Sunday, July 14, 2013

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder.
2013. Rated PG-13, 143 minutes.
Harry Lennix
Richard Schiff
Antje Traue
Ayelet Zurer

As if there were any doubt this was going to be an origin story, Man of Steel begins with the birth of our hero during the last days of existence for the planet Krypton. A bunch of stuff happens, including the banishment of General Zod (Shannon) and his troops for attempting a coup in order to do what he deems necessary to save his world. Instead, Krypton goes boom and Jor-El’s (Crowe) bouncing baby boy crash lands in Smallville. A little over three decades later, the boy’s past catches up with him in the form of a very angry Gen. Zod and crew. The total annihilation of the Smallville IHOP, the Smallville Sears, and pretty much all of Metropolis ensues.

Despite us being told otherwise for a couple years, MoS does indeed try to do for Superman (Cavill) what Christopher Nolan (here, a producer) does for Batman. It attempts to dive deeper into his psyche than ever before while dropping him into as real a world as possible. It even apes that franchise’s dead serious tone. In fact, it’s almost completely devoid of humor. The Clark Kent we’re given, before becoming Superman, is a morose lost soul quite literally drifting through life. It just so happens that incredibly tragic events tend to unfold in his presence. He, of course, is compelled to save lives.

This all sounds fine and plays out in an interesting manner. The problem is it subverts three quarters of a century’s worth of Superman lore with something that doesn't always seem as if it has been thoroughly thought through. The most egregious of these is the relationship between our hero and Lois Lane (Adams). Within fifteen minutes of Clark, and us, meeting her for the first time all of the charm and mystery of one of the most iconic love affairs in American pop culture history is flushed down the drain. In short, she knows everything we know. This robs us of them meeting and building the dynamics of their complicated romance. Mostly, that means we don’t get to see her being enthralled by Superman, but not Clark, while our hero struggles with whether or not to reveal his secret to her. Within the context of this movie, what they have works okay, but doesn't seem to bode well for the future installments that are almost sure to come. To be fair, Lois herself is well-presented as a relentless investigative reporter and Amy Adams plays the role quite nicely. For me, her best work since The Fighter, a couple years ago.

There are some problems with Superman himself. More specifically, his relationship with his Earthly father Jonathan Kent (Costner) doesn't always make sense. Jonathan is presented as the great philosophical force in Clark’s life. Unfortunately, his advice is generally for Clark to not do anything, ever, regardless of the situation. Just don’t. Costner gives us his best wise old sage performance, but circumstances render everything that flies out of his mouth pure rubbish. None of his “advice” works out too well for either as what eventually happens comes across as wholly preventable, stupid and failing to teach the great lesson it seems the filmmakers intended.

There’s also the nagging issue of human beings reaction to our hero. Almost no one is ever in awe of him despite him doing things they know to be impossible. For instance, there is a scene where a bunch of military personnel are sent to retrieve Superman for a meeting with Zod. None of them had ever seen him before and had no idea what he’s capable of. Still, when they first lay eyes on him and he’s suspended in mid-air they react much like he’s a waiter at that Smallville IHOP refilling their drinks. Why should we, the viewers, be amazed by him when it's clear that no one on the screen is. The exception to this are a Smallville classmate and his mom. The boy witnessed a young Clark push a school bus out a lake, saving dozens of lives including his. The mom is convinced that this was an act of God.

Ah yes, God. It’s long been known, and I've even written as much, that the story of Superman mirrors that of Jesus Christ. Here, that aspect is played up quite a bit, in ways that are sometimes subtle, others times not. His conception is different from anyone else’s on his planet, he is sent to our world by his father, receives guidance from his father’s ghost, and is thirty-three years old when he comes into his own. Not so subtly, we’re told, more than once, his abilities make him a God to us and he is rather fond of striking a pose similar that of Christ on the cross. Then there’s all that mumbo jumbo about where the genetic code of every future Kryptonian is hidden. Surely, a way to remake a world in his image. That said, the religious subtext doesn't overwhelm the movie like it does Superman Returns.

Never fear, good citizen. I know I've spent a lot of time pointing out the negatives, but there really are some good things about MoS. For starters, not all changes to our hero’s accepted history are bad. How Clark discovers the truth about himself and gets his costume are both nice additions to the canon. The latter works particularly well. It makes much more sense than having him, or Martha Kent (Lane) design it and lends it some much needed practicality. After all, can anything created from Earth’s fabrics be able to withstand all he goes through without being bulky and immobilizing? Maybe, but cost would be prohibitive. After all, he’s not some billionaire from Gotham City.

Something else that works is the one thing that clearly marks this as a Zack Snyder movie. That’s the visuals. It simply looks great. Our hero flying around is fantastically rendered as are his many feats of strength. The same goes for Zod and the other Kyrptonians. Additionally, no matter how massive the destruction they cause, it all looks pretty real. This includes falling skyscrapers and vehicles haphazardly thrown about.

Making use of all that technology, we get an action-packed final act. By the way, it’s an act that completely consumes the last third of the film giving us plenty of bang for our buck. As mentioned, Metropolis gets torn up pretty good. By that point, the plot just about disappears. Since it is a bit wobbly it’s a welcome change. We’re left with only the simplest part of the story: the hero fighting the villain.

This villain is also a plus for the movie. In Superman II, Gen. Zod wants to take over everything merely for the sake of it. He wants nothing more than fame and glory. Here, he as a much bigger purpose and an unlimited reservoir of conviction. Thus, it is not really his goal that makes him the bad guy, but the means he’s willing to use in achieving it. Shannon aptly conveys this, helping to save the movie from falling prey to its own shortcomings. What I say next may seem blasphemous to some of you, but I like this version of the character better than Terence Stamp’s legendary portrayal. True, I don’t think he exactly says “Kneel before Zod,” but I guess you can’t have everything.

MoS is a movie that has to deal with expectations more than any superhero movie since, ironically, Superman Returns, with the possible exception of The Avengers. After all, the mythos of Superman is fairly common knowledge and as close to American history as a fictional character can get. Therefore, even the least critical viewer might be upset when you start dicking around with the story, let alone what the die-hard fanboys might think. For that reason, I think it might be a tad too ambitious for many. At least with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan had a little known area of his protagonist’s life to explore. No such dark corridor exists for Superman, in terms of his origin. People just want the story mostly how they know it and a good villain for our hero to square off against. We get a very good villain, but not always a good story. I don’t think this is a great film, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad, either. I’d say it’s slightly better than Superman Returns, but not up to the level of the first Christopher Reeve flick.

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