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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Man of Steel - Take 2



Let me put my cards on the table. I don't hate Zack Snyder. I realize that's a strange opinion to have amongst the film critic-set, but there you have it. I think his kinetic visual sense at times outpaces his often meager storytelling skills, and this has allowed me to fairly enjoy films like Watchmen, 300, and Dawn of the Dead. I will never make the argument that he is a great filmmaker, but I will stand by the idea that he has a unique style all to his own and I can understand why he was chosen to helm this reboot of the Superman franchise. Unlike the turgid and completely driven by commerce "Amazing Spider-man" reboot, which came only a decade after the original Sam Raimi film, "Man of Steel" takes over as the restart of the very poorly aged Richard Donner original. I make no secret about my disregard for those films, while a landmark of their time and featuring a wonderful lead performance, it's one of those series that's better left to our memories. With that said, Batman gurus Christopher Nolan and David Goyer teamed up to help craft the initial story with Goyer scripting the final product, how did they do? Frankly, they're not off to a bad start.

"Man of Steel"'s plot is pretty spoiler proof unless you simply know nothing about the Superman mythos, so I'll boil it down to the words of Grant Morrison: Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer). Last hope (Henry Cavill). Kindly Couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Said last hope of course grows up to be Clark Kent/Superman, working odd jobs and doing random good deeds when he crosses paths with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), while she's in the midst of investigating a mysterious foreign object that turns out to be Clark's "Fortress of Solitude", he saves her from danger and he becomes the focal point of her investigation. At the same time, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cronies arrive from their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and seek to wreck havoc on earth in an attempt to restore their lost homeworld. Clark has to choose between keeping his true nature a secret and saving his adopted homeworld, as well as make a choice between his Kryptonian heritage and his human roots.


First and foremost, for the long time Superman fan, this is a fresh reinvention of the mythos. Rather than shooting for the obvious superheroic angle, Goyer envisioned Clark Kent's tale as more of a "first contact" story and grounds the focus of the story in the fact that Clark is actually an alien. The ramifications of this discovery have never really been delved into any much of any Superman-related media that I can recall, much less the film series. This sense of reinvention is what dominates the early moments of the film, as we're treated to the vistas of this version of Krypton, feels like something straight out of a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Jor-El even gets to ride a winged beast! The design work throughout is gorgeous and it's clear that alot of very careful thought went into the various gadgetry and costume work. I found myself particularly impressed with the explanation for Superman's costume. This was a story I felt like I could really get behind, and the inventiveness on display and the ability to modernize the character in such a way really should be applauded, as to often there's a fear of losing the die-hards. 

The other significant positive in the film is the literally unrelenting action. From about the halfway point of the film until it's conclusion, there is action unlike any we've ever seen in a superhero film before. Superman and his foes crash through buildings, level city streets, fly at each other at hundreds of miles an hour, and blast away with their heat vision. While it approaches brain-deadening at a certain point, the idea that true comic book style punch-em-ups have finally been brought to the screen and given justice in this way is so exciting to think about, even this far after the fact. Snyder's visual abilities are the key factor here, as he is working in his comfort zone with these types of large scale sequences. The flurry of destruction in the third act utterly puts films like The Avengers and Thor to shame with their painfully obvious green-screening. Again, Snyder is the key difference maker here, like Nolan before him with The Dark Knight trilogy, he has free reign to pursue his vision of what this character should look like and how the world around him is formed. Some may prefer the more homogenous (and personality-free) Marvel Studios style, but I like the idea of a director leaving his thumb-print on the look of the film.

While those two areas are impressive and almost completely won me over on those merits alone, the film has other challenges that are a bit tougher to overcome. The plot is strong, the scripting is not. Goyer's script reads like all of his work where characters often speak in unnatural, expository ridden dialogue. In small doses it works, pretty much anything Jonathan Kent says, but Jor-El and Zod catch the worst of it. I'm not sure how many times Zod explained his plan to Clark, but it reminded me of the repetition of Goyer's Batman Begins third act and its talk of exploding water mains. There's a few clunker lines in there as well. Everything also feels just a bit cold throughout, and while some of that is a consequence of the sci-fi atmosphere produced in the first act and the above "we are not alone" scenario, the way the script relays background information belies a bit of a disconnect in character development. 

Again, like in Batman Begins, Goyer makes use of flashbacks to give us glimpses into Clark's childhood and adolescence on the Kent farm in Smallville. The content of which fails to provide much in the way of development for Clark himself and just why he strives to do good. The flashbacks contain far too many formative moments and not enough character building to truly be effective. Because I felt like I knew only so much about him, I never felt like I could quite connect with Clark and the big emotional beats came across a little hollow. I've never been a stickler for the three act structure in films, but the deficit of an Act II is problematic. We go from introductory work to huge battle scenes without much breathing room in between.

This lack of emotional investment is a shame because by all accounts, Cavill is about as perfect a Superman as I could imagine on screen. A terrific actor, with matinee idol good looks and the right build for the character. He looks the part, even moreso than Christopher Reeve, if only the screenplay had allowed for more usage of his range. As Zod, Shannon gets to spit, scream and be as villainous as possible. It's a good performance, though I found myself wanting a bit for a charismatic Lex Luthor instead, as Zod feels a bit bland. Adams' pure gravitas saves what would be an underwritten part in Lois. Costner is underused, to the narrative's detriment, and strangely Diane Lane is quite bad in her few scenes. I did also enjoy Laurence Fishburne as Perry White despite his limited screen-time, more by necessity than anything else.

While "Man of Steel" doesn't break enough new ground to be as successful an opening act as Batman Begins, it does tread enough new ground in the Superman saga to justify its own existence. The final scene leaves room for quite a bit of promise to where this franchise can go now that it's pieces are in place, including a pretty surprising and welcome change to the dynamic between two central characters. If this team can keep the action as high a quality (with a little less of it) and raise the emotional stakes a few notches, a sequel would likely be the ultimate Superman film we've all been waiting for. What we have here misses the mark a bit, and ends up being good but is short of the essential intangibles that keeps the core of the character together. Still, a fun movie is a fun movie, and time, and future sequels, may brighten this work in Snyder's favor.

I give it a B+
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