Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Man of Steel" (2013)

Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon
Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Rated PG-13 - Superhero and sci-fi violence, language
Running Time: 143 Minutes

On the distant, dying world of Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayalet Zarur) have just given birth to the planet's first natural child in centuries. Jor-El hopes that his son, Kal-El, will lead the rebirth of Krypton - a world that has given up choice and freedom for strict population control and a rigid caste system. Having exhausted its natural resources and abandoned its ancient colonies, Krypton is on the verge of destruction after a foolhardy attempt to harvest energy from the planet's core.

Because of this, military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads an attempted coup to ensure his vision of Krypton's future after the planet's coming destruction. In the heat of battle, Jor-El steals a valuable codex containing the DNA patterns of Krypton's unborn children and sends it and his infant son to planet Earth, away from Zod and his power-grabbing minions.

The child grows up on Earth, raised by kindly Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Kostner and Diane Lane). Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is a man who doesn't understand his place in this world. He feels abandoned by his birth parents, but also has trouble relating to his adoptive ones. He's developed fantastic powers, stronger than any human and practically invincible. But this makes him alone. When he hears that some sort of strange object has been found deep in the ice of northern Canada, he travels there and meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), reporter for the Daily Planet.

Clark discovers that the object is a Kryptonian scout ship, buried there long ago. He learns his true heritage, and begins to understand what purpose he might serve in his life. Unfortunately, that discovery comes with dire consequences: Zod and his forces, having survived the destruction of Krypton in the Phantom Zone, are alerted by an automated signal from the ship and travel to Earth. Zod, desperate to rebuild a new Krypton in his own image, demands that Clark surrender himself or let Earth face the devastating consequences.

"Man of Steel" is a complete reinvention of the "Superman" film series, ditching the continuity of the popular and enduring Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films of the 70s and 80s, and the last attempt at reviving that series, 2006's "Superman Returns." Taking the same sort of approach to Superman as they did Batman, the makers of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, along with director Zack Snyder, have redesigned much of the Superman mythos without abandoning what makes the character one of the most enduring comic book characters of all time.

Right off the bat, we know this will be a different Superman movie when we start digging into Kryptonian society and the reasons why that planet is doomed. This backstory helps add some solid logic to why this story unfolds as it does. (Frankly, as incredibly fun and wonderful as the Reeve movies are, there are huge gaps in logic and continuity errors abound). This is a much more serious take on Superman, who is actually only referred to as such once in the movie. The version of Krypton here is a sight to behold, with all kinds of great sci-fi technology and production design. Krypton feels like an ancient and alien world; I would have watched an entire movie with Russell Crowe's Jor-El and the civil war depicted here.

In fact, one of the things this film does so incredibly right is that it plays much more like an alien invasion movie than a superhero film. It doesn't treat Superman particularly as a comic book hero, but as an alien who can't sit by while innocent lives are endangered. Much of Clark's dilemma in the film is his desire to help others but in conflict with his father's fear that the world will fear and reject him if he reveals himself. "I don't think Zod can be trusted," he confesses at one point, "But I'm not sure the human race can, either."

Ultimately, it's the trust of Lois Lane that helps him come out, as it were. That trust will continue to develop over the course of the film, and Clark will work to earn the trust of others, especially that of the United States military.

This is very much Clark's story, so some of the familiar secondary characters of the Superman cast are pushed aside. There's no Lex Luthor here (though we know he exists - keep an eye out for LexCorp logos sprinkled on trucks and buildings throughout the film). Jor-El and Jonathan Kent get a surprising amount of screen time, though Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and some of the Daily Planet regulars are fairly minor presences. There's no sign of Jimmy Olsen, though there is a young girl at the Planet named Jenny who fulfills a similar role. (There is, however, a humorous running gag involving Pete Ross.)

One of the best changes made to the universe is that Lois Lane, the world's greatest investigative reporter, is no longer stumped by a simple pair of eyeglasses. This film doesn't even bother trying, since it's Lois' investigation that leads her directly to the Kent farm in Kansas, which is a refreshing change of direction. For me, it makes the Clark/Lois relationship much more honest and satisfying - even though it's very much in its infancy here. I really liked Amy Adams as Lois, much more so than the last attempt by Kate Bosworth, and I look forward to a sequel where she gets to dig even deeper into that character.

Henry Cavill's Clark Kent is solid. He doesn't quite nail it, but there's a lot of potential there. I felt like most of the time, he does very well, but there are a few line readings here or there that just feel off, like perhaps he'd been giving the wrong direction for what he was trying to say. He works well with the other cast members around him, particularly Crowe and Adams, but his interactions with Diane Lane's Martha are some of those times that don't come out quite right. Certainly, as Superman, he's much less stilted and unnatural than Brandon Routh was (though Routh did a great job aping Christopher Reeve's goofy Clark Kent).

So I love the direction this film takes in a lot of ways. There are some iffy moments in the script, pieces that are supposed to be emotional or dramatic that come off flat or even unintentionally humorous. A scene with young Clark frightened by his developing powers during the middle of class might have read well on paper, but in execution is somewhat awkward for everyone involved. "The world is too big, Mom," young Clark says.  I'm not sure if it's the actor's performance or the fact that no 9-year-old from Kansas, alien or not, would ever say such a thing, but it doesn't quite work. Additionally, if all the Kryptonians are bred for specific roles in society, why is it that scientist Jor-El is so good at fighting and shooting?

Zack Snyder was apparently very anxious to direct this film in a more hand-held, verite style (as opposed to his usually steady, oft-slow-motion compositions) and this occasionally works to the film's detriment. The Kryptonians are moving so fast that at times I was almost begging for some of Snyder's trade-mark speed-ramping so that I could watch all that comic book carnage unfold.

The battles between Superman and Zod's minions are pretty huge, and this is the most destructive Superman movie ever. The scale of it is impressive, with massive battles on Krypton as well as city-leveling destruction on Earth. If you thought the damage to New York City in "The Avengers" was impressive, wait till you see this. But the scale is appropriate for this movie, as the special effects technology finally exists for such large-scale battles in a Superman film. When Kryptonians punch each other, the force is incredible, and the damage is going to be even greater since we're watching fights between opponents who are, for all intents and purposes, indestructible. The film makes it clear that while these people aren't really being hurt, they do feel pain and they get tired. The only problem with some of these fights is that the computer-generated stunt-doubles for the characters have a tendency to look video-gamish, a little too cartoony.

Ultimately, while "Man of Steel" has some flaws and drawbacks, it's still a great new take on Superman. The cast is great. While much comparison will be made between this film and the 1978 classic, I think such things are counter-productive. These films are so unlike each other in tone and goal and execution. There should always be room for new takes on an idea. I will always love the Christopher Reeve version of Superman; it's the one I grew up with. But that doesn't mean I can't also enjoy someone else's version.

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