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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013): Written by David S. Goyer (and Chris Nolan), directed by Zach Snyder (but really Chris Nolan).  Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Amy Adams.  Rated PG-13 for: intense action and violence.  Running Time: 143 Minutes.  Based on The Dark Knight Trilogy by Chris Nolan. 

Rating:  2/4 Stars

            I will state up front that I very much enjoyed watching Man of Steel.  It is a deeply flawed movie, and it reveals the cracks in Chris Nolan’s vision of superhero movies far more than last year’s Dark Knight Rises did.  And yet, even though it fell short of my expectations (as well as those of many others), even though the whole project is so very symptomatic of everything wrong and getting worse about the current bubble of superhero movies bloating up this year’s release schedule, I just can’t work up too many hard feelings about it.  I say this now to partially blunt the somewhat barbed (yet sadly necessary) critiques I am about to level at what is easily the weakest movie Chris Nolan’s name has yet been attached to. 

            Repeat after me if you already know this bit- Krypton is literally being torn apart by the reckless energy policies of its leaders.  Jor-El, whose wife has given birth to the first natural child on Krypton in centuries, tries to get the Council to alter their policies in time to save their race while simultaneously planning to send his son, Kal-El, off alone to ensure that he survives.  His efforts are thwarted by General Zod, who attempts a coup to save the planet, although how exactly his plan would accomplish this is a wibbly-wobbly ball of shut-the-hell-up.  He fails to stop Jor-El from launching the pod with his son, however, along with a Magic McGuffin that apparently contains the….stuff….needed to recreate Krypton.  Zod’s coup fails, and he and his crew are locked away off-world just in time for the exploding volcanoes to break up the planet, conveniently leaving Zod and his cohorts the only surviving Kryptonians left (along with Kal-El).  Kal-El, as we all know, arrives in Kansas and is found by a conveniently-childless All American couple, who raise him as their own and instill in him a sense that his powers are a gift, which he must carefully contain and hide until the time is right.  The time to decide who and what he is, though, is quickly forced upon him when General Zod finally manages to track him down, determined to recover the…thingy…that will allow him to rebuild Krypton.  On Earth, of course.  Also, without humans around.  Of course

            You might have noticed that I’ve already thrown Chris Nolan’s name around a lot in this review, even though he neither directed the movie nor wrote the screenplay.  The reason for this is that Man of Steel looks, sounds, and feels a LOT more like a Nolan film than it does a Snyder film, from the overly-explained plot devices, to the shaky-cam, right down to the backstory told in disjointed, non-chronological flashbacks.  Say what you will about movies like 300 (hated it) and Watchmen (a faithful if flawed adaptation), they both had enough visual and aesthetic similarities that they were undoubtedly from the mind of Zach Snyder- washed-out color schemes, insanely gratuitous slow-mo’s during every action scene, and a still and steady camera, letting you soak in the visual design enough to really feel like you’d entered a comic-book world.  The production design here is equally detailed and interested, but I can’t say I was able to really enjoy the sets more than sporadically because the damn camera wouldn’t stop wobbling.  Needless to say, both Nolan and Snyder should know better at this point. 

            This is a relatively small nit-pick though.  The occasionally shoddy camera-work aside, visually this film is as strong as it gets.  Copied though they are, the designs are good, and the visual effects are every bit as spectacular and awe-inspiring as you would expect from a movie that had 220 million and change to throw around.  The fight scenes are fantastic to watch, especially the final smack-down between Superman and Zod, even if it doesn’t measure up to the pure exhilaration of The Avengers, or the mind-bending, they-totally-just-went-there insanity of Cabin In The Woods.  So, on a purely superficial level, there’s really not much in the way of major problems with the film.  Many aspects of the film are even really, really good.  Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent, as always.  Michael Shannon makes a great Zod, and I actually really like Cavill’s Superman.  One of the best scenes in the film is of Clark having a panic attack as a child, and running out of class- his abilities cause him to sense everything around him to an overwhelming degree, and his mother has to find a way to help him “make the world small.”  The real problems with it lie with the plot and screenplay. 

            This is not to say that the story itself is bad, because it isn’t.  Superman trying to learn to control/hide his powers, and being forced to do so quickly by the arrival of Zod and his minions, is a perfectly fine story.  It allows for plenty of philosophical soul-searching on Superman’s part, it lets you show his growth, and then when Zod arrives, you can jump right into the flying and punching and humanity-saving.  And we get plenty of the punching and the flying (the humanity-saving part is up for debate), and as I said above, it looks great.  The issues lie with the first two-thirds of the film, where we’re supposed to see Clark/Kal/Superman’s development as an alien on another world, striving to find an identity for himself, before taking up the mantle of a watchful guardian.  The biggest problem is that we never really see Clark decide much on his own.  Instead, the Superman mantle comes across as something decided for him, at his birth, by his father back on Krypton, which wreaks havoc with the idea that Superman has the free will to decide his own fate, as opposed to Zod, who was genetically pre-programmed to obsessively “defend” Krypton and its people. 

            Russell Crowe’s preaching is given further dense weight by Kevin Costner’s preaching as Clark’s human father, who seems remarkably in sync with Jor-El despite the two of them living on opposite ends of the known universe.  I can recall very few scenes where Clark really delves into what he’s feeling or thinking at any given time, and the one time he does, he’s interrupted by a tornado (no, really).  This is partly why I liked Cavill’s performance- he’s given almost no room in which to develop his own Superman character, and yet despite this, he still manages to carry himself well enough to make an impression in all of his scenes.  The same can be said for most of the cast, nearly all of whom have been placed into similar pits of having no room to breathe and just exist as characters- instead, they are all given speeches on “The Meaning of Superman for Dummies.”  The worst cases in the movie are Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne as the Lois Lane and her boss from the Daily Planet, who literally have no other purpose other than to make sure the words “Daily Planet” are uttered together several times in the movie.  They clearly tried to make Lois Lane more of a “strong, independent woman” in this version, but the fact that she has to be saved by Superman no less than 3 times pretty much shoots their efforts right in the feet. 

            The crushing density of its plot and its lack of solid character development aside, I still don’t think this is a bad film.  I don’t even think it’s a too dark or too violent rendition of Superman, although they would do well to tie up certain loose ends in the event they do a sequel, which now looks like a near-certainty.  For all the dumb and clichéd moments in the film, there’s nothing as shockingly stupid as the ending of Into Darkness, or as deal-breaking as the abuse of Pepper Pots in Ironman 3.  What it noticeably lacks though, and I’m not the first to point this out, is a sense of fun and wonder at the idea of Superman and his powers.  And that, ultimately, is really the only wish I had for this movie- to get caught up in the wonder of Superman, something I was resistant to for most of my childhood. 

            There is a single scene in the movie that comes very, very close to doing this- after discovering an old Kryptonian ship, Clark is able to speak with a hologram of his dead father, learns of his real identity, and is presented with a suit crafted on Krypton.  He then walks out onto a cold, Arctic plane and, for the first time, pushes himself to fly, as high and as fast as he can.  It’s the lone moment of pure adrenaline rush that I got from the entire film, which not even the spectacular fistfights could provide.  A few more of those scenes would have taken the film a long way.  Without them, we are left with a film that is well-made and structurally sound, for the most part, but one that will leave an awful lot of people wanting something more. 

-Noah Franc


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