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Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Out of the entirety of superheroes to enter our culture over the past 75 years, it is no question that no hero has touched the hearts and minds of every individual quite like Superman.  Perhaps it is the simple origins of his creation, his unwavering belief in what is right and the inherent goodness in mankind, or maybe it is the fact that he has become a symbol for what it means to be a hero in this world, but Superman means something to people.  Except for perhaps Batman, no other superhero can boast that they are recognizable to everyone simply by the emblem they wear on their chest.  For 75 years, we have had the opportunity to see any number of versions of this iconic character.  While some do not always get it right, there are enough shining examples to prove how amazing Superman can be when he is done correctly.  Through every medium Superman has been introduced he has perhaps struggled the most in film (okay maybe video games).  Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the hero as well as his mild-mannered secret identity Clark Kent in the 1978 film Superman became just as iconic as the character on the page.  Like his comic book counterpart, the film incarnation of Superman paved the way for every single superhero film that followed.  But even the greatness of Christopher Reeve could not fight off a slew of sequels which fell on their face more than they soared.  In 2006, Superman was once again brought to the screen with mixed reactions in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.  Seven years later and Superman is back again on the big screen, this time from producer Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer (the guys who brought you The Dark Knight trilogy) as well as director Zack Snyder (Watchmen).  After so many failed attempts, can a big screen version of Superman for a modern audience take off and impress as he did 35 years ago?  The time has come to find out with Man of Steel.  If you want to know for yourself, find out after the jump!

Man of Steel tells the story of the dying planet Krypton.  As the planet reaches its final moments, parents Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van decide to send their son Kal-El to a distant planet known as Earth, where his unique DNA will allow him to both blend in with the humans living there as well as eventually becoming an example for them.  This news is met with much ire from Krypton's military leader General Zod, who desires an integral part of Krypton's life force sent with the infant, vowing to hunt down Kal-El wherever he may be.  Meanwhile, Kal, given the name Clark Kent by his adoptive Earth family, is forced to grow up confused about why he is so different and what his purpose in this world truly is.  But will Zod find Clark before he can figure out his destiny and rise to become the hero both his fathers knew he could be?

From the get go, Man of Steel was going to be a difficult film to make.  Not only is the majority of the film's financial hopes pent up on audiences forgetting how much they hated Superman Returns, but it also runs the risk of boring its viewers by re-telling the origin of its main character.  Except for, again, Batman, no other character in comics has had their origin retold by a number of creators than Superman.  It is a story even those who have never touched a comic book remember: planet is destroyed, baby is sent to Earth, baby becomes Superman.  While there are a few other small details, this would be the gist of that story.  In this film, the basic structure of how that origin begins is almost completely in tact with this film.  For the first fifteen minutes or so, we are treated to a visually stunning look at the final days of Krypton.  Not only do we get a taste of the kind of technology available on this futuristic world, but there is even some Kryptonian wildlife thrown in (though it looks more at home in Avatar than on Krypton).  Though some small changes are made to the Kryptonian aspect of Superman's origin, and there is some awkward CGI in places, this section of the story is mostly in tact.  The rest of Clark's past is told through a series of flashbacks which are cut to from time to time as we see Clark move aimlessly from job to job.  Most of said flashbacks were the meat of the trailers for the film, but there is a particularly nice scene with a young Clark adjusting to both his super hearing and his x-ray vision (which is done very well in the film).  From there, Man of Steel takes quite a few liberties from what we know of Superman's origins, forming its own path.  There are some additions with Lois Lane and how she first meets Superman as well as the use of the villain Zod to bring about Superman's rise as a hero.  Despite these diversions from the known, they actually work excellently with the film as much of the way things come about in Superman's origin feel refreshing and exciting simply in their difference.  Enough is done to honor the classic origin seen in the comics that few fans will be disappointed on this front.

As Man of Steel does come from some of the people who brought us The Dark Knight, it may not come of as much of a surprise that this is more of an introspective superhero film than we are used to.  Since the primary focus of this film is Superman's origins, much of the film spends time looking at what really makes him tick.  Watching the movie, it was hard to not have a few flashbacks to Captain America: The First Avenger in terms of characterization as the movie makes it very obvious that Clark is not your typical superhero.  In an early scene, a drunken man in a bar attempts to fight Clark who, despite his clear desire to engage the man in a brawl, uses his better judgement and simply walks away from the fight.  It is not only this desire to see the good in man so much that he waits for them to throw the first punch, but Clark's building trust of the human race that demonstrates his rise from small town hero to superhero.  Once this trust is established, however, it allows for a very interesting dynamic between Superman and the people of Earth.  What is most striking about the film's examination of what it means to be Superman is that much of this is done in a very subtle manner.  Superman does not always expressly say what he is thinking or struggling with, but it becomes obvious from his facial expressions and body language what is really on his mind.  There are times where you can almost imagine the thought balloons/boxes popping up around his head these expressions are done so well.  At the climax of both the film and the introspective story, we get an absolutely stunning character moment for Superman that may be the most talked about aspect of the entire film.  Though it is impossible to thoroughly discuss this moment without spoiling it, let it be said that the scene's lack of dialogue allows for the actors to brilliantly display the inner turmoil of these characters.  Perhaps what is most interesting about doing an introspective Superman story, however, is that Man of Steel only grazes the surface of the narrative possibilities of the idea.

Although this is quite the introspective superhero film, do not let that make you think this movie skimps on the action aspect of things.  In fact, even to say Man of Steel has a lot of action would be an understatement.  When it comes to action, this film is absolutely MASSIVE.  The opening sequence on Krypton has its small share of sci-fi style action, but the final 45 minutes of the movie is a continuously building collection of action sequences that is absolutely stunning.  With so much action coming at you one scene after the other, there is a very large danger of things becoming confusing (see any of the Transformers movies).  Fortunately, Zack Snyder does a good job of making sure these scenes are crisp, clear and have great momentum without using a single bit of his signature slow motion.  To begin things, Superman's powers are done exceptionally well within this film.  If Christopher Reeve made you believe a man could fly, be prepared for Man of Steel to challenge your beliefs of what it really means to fly.  Heat vision is easily the most stand out ability used in this film as it looks breath-taking whether it is used by Superman or Zod.  X-ray vision and super hearing are used well, but sparingly, and it was a bit sad to see that super breath was not used at all in the movie.  In terms of set pieces, the action of this film has everything from an IHOP to the very heart of Metropolis itself (promises that the IHOP part makes more sense once you see the movie).  The action of this film is seemingly directed in the style of a horror film in that it grabs the audience by the throat and does not let go until the film is over.  Paired with this near-constant action is a jaw-dropping amount of destruction in the wake of Superman's fighting with Zod and his forces.  Everything in terms of action is done incredibly well and in such a way that you almost forget you are watching a movie and feel like you are reading a great Superman comic.  In fact, a number of moments look exactly like panels from a comic book.  It is even more surprising that such a level of action, and well done action at that, is present in an origin film of a re-budding superhero franchise.

No Man of Steel review would be complete without a bit of talk about the man in the costume.  Henry Cavill does not have the charm of predecessor Christopher Reeve, but he just may be the definitive performance of Superman since.  Cavill balances Superman's might with Clark's humanity incredibly well, effortlessly moving between both at the drop of a hat.  It is fun to see Cavill have a boyish grin as he toys a bit with Amy Adams' Lois Lane during an interrogation scene that is nothing like the one featured in The Dark Knight.  Superman flying is also a time for Cavill to have some fun and his gleeful mid-flight expressions help to sell the wonderful effects.  As mentioned earlier, a lot of the introspective moments of this film are done through facial expressions.  Such moments would not be able to be played off nearly as well without the more than capable performance of Cavill.  When the emotionally climactic moment of the film takes place, you believe that he really is Superman and you are right there with him in terms of the gut-wrenching feelings he is experiencing.  It is difficult to say how well Cavill plays Clark Kent as Clark does not get a lot of true character moments, but the moments with Superman prove that Cavill is a more than capable actor.  Let us hope that this is not the last time we see him play the role as sequels/spin-offs may give him the chance to surpass Reeve as the most iconic portrayal of Superman.

While Cavill is fantastic as Superman, he is almost completely overshadowed in the film by Michael Shannon's General Zod.  Zod is a completely ruthless villain in this movie, so much so that there are times where it feels like he just stepped out of a panel of a comic book.  Shannon plays the character expertly and will almost definitely be the most talked about performance for the entire film.  There are moments where Zod is subtle and manipulative in his actions, but even more where he is extroverted and entirely evil, and Michael Shannon is perfect in all of these moments.  Although truly evil characters must be fun to play as they are surely fun to watch, there is always the risk that they will become more like Snidely Whiplash than a true character of note.  David Goyer must have had this in mind as there is a moment late in the film that truly reveals how Zod's character works.  As per usual, Michael Shannon also plays this moment exceedingly well.  This moment almost justifies the amount of chaos and destruction caused by Zod throughout the film, but only almost.  It is certainly a moment that cements Zod as being the most memorable comic book movie villain since Heath Ledger's Joker.  Yes, that is such an over-used comparison to make, but it is sadly quite true.  Ledger's portrayal of the classic Batman villain set a bar for all future villainous performances in superhero films and any claims that Michael Shannon's Zod is the closest to reach that bar would not be unfounded.

Man of Steel has an excellent pair of actors for its lead roles, but it is in the portrayal and use of the supporting cast where the film struggles a bit.  Amy Adams is a brilliant actress and she has proved that in numerous films like Doubt or The Master.  Adams certainly does a good job of playing Lois Lane, but it is not a performance which will go down as being particularly memorable.  It is not due to a lack of anything to do in the movie as Lois is about at the same level as Superman or Zod in her importance to the film's narrative.  Instead, the lack of any truly memorable moments for Adams' Lane seems to entirely be due to Goyer's writing.  The script gives almost no real moments for us to see Lois as a character, causing Adams' performance to feel more like a reading of lines than anything significant.  In the roles of Clark's fathers, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner do more than adequate jobs of portraying Jor-El and Jonathan Kent respectively.  Though Crowe gets more screen time than one might initially think, while Costner's performance is almost entirely limited to moments we have already seen in the trailers.  There is one scene with Costner that has not really been shown, but it is more of a character moment for Clark than for Jonathan.  Diane Lane does a good job as Martha Kent, playing the motherly role very well, but her character also does not get very much to do aside from a brief encounter with General Zod.  Laurence Fishburne plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White excellently.  Fishburne does a great job with the character, stealing pretty much every scene he is in.  One reason to hope for a sequel is the potential for more scenes with Perry White as he is sadly not present in the movie nearly enough.   Antje Traue does a decent enough job of playing Zod's second in command Faora, but does not really do much as a character aside from being your typical evil sidekick.  

Well, you've made it to the concluding paragraph of the review!  This has been quite a lengthy review, but, as you can see, there is a lot to be said about Man of Steel.  Although there is a lot about this movie that is worthy of praise, that does not mean the film is entirely perfect.  Some of the characters, notably Lois Lane, are drastically under-written, things slow down to almost a snail's pace for a section of the film, and Hans Zimmer's score is, sadly, not nearly as memorable as that which accompanied the Nolan Batman films.  In fact, the only reason any of Zimmer's score is memorable is that you may remember hearing it in the trailers.  Though the pacing gets a bit slow towards the middle, once the action begins, it is not an exaggeration to say the film does not let go.  Other than those few nitpicks, the film is absolutely stellar and a definite must-see for anyone who calls themselves a movie fan.  As of writing this review, there are no true indications of whether or not Man of Steel is the first in a shared DC cinematic universe, but there are a few "blink and you'll miss it" images which suggest a larger world than what exists within this film.  At this point, however, one should be able to sleep at night knowing that DC has finally made a great Superman movie again.  So great, in fact, that it will be difficult for any other film this summer to top it.  Hopefully there are at least sequels on the horizon as there are a lot of brilliant things in Man of Steel which could be and need to be expanded upon.  The future is looking bright for the Man of Tomorrow.

Rating: A-

Summary: Man of Steel is the first great Superman film in 35 years, bringing not only an excellent introspective piece on the first superhero, but also an almost non-stop set of action sequences that are beautifully done.  Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon are excellent in their roles and give performances in a film that will leave audiences begging for more adventures from the Last Son of Krypton.  Don't see it in 3-D,
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