the following year, but the third one, a certain Christmas novelty hit, is a record the Guardsmen have admitted to having the most fun making. Although eventually becoming a gold record, Snoopy’s Christmas only charted at number one in the US on Billboards ‘Best bets for Christmas’ chart.
In New Zealand, however, it shot to number one in Christmas 1967 and for reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, has remained a festive favourite here ever since (despite the predictable Snoopy hate from vocal minorities in media silly-season opinion polls each year). 
As for the Royal Guardsmen, they eventually became disillusioned with their pigeon-holing as a novelty band and split up in 1969.  They remain philosophical about their one-time fame as ‘the Snoopy Boys’ – proclaiming “Long live the dog” when the single debuted at number 3 on iTunes Children’s chart. They apparently filmed a 2011 documentary titled, Burned by a Beagle – The True Story Of The Royal Guardsmen.

I must confess, while working a student holiday job in my teens which kept me within earshot of a radio all day, I strained for some ‘cred’ by affecting a cynical adversion to having to listen to the song several times a day.  A friend pulled me up with the far more genuine remark “Come on, how can you possibly complain about Snoopy’s Christmas?”  I instantly realised he was right – to profess an adversion to the distilled spirit of peace and goodwill which this silly little song celebrates would surely be the very worst in Dickensian mean-spiritedness.  I wasn’t like that, and didn’t want to be.  I love Christmas, always have and always will.

Snoopy’s Christmas also channels the essence of the famous unofficial Western Front Christmas Day truce in 1914 (beautifully depicted in the film Joyeaux Noel 2005),  and I hope to give this a closer look as we get closer to Christmas this month.
I can’t help but wonder how Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, famed, respected and feared on both sides for his unparalleled aeronautic skill, would feel if he knew that he would become best remembered by many because of a Christmas song celebrating his fictional encounter with a cartoon beagle.
In the spirit of Joyeaux Noel, perhaps it just might have seemed utterly preposterous enough to ignite even a famously-elusive teutonic sense of humour. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Who's turning 50: Part Two

It's here at last, but the moment has been prepared for

Thursday 21 November
The anniversary celebrations really began for me this afternoon at the Embassy theatre.  Doctor Who was up there on the big screen, but it wasn’t some time-paradoxical screening of The Day of the Doctor from the near future.  It was part of a show reel of the very best which New Zealand television’s greatest television channel is offering next year.
The Prime new season launch in Wellington is an annual event which I always look forward to. In some ways, it feels like the very first stirrings of the festive season with bubbles and gifts, and it’s always great to catch up with these lovely people who do so much promote Doctor Who in New Zealand.
I found myself in a ‘your sad teenage self would never have believed this’ situation, being engaged in conversation by two beautiful women who only wanted to talk about how exciting the Doctor Who anniversary special was.  I know it’s their job and I know our acquaintance is purely a business one, but all the same it was in equal parts bizarre and utterly delightful. 

Friday 22 November
Then the following morning this charming graphic and apparently very addictive game was brought to my attention by a variety of friends and colleagues throughout the day. 

 Even my sister texted me updates of her progress through the game.

Workmates who had no real interest in the programme took breaks to pitch themselves against a lone obstreperous Dalek, and ask me various questions about the history and anniversary of Doctor Who during the day. An editor asking me who Catherine Tate played and how to spell ‘Noble’, and asking for a copy of the infographic at the top of this post to put on-line made it seem as if Doctor Who was seeping into all aspects of every-day life.
To my surprise the fiftieth anniversary was indeed starting to feel like a global celebration, or at least the eve of one.

Saturday 23 November
The big day dawned hot and sunny, a further reminder that it may be the half-centennial here, but in the wintry northern hemisphere the anniversary special, wouldn’t screen until 8.50am the next day, our time.
I passed the day very happily, doing odd jobs outside while enjoying the boundless generosity of my friends Peter and Dave, firmly plugged into my ipod and listening to some ‘aural Who’.   

Under the banner of Destiny of the Doctor, Audio Go and Big Finish have collaborated this year to release an audio story for each Doctor, each month, culminating with the eleventh Doctor adventure which I listened to today.  Wrapping up the previous ten month’s stories and telling a great yarn in its own right, listening to this proved to be a perfect way to quietly celebrate this special date, in anticipation of the main event tomorrow.

Sunday 24 November
The line between tragedy and comedy became even finer than usual this morning.  Tomorrow night we are going to see The Day of the Doctor at a packed cinema, in 3-D, but I wanted to see it today so as not to be ‘spoilered’ as soon as I went anywhere near the internet or a newspaper.  And if I’m to be entirely honest, I also wanted some reassurance that I wasn’t setting up others seeing it with me for a less than memorable night out.
So, as arranged, I called around at a neighbour’s home to watch, only to discover that in the recent digital change-over, they had somehow lost Prime – the channel exclusively screening the anniversary special.
At least half an hour was spent, flicking between all the other channels, trying a busy helpline and scouring an incomprehensible manual, before I concluded that fate was telling me to get outside and enjoy the sun instead.
Walking home, I gave in to last-minute temptation and called in on another neighbour, who made me a cup of tea and watched the remaining last half of the special with me – in a perfect state of incomprehension.  Bless you Brian, I don’t think you’ll ever know what it meant to me and I only hope the experience of me alternating between whooping with surprise and joy and shedding nostalgic tears hasn’t traumatised you too much.

Having only seen the last half, I can’t even begin to review this story, and indeed, most likely won’t, as three posts on the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who are probably enough.
But I will say that what I saw certainly ticked all the boxes for me, and then drew some more boxes and ticked those too.  I eventually left to shovel sheep poo in sweltering heat for a couple of hours, with a grin on my face and still-moist eyes, feeling completely satisfied and very fortunate.  Not only do I now know how it ends, but I still have forty-odd minutes to look forward to tomorrow night which I haven’t seen yet.
Many happy returns, Doctor!

With final apologies to The Radio Times

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Count down part five: Tasting Notes

Hammer’s Dracula makes it to London at last, and meets Wallace!

“Words fail me” said Christopher Lee writing about his opinion of the latest film’s title to his fan club in 1969, “as indeed, they do in the film”
There is an additional reason for his typically unvocal performance in this film, however, and that is that Lee was never originally supposed to take part and was written-in at the last minute. Well aware of their star’s reticence to don the red-lined cloak once again, Hammer attempted to create a new vampire anti-hero, Lord Courtley, to be played by fresh young actor Ralph Bates. But the American distributors were having none of it, and Lee again was persuaded to return in what is in fact one of the best sequels in the entire range.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969)
An abandoned British traveller stumbles into the closing scene of the previous film, Dracula has risen from the Grave, and is somewhat startled by the screaming, writhing figure transfixed by a giant cross and bleeding profusely.  The blood quickly dries to a red powder which the interloper collects, and so the Count is finally Blighty-bound, as Bram Stoker always intended. And here he stays, as the Carpathians are completely abandoned for the following two productions in this series (although the next film, chronologically, is an exception and oddity, as we will see later.)
Transferring the action to Victorian London is a refreshing move, and we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters whose affairs absorb our attention so fully that the fact Dracula doesn’t even appear until half way through is barely noticed.

Three brothel-frequenting gentlemen (including great turns from Gromit’s Dad: Peter Sallis and one of Bond’s original bosses, Geoffrey Keene), who also keep puritanical reins on their own daughters, bring Victorian hypocrisy to the forefront. Beautiful Hammer regular Madeline (Maddy) Smith (she over all the many other Ladies adorns the cover of the definitive book about the actresses of these films: Hammer Glamour) makes her debut as a Python-draped exotic dancer, who’s routine is rudely interrupted by a sneering Courtley.  
 Bates went on to do some great work with Hammer, most notably his Doctor Jekyll, but here I’m afraid it’s clear he was never going to cut it as a Dracu-Lee replacement. A surprisingly high voice makes you instantly miss Lee’s sepulchral, if rare tones, and it’s something of a relief when imbibing the imported blood literally transforms Courtley’s dead body into the Lord of the Undead. It’s worth noting that the satanic ritualism leading to this became inextricably linked with the Count’s revival in future films. No longer simply an undead European nobleman, he seems to have been elevated to fully-fledged demonhood.
Once up and about, the Count swears vengeance on Wallace and his two pals for the death of his ‘servant’ Courtley (although never having met him). Despite this tenuous motivation, the film really kicks off, as can be seen from our much higher than average victim tally at the end of this post. The most virtuous daughter, Alice, quickly comes under the Count’s spell and is actually directly responsible for two gruesome deaths, including straddling and staking Peter Sallis, which certainly never happened in The Wrong Trousers.

 Apart from turning and eventually draining Alice’s poor friend Lucy, Christopher Lee actually does very little until the final act.  He mainly lurks in the shadows and, like another famous Count (and acquaintance of Kermit the Frog), keeps solemn tally as those he has sworn vengeance upon meet their various ends.
The climax takes place in the abandoned Church where it all began and is more of a psychic confrontation than previously seen. After smashing a lofty stained-glass window and lobbing masonry down at our remaining heroes, the combination a scorned woman’s fury and a successful attempt to re-sanctify this former place of worship sees the spiritually-beset Count plummeting to his doom.

The same kind of script reshuffling which harmed Brides of Dracula seems to have worked in reverse here.  Taste the Blood of Dracula feels on the cusp of worthy original and modern exploitative Hammer, and manages to embody the best of both. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, perhaps its success was a factor in Christopher Lee putting on the red-lined cloak again in the same year for the next film: Scars of Dracula. But could it be that the Hammer Dracula series had reached its zenith with Taste, leaving only one way to go?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Who’s turning fifty (Addendum): Eight Ball

An astonishing prequel to the upcoming fiftieth anniversary special debuted last Friday, and now I’ve got some tidying up to do.

When I included the 'eighth-to-ninth Doctor' illustration in my last post, I intended it as a representation of ‘old’ (or at least twentieth century) Who being reborn as the ‘new series’.
The fact that Paul McGann’s brilliant, single-1996-appearance Doctor became Christopher Eccleston’s ‘vanguard of the new age of Who’ was taken for granted, completely unquestioned, even if we never had, and never would, see it.
But if you were to have asked me, and many other fans, what we most wanted for a fiftieth anniversary Doctor Who present, it would have been to see the eighth Doctor once more. 
I would have been happy with a fleeting cameo, a flashback – even a voice-over would have been exciting enough, but the BBC remained resolutely silent on any possibility of us ever seeing McGann wielding a sonic screwdriver again. The actor himself had always expressed a great willingness to return, and this made the apparent ambivalence of the programme makers all the more disappointing.
So international Fandom collectively and loudly punched the air and ‘squee-ed’ when this happened last week:

Not just a cameo – but almost seven minutes of the best scripting Steven Moffat has produced in quite some time, augmenting McGann’s pitch perfect performance with equally character-nailing wit, melancholy and charm. Suddenly, those who didn’t realise it already have ample evidence of what a fantastic Doctor McGann would have made, had he been allowed to continue back in the mid-nineties.
But in a bitter-sweet way we finally rejoin the eighth Doctor adventures only to witness his last few minutes of life, suddenly giving The Night of the Doctor huge significance in the greater continuity of the programme.

If all that wasn’t enough, questions ranging from the very beginning of the new series to the most recent climactic episode are addressed in a truly ‘never-saw-that-coming’, stunning way.  And then this happens:

(with further apologies to The Radio Times)
The series itself this year was extremely variable, but between the brilliant casting of Peter Capaldi and now the impossible wish of seeing the eighth Doctor back in action again having been granted, the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who now finally seems as exciting as we always hoped it would be.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Who's turning fifty: Part one

Another anniversary, for another famous fictional icon,
is materialising fast

(With apologies to the Radio Times)
Most of my writing about Doctor Who (and there’s a vast embarrassment of, well embarrassments, really) has been for other fans, (and can be found here: and here: and is therefore pitched at a certain level, for an often very specific brief. ‘Niche’ might be the word I’m looking for, or ‘geeky’, if you prefer.
But a piece which hasn’t been published before, and is hopefully a little more accessible than usual, is this speech I delivered six years ago for a Speechcraft course.
It’s not a spectacular example of public speaking, but it did force me to try to explain my love for Doctor Who to people who weren’t already converted to the same cause, and possibly even suspicious or dismissive of the programme.
Whether my captive audience found the following three minutes entertaining or not, I couldn’t say, but I found it a useful exercise in questioning what to me what is unquestionable, and asking why anyone should watch this wonderfully-silly little programme..

Why the Doctor is Good for you (2007)
I have a secret affliction. 
It’s been described by some as the social equivalent of a venereal disease, with symptoms which include being very unlikely to see a woman naked until you‘re well into your twenties.
It doesn’t so much break families up as ensure that they’re never started in the first place. Tap-dancing your way to social ridicule is so last century – this will do it for you in seconds.
I am a Doctor Who fan. 
Particularly since the unbelievably-popular revival of the programme a couple of years ago I now know that I’m far from alone, so I’m going to justify this affliction, and prove that it’s good for you.

1. General Knowledge
The programme is older than I am – 44 years old this November, in fact.
When it first began it was intended to be educational – oh yes! – because you see, the lead character, the Doctor, is essentially a scholar, an explorer and a scientist.
The programme may not always use ‘real science’ but when it does, it always strives to get it right.  Consequently countless gems of physics, chemistry and biology rattle about inside my brain because I’ve seen or heard them on Doctor Who!  These same gems have led some others to pursue careers in science, taking them in directions of  research which may one day benefit all of us.
The Doctor is also a Time traveller, which very intentionally opens up history to its audience.  We get to meet figures from Nero to Richard the Lionheart, to Charles Dickens and experience events from the eruption of Vesuvius to the French revolution first hand.  While being entertained we learn.  And I know this because with every crossword or quiz I’ve ever done in my life I’ve owed at least a couple of correct answers to Doctor Who.

2. Values
I don’t mean in a preachy US sitcom sort of way, definitely not.
The irony of Doctor Who is that it takes a 900 year old time-travelling alien with two hearts to demonstrate the best qualities of being human. 
How to be brave when the monsters come, but tolerant and gracious when encountering something different.
To be interested in everything and to abhore violence, cruelity and oppression.
To always try to use brains over brawn and wits over weaponery.
To be passionate in your beliefs, to uphold the rights of the individual and to never lose your sense of wonder, no matter how old or well-travelled you are.
I think it’s better to have these things reinforced by a television programme than not at all.

3.  Creativity
Lets return to the nature of being a Geek  I’ll be the first to admit that the more extreme examples can be a little socially challenged.  In fact I’ve seen and heard sights you wouldn’t believe but I hope to keep this speech at an acceptable length, this week, so I’ll move on
With this unfortunate ‘nerdery’ also comes surprising intelligence, creativity and motivation.  Some call it the geek gene, some compare it to a strain of autism, but what geeks lack in social graces they seem to have in abundance creatively. 
I myself missed out on the intelligence, but over the last two decades have illustrated books and magazines, written and had published reviews, essays and a short story, and even drawn a couple of comic strips about Doctor Who.
A young relative, who’s interest has nothing to do with me, honest, struggled a little at school until he got his first ever ‘A’.  It was for a project on, well, I think you can guess.  This gave him a taste for the satisfaction in doing something well and his marks have stayed good ever since.
In another league altogether, the current production team and even lead actor of the new series are all top in the fields they work in because they grew up as Doctor Who fans.  The lunatics really have taken over the asylum, but it must be a good thing because the programme wins BAFTA’s these days.

So you see, watching Doctor Who can offer you brain food, a moral compass and a creative catalyst – it’s all there.
And I haven’t even mentioned what fantastic fun it is, the sheer joy of escaping reality for a while and getting lost in the lunacy and ingenuity of it all.
Thank you.


Friday, 8 November 2013

Hip to be Square

The dubious rubber-fetishism of 'the Bat' has never been for me, I've always been a blue tights kind of guy...

Superman is 75 this year, so it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when he wasn’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound.  The ‘Man of Tomorrow’ has had his highs and lows throughout the decades, but it’s good to be able to write about this particular pop culture icon now, at a time when he seems to be flying higher than ever. 
I've already written about the extreme relief which Man of Steel's success has been this year, and I can never suppress a wry smile when I see the current preponderance of the 'S' symbol on street wear when I'm out and about in our own Metropolis.  It's as if the old fashioned values of Superman, which had seemed to disappear under a bat-shaped shadow of cynicism and vengeance some time ago, (or was it actually a huge ‘M’ for Marvel?), have finally emerged back into the sun.  Perhaps newer generations are less inclined to shuffle uncomfortably when faced with words like truth and justice; righteous outrage and intolerance of societal ills are apparently Y-Generation traits and we should all be grateful for that.
However, the direction Man of Steel's marketing took seemed initially at odds to this proud new attitude.  Not only did we seem to have a film without the character’s name in the title and a shy teaser poster which barely even shows the ‘S’ symbol, but a trailer which cut Amy Adams off before she can even say “Superm…”  As we now know however, this apparent coyness turned out to be nothing of the kind, and all for good reason.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I'd call myself a fan of the character, but at the same time feel somewhat fraudulent in doing so in doing so because Superman is a creation of the DC comics world, and I never read them.  With a scant few exceptions, my experience of Superman is almost exclusively through what are strictly called adaptations - in film and television. 
George Reeve was Superman when I was growing up in the mid-seventies, even if Adventures of Superman actually first screened in 1952. It wasn't unusual to have shows of this vintage screened in prime viewing slots back then, and the fact that it was one of the very first series ever to be filmed in colour probably helped (not that any of us had colour TVs yet). We didn't know or care that it was horribly dated even then.  The rushing wind sound as Superman took to the air (in the same special effects shot every time, which looked as if it had been matted with a black felt pen) and the unforgettable introduction (“ it a bird, is it a plane..”) were the most exciting thing our 15 inch black and white screen ever lost its vertical hold on.

 In years to come, a little film by George Lucas absolutely hypnotised and entranced me to the exclusion of almost all else.  So when I heard that a Superman film was coming out the following year, which according to the inevitable hype was going to be 'better than Star Wars' , I vowed to hate it there and then. I probably wouldn’t even have gone to see it, except my family, (once again, I recall it was Mum who was especially keen) dragged me along while we were away on holiday.
I’d love to report that I loved Superman the Movie on sight, but I stupidly wouldn’t let myself. I knew it was good, I could see that Christopher Reeve was the Man, but instead I picked and niggled at this magical film like the brat I was.

But two years later, we all went to see Superman II and that experience transformed me into a life-long fan in the space of 127 minutes. Yes, it’s a fabulous film (although even I came to realise not as fabulous as the first) but it was more what happened at this particular screening.  During the climactic battle in, under and above Metropolis, the whole cinema audience went crazy for Superman. Perhaps it was a little ironically intended, or maybe this spontaneous release of enthusiasm could have happened at another film - but that night everyone clapped and cheered and yelled for all they were worth.
I’d never experienced an audience responding to a film like that before and I doubt I ever will again - walking out of that cinema, with John William’s beloved score still blaring from the speakers, I felt like I wanted to fly.  “We used to cheer the cowboys at the pictures” said my Dad afterwards, “Now they’re cheering Superman!”

By the time Superman III arrived, friends and I took our girlfriends – the days of tagging along with our families were past. It was fun, but if we felt like being analytical we could see that it was very far from a good film.  And when Superman IV limped into cinemas four years later I couldn’t even find anyone prepared to see it with me, and only caught it myself many years later on VHS (not the best use I ever put my membership card to).
These were the dark years, but while everyone flocked to see Batman at the cinema, I rediscovered Superman the Movie through VHS, and with the maturing of what passed for my critical faculties I could finally appreciate it for the modern masterpiece it was.  Of course it has its faults, but the tone is absolutely right.  The world believed a man could fly back in 1978 because everyone involved in this film believed it too, particularly Director Richard Donner and his Star.  Even Brando, overweight, overpaid and unrehearsed, turns in a performance of almost preposterous gravitas and dignity.

I never really invested in Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman on TV, as it always struck me as little more than a thinly-caped vehicle for Teri Hatcher’s debatable talents.  It certainly had its fans though.  When Christopher Reeve’s tragic 1995 accident was reported and someone at work gasped that Superman had broken his neck, another very young colleague cried: “Oh no, poor Dean Cain!” Similarly, Smallville never caught on with me – ten years of foreplay – really?

What did excite me was the news that the ‘Godfather of the modern superhero film’ and massive Superman fan, Bryan Singer was bringing ‘Big Blue’ back to the screen.  Everything about it sounded perfect – John William’s music: tick, a sequel which follows on from the second Reeve film and over-writes the last two: GREAT idea, a digital Brando cameo: could it get any better?
It might be surprising to contemplate that, takings–wise, Superman Returns was a huge success and there was much talk of a sequel.  However, what we saw on screen was proof that you can be too much in love with something, as Singer clearly was with the 1978 film. His ‘sequel’ actually comes across as an infatuated remake (coining the expression ‘re-quel’), as he lovingly re-crafts key scenes and even lines of dialogue from Donner’s film.  The title sequence, a 21st century reworking of the original opening, is great, and when the rare action is delivered, it hits the spot.  However, with his annoyingly undersized ‘S’, Brandon Routh comes across as more of a ‘Superboy’ and this rather ‘emo’ film has been labelled the world’s first ‘Superhero weepie’.
A limited market, to be sure…

Seven years later, Man of Steel took the exact opposite approach to Singer, treating the subject as if it had never been filmed before.  So there are no 'kisses to the past' in terms of previous films, but I'm assured that there are plenty to the mythology of the comics. And with that, I'll move on as I've probably written quite enough about this year's film in these last two posts.

I think I’m a Superman fan for two reasons, apart from three very good films.  Like Kal-El, I’m adopted and although my own special powers seem limited to emulating the creature this blog is named after, the concept of being raised by parents who didn’t bring you into this world but love you all the more for it strikes a chord with me.  Trying to adapt to a strange new environment at a very young age, as I did when we immigrated, also has resonance.
And secondly, despite my unspectacular personal record, I think it’s important to constantly strive to be better than we are. To hold yourself back from simply responding in kind to unthinking aggression and prejudice, to help others whenever you can and never give in if you believe your cause is a just one.  Man of Tomorrow is an apt name for this ‘strange visitor from another planet’ because I also believe that if we strive to live up the same ideals, we can all be super men one day.
The above images of  George Reeves, Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill are taken from Zack Snyder's
wonderful 75th anniversary animated short - enjoy it here:

And here is my own 75th anniversary tribute (magnify to read):

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Steel Works

Superman returned to the screen again this year, and this time he flew.

In the middle of this year, Man of Steel, despite some shortcomings and the perceived under-performance of Superman's previous cinematic outing, exceeded the stellar expectations of the studios and in many cases fans and critics too. 
Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and Director Zack Snyder, who detractors had already condemned before a single frame of this film was ever shot, bring their absolute best games to this film.  In my opinion Costner actually gives his most moving performance ever, knocking it out of the ball park better than he ever did in Field of Dreams. The catch in his voice when he reassures the frightened young Clark with the words “you are my son” is perfectly pitched and his final scene could well be Costner’s finest moment on screen.

But as always, responsibility for the film’s ability to soar lay upon the ludicrously-broad shoulders of its lead actor. Christopher Reeve will probably always be the definitive screen Superman for me, but Henry Cavill is now a very close second.
Particularly before the explosive final act, he seems to have an ability to convey precise thoughts and emotions with the barest minimum of expression and body language, (the same understated approach, incidentally, which Christopher Reeve took with his own portrayal).  What some have critics mistakenly called ‘wooden’ is actually the conveying of a larger than life icon with skilfully judged subtlety and restraint.
When I heard that the film’s mission was to make Superman more relatable, I shuddered, with visions of a quipping, smirking Dean Cain passing before my eyes.  But Man of Steel does succeed in giving us a title character who we can, and want, to get behind. We are able to engage with an alienated refugee who gradually discovers that his ‘curse’ might also be our blessing and by the end of the film rejoice as he symbolically claims a new persona, complete with friends and a sense of purpose, which is more important than the simple ‘secret identity’ of old.

With Christopher Nolan’s close involvement, many also predicted that this would be a ‘Superman Begins’ and in many ways it is, but not in the grimy, gravely-voiced, winged-rodent sort of way which they meant.
In 1978 Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew out of his Fortress of Solitude, fully-formed after a decade of intensive tuition from a hologram of Marlon Brando, on how to be the world’s greatest hero.
In Man of Steel, Cavill is shown the suit, and then turned loose to make his own mistakes.  This includes a spectacular sequence which begins like a scene from ‘80s comedy series The Greatest American Hero - something I hoped to never see in a Superman film, but it kind of works.  On persevering: a hurtling, cape-fluttering world tour encourages us to share his new-found exhilaration – this is a very human Superman, learning on the job.
This fresh and welcome approach does unfortunately have the side effect of there being no ‘big reveal’ for our title character – there is no equivalent of the  “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” scene from Superman the Movie.  Take a couple of minutes to watch it now, and if you aren’t grinning by the end, then your brain might just have become disconnected from your heart.

Unlike Bryan Singer’s well-intentioned but misjudged 2006 effort, Superman Returns, Man of Steel sets out to tell an all-too-familiar story, a true modern myth, but in a fresh new way.  If the beautifully realised and exciting Krypton ‘prologue’ doesn’t already signal this approach, the sudden cut from young Kal’s ship entering our atmosphere to the adult Clark working on a present day shipping boat does.  We all know the Moses-inspired legend by heart, but this film wisely breaks up the linear narrative and explores ‘corners’ in the story we haven’t seen before.
Despite being a new interpretation, Man of Steel contains many nods to the past.
With the arrival of Zod and his army the film then appears hell-bent in ensuring that the criticism of ‘not enough action’ levelled at Bryan Singer’s film, can never be applied here.
The ear-drum shredding, wildly-kinetic mayhem which fills the second half and literally levels an entire city is a guilty pleasure.  It feels a little like a venerable ‘gentleman prize fighter’ of yester-year stepping into the ring and comprehensively wiping the floor with the current bunch of cinematic caped-wannabees.  It’s chaos on a scale not seen before, a true ‘clash of the gods’, but the apparent disregard for we poor mortals left to flee between the toppling buildings does leave a slight hint of sourness.  In 1980’s Superman II, (the direct inspiration for this colossal confrontation), Reeve’s Superman quits the big fight when he realises that he can’t protect hundreds of innocent bystanders from collateral damage, and draws the Kryptonian super-villains away from Metropolis.
Similarly, Man of Steel’s final resolution of Zod’s threat is undeniably shocking, although I’m not going to give it away here.  It is a good thing that we are shocked and the toll it takes on our hero shows that it almost costs him his soul.
Both these points have been addressed by scriptwriter David Goyer, and his answer is also what makes this film so unique and engaging.  This is a newly-minted hero, (the name Superman is only heard three times in the entire film) and he still has much to learn.  He doesn’t always know what to do, doesn’t have the decades of experience and wisdom we associate with the character yet.  And this in itself makes his cinematic future fascinating to contemplate.

But I do have a slight niggle that the only successful on-screen Superman stories to date: the first two Reeve films, have both been used up by Man of Steel. And I also feel some disappointment that the next film will see him share the screen, grudgingly, with a new Batman. 
I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but for now I’m thrilled to have seen my favourite superhero return to the screen for his 75th anniversary, and make us all believe a man can fly once again.

Next: Hip to be Square – a self indulgent look at Superman through my ages…