Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Seventy-five years ago, two cartoonists from Cleveland wrote and drew a story for a new comic book called Action Comics. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster surely could not have known back in 1938 that their story's protagonist would become a major cultural icon. Decked out in blue tights and a red cape, the character helped put superheroes on the map and changed the face of American comic books. Needless to say, that character is the one and only Superman.

Superman has become so popular over the years that he's transcended comics. He actually has a whole host of fans who've never even touched a comic book, let alone read one. I'd say it's primarily due to his presence in other media. There's a ton of Superman cartoons, Superman TV shows, and perhaps most famously, a number of live-action Superman movies. However, the quality of those movies has been... well, mixed, to say the least. Richard Donner's 1978 movie and its sequel are classics, some of the best superhero movies of all time. But much like what happened when Joel Schumacher took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton, the third and fourth movies underperformed and effectively ended the franchise. Even Bryan Singer's Superman Returns wasn't enough to resurrect it.

That's where Christopher Nolan comes in. After concluding his epic "Dark Knight Saga" last year, he was brought in by Warner Bros. Studios to help reinvigorate Superman much in the way he did Batman. With Nolan assuming the role of producer and Watchmen director Zack Snyder at the helm, Superman is getting his much-ballyhooed (and at this point much-needed) cinematic reboot in the form of Man of Steel. So let's dig in, shall we?

The distant planet Krypton is in dire straits. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the planet's greatest scientific mind, has discovered evidence of an impending environmental catastrophe that will destroy the planet sooner rather than later. But his attempts to warn the Kryptonian high council are ruined when the planet's military leader, the megalomaniacal General Zod (Michael Shannon), seizes the opportunity to stage a coup and plunge Krypton into civil war. In the midst of the chaos and with precious time remaining before the end of the world, Jor-El straps his infant son Kal-El into a rocket and launches him to the relative safety of Earth.

Baby Kal-El's ship lands near Smallville, Kansas, where he's found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). The Kents adopt him and raise him as their own, naming him Clark. But try as they might to keep his alien heritage a secret, it becomes harder when he starts developing superpowers during his adolescence. Naturally, that's a weird time to not only find out you have super-strength and X-ray vision, but that you're not even human. It's because of that that the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) doesn't feel like he fits in.

Clark roams the country doing odd jobs, never allowing himself to stay in one area for long as he searches to find his place in the world. But the values and sense of justice that the Kents raised him with always come to the forefront, as Clark routinely finds himself performing good deeds and using his powers to save others from disaster. He tries keeping his identity a secret, but it proves harder than he thinks after an encounter with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), an intrepid reporter investigating an ancient Kryptonian spacecraft found buried in the Arctic.

He tries dissuading her from publicly exposing him, but an even bigger threat soon presents itself. General Zod and his army have escaped the interstellar prison they were left in just as Krypton exploded and followed the ancient spacecraft's signal back to Earth. Believing Clark to be the key to reviving Krypton and their dwindling race, Zod has no qualms with destroying all of Earth to get what he wants. Clark is left faced with the quandary of choosing his heritage or protecting his home.

Judging by the reactions I've seen online, Man of Steel has been a very divisive movie. There have been just as many people singing its praises as there have been people who disliked it. But I'm among the seemingly less-vocal band of moviegoers that thought the movie was somewhere in between. There was quite a bit that I enjoyed, elements that were fun, entertaining, and engaging. But there were also those parts I felt held the movie back from achieving its full potential, thus leaving me disappointed as well.

With Zack Snyder in charge as director, you're pretty much guaranteed that, if anything, the movie's going to be insanely stylish. All of his movies are like that, and Man of Steel is no different. And personally, I thought Snyder's work was great. He keeps the movie rolling at a brisk pace, with even the slower moments never feeling like they're dragging or wasting their time. And he really ups his game during the movie's third act, which sees Superman battle Zod's forces in Smallville and Metropolis. These sequences are very exciting and cool, but the downside is that there's so much carnage on the screen that by the end, it makes you feel burned out. It's like a Michael Bay movie on steroids.

And while Snyder obviously gets what makes Superman such an iconic character and tries crafting an epic tone for the movie, one gets the feeling that some of the cynicism he brought to Watchmen has bled over into this project. The movie comes off a lot darker than I'd expect out of Superman. That sort of thing might work for Batman, but Superman is a character that's all about hope and bringing out the best in people. That idea was paid some lip service and occasionally seems to want to break through, but there's also a feeling that because of Batman's popularity and Christopher Nolan's presence, the movie has to be this so-called "realistic" superhero tale similar to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Does Superman have to be realistic? What's wrong with a little happy-go-lucky fantasy?

I also thought that some parts of the script serve as a stumbling block as well. Writer David S. Goyer is no stranger to superhero movies and to his credit, a lot of his script for Man of Steel isn't bad. Like Snyder, he obviously gets Superman is having a fun time putting his own spin on him, Goyer builds the characters in a way that you become invested in them, but the real problem is that the character development stops dead about halfway through, just as it's getting somewhere. As the third act begins and Superman goes to war with Zod's army, the movie becomes Zack Snyder's attempt to destroy as many buildings as possible before the movie ends. I wanted to see more development because I've seen proof that you don't have to sacrifice characters for action (and vice versa). You can have your cake and eat it too sometimes.

Even the movie's 3D effects are disappointing at times. It's another casualty of a mediocre post-production conversion, with only a few scenes having any sort of real depth. While these moments are admittedly really cool, there are not quite enough of them to justify paying the extra surcharge. If you're not a big fan of 3D, don't feel compelled to see it in that format. You don't need to if you don't want to.

But if there's one element of the movie that I thought was one hundred percent awesome, it's the cast. The actors and actresses are all great in their own ways. Amy Adams isn't given as much to do as I'd hoped, but I still thought she played Lois Lane well. I can also say the same thing for Diane Lane, who is charming and sweet in her role as Superman's human mother, while Antje Traue makes for a damn good villain as Zod's chief lieutenant.

And while Kevin Costner is fine as Jonathan Kent, he's outshined by Russell Crowe. He brings a stoic wisdom to Jor-El, and you can see just how much his character believes in what he's doing. His Jor-El makes it obvious he loves his son and believes in him, which really gives the character a huge boost.

I also liked Michael Shannon, who abandoned the theatricality Terrence Stamp brought to the role in Superman II and made General Zod his own. He gets a little hammy at times (like the "I will find him!" scene that's in the ads), but Shannon still makes Zod a threatening, sometimes scary villain.

But if Shannon had big shoes to fill as he played the character made famous by another actor, Henry Cavill has even bigger shoes. Cavill doesn't have the same dry humor that made Christopher Reeve so captivating to watch, but then his Superman isn't the same as Reeve's either. Cavill plays the role well, bringing a certain seriousness to it. He does a respectable job conveying how unsure he is with his place in the world, while simultaneously having a compulsion to help people no matter what. Cavill does his absolute best as Superman, and if he had a better script to work with, this probably could have been the better portrayals of the character.

I unfortunately didn't think Man of Steel was all that was hoping it would be. I didn't think it was terrible and I don't regret having seen it. I actually enjoyed some parts, but it's just that the enjoyable parts are weighed down by disappointment. There's talk that the movie is supposed to be the start of the DC Comics equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if that's the case, things are off to a rocky start. But to its credit, Man of Steel did leave me wanting to see where a sequel would go, so I guess it succeeded in that aspect. As it stands, though, the movie is okay at best. It's just another run of the mill summer blockbuster where smashing stuff rules above all. Is it so hard to do something more than that?

Final Rating: ***

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