Sunday, June 16, 2013

THE GRIM ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN: "Man of Steel" Is An Exciting But Joyless Action Spectacle [SPOILERS FOLLOW]

In my review regarding Iron Man 3, I opened with the following statement: "I have come to the conclusion that serious comic book aficionados should not watch live action adaptations of their beloved characters."
Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch), has only reinforced that assertion; and therein lies the rub. Is it a good, well made action film by today's standards?  That is a resounding "yes".  However, is it a good Superman film? 
To echo Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner):  "Maybe."
The film follows Clark Kent/Kal-El of Krypton (Henry Cavill, The Tudors, Immortals) who was rocketed from the doomed planet Krypton (which has been reimagined seemingly through the eyes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and J.R.R. Tolkien) by his biological father, Jor-El (a very "Gladiator" reminiscent Russell Crowe) to Earth where the orphan gains, if you'll excuse the decades-old statement, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. As he aimlessly travels the world in search for his place in it, a legion of exiled Kryptonians, led by the driven General Zod (Michael Shannon) have come in search for the orphan in order to restore the lost race. While the film follows much of the established foundation of the Superman legend, it makes a lot of interesting changes; some cosmetic, some fundamental, and not all for the better.
Note that I said this films follows Clark Kent, not "Superman". Produced by Christopher Nolan and screenwritten by David S. Goyer, the team that produced the Batman Begins series of films, this film follows the conceit that the film's focus is not on the costumed identity but rather the man beneath (that sentiment being epitomized in the film's title). And, like those films, MoS tries to eschew comic book conventions even as it presents them in live action. For example, the title character is only referred to as "Superman" twice, in a single scene, in an almost throwaway, inconsequential fashion). Also of note is that this film falls more in the realm of science fiction than superheroic fantasy, its imagery and beats very reminiscent of Independence Day or Michael Bay's Transformers efforts.
It has often been said that the best science fiction is allegorical to real world events. If so, then Man of Steel paints a grim picture of both.  The planet Krypton is doomed not by an indiscriminate chain reaction, but due to it's inhabitant's misuse of resources.  The planet serves as microcosm for our current concerns regarding energy resources, global warming, and stem cell/cloning research, just to name a few. There is also an art deco montage of jingoistic expansionism that is disturbing, and this is the planet that the hero is from! The planet Earth is no better, to hear Clark's adopted father Jonathan tell it, filled with post 9-11 angst, mistrust and paranoia. 
And what of Clark himself? For much of the film he is a powered up Peter Parker. A man with profound abilities who sees himself as a freak who must keep himself hidden even as his inner nature compels him to fly (pun intended) in the face of that anonymity to save lives. It is this conflict that is one of the many that evolve in MoS.
As Clark Kent (Superman), Henry Cavill fulfills the promise he showed in Immortals in filling out the Man of Steel's cape, if not his absent trunks. His Clark is a cypher for much of the film, as he should as it reflects his quest for identity. However, once the suit comes on, he unselfconsciously embodies much of Superman's traits, though not all as this is a still nascent, inexperienced Superman who is thrust into a literal trial by fire. However, except for one brief moment when he first takes flight, Superman takes no joy in his powers.  To him, they are a burden even after he has found a way to express them.  Where's the fun in being Superman? In having these gifts?  This films say there is none. Special note should be made to actor Dylan Sprayberry, who portrays Clark as a teenager, for effectively bringing this point home by showing Clark's struggles as a teenager trying to find his place while developing the powers of a demigod.
The other actors acquit themselves well:  Russell Crowe practically steals the show as the most proactive, kick-ass Jor-El ever brought to live action, and also given more screen time than any other and makes the most of it. By contrast, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent looks like he'd rather be off filming another movie at times, but he does give two of the most poignantly touching moments in the film. But, given he's raising an otherworldly being in a paranoid culture, his overprotective dourness is completely understandable. Diane Lane is a serviceable Martha Kent but she neither adds nor detracts. Lawrence Fishburne plays Perry White with all of the gravitas and none of the caricature of the hard boiled newspaper editor. He is given very little to do in this film, but he makes the most of it. Since as of this writing the sequel to MoS has already been greenlit it will be interesting to see his interaction with Clark in future outings. As Second in Command of the Kryptonian forces, Antje Traue, as Faora-Ul is a sexy engine of destruction. Her scenes with Christopher Meloni, who plays a Colonel with a distrust of all aliens, including Clark, especially crackle and come to a satisfying conclusion. The two most notable actors are Amy Adams and Michael Shannon as Lois Lane and General Zod, respectively. Her Lois is plucky, spunky, and courageous despite being fearfully out of her depth. In many ways, she provides what little heart the film has. She has a chemistry with Cavill but not as powerful as one might expect. Shannon plays Zod less as villain and more as a genetically programed fanatic. He plays Zod with as a character literally bred with single minded determination to preserve the Kryptonian race at all costs, even if it means genocide. His "nature" runs counterpoint to Clark's "nurture", as Clark was the first (and last) Kryptonian to be conceived by natural means and, thus, a with the power of choice.
Zack Snyder for once eschews his "slow mo" style of presenting action. Instead, "speed" is the name of the game here, even if it comes at the cost of character moments. The narrative flows relatively well between flashbacks and real time. However, the film's last act tries to outdo the climax of The Avengers to the point that it becomes disaster porn to a disturbingly uncomfortable degree. By the time it's over, the victory seems pyrrhic.  The percussion heavy, repetitive Hans Zimmer score only increases that sense of anxiety. It seemed as though he spent so much time trying to come out of John Williams' shadow that he developed the new theme to the exclusion of the rest of the score, which comes across as leavings from Inception and Backdraft.  In terms of action this film delivers. While a couple of CGI scenes are obvious and a couple of moments are inconsistent, this film delivers the type of smack down one would want to see in a Superman film. There are a couple of plot holes as well, a couple of which could lead the U.S. government right to the Kent farmhouse...if Lois Lane had not already done so herself...but for the most part the action sweeps one away from any of these considerations.
Perhaps I'm not the right person to write a review.  I actually debated with myself as to whether or not to recuse myself from reviewing this film given, as anyone who knows me will extol, I am a Superman fan for as far as I can remember. Therefore, my observations and opinions will be called into question given my bias. Especially when taken in with one particular plot point at the movie's climax.
A lot of factors went into the production of this film, not the least of which is a Court's ruling in the case of Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entertainment (wherein the heirs of Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel are suing the entertainment giant for full rights to the character) wherein the studio had to produce a new film by 2013 or the film rights revert to the family. That, coupled with the Siegel's camp having one rights to all concepts in Action Comics #1 (i.e. the brunette Lois Lane, the strongman inspired costume, etc.), led to this new, more adult take; one meant to distance itself from the source material as judiciously as possible. As such, the film goes to great lengths to prove that this "is not your father's Superman": For example, he's presented as a shirtless sex object (not that there's anything wrong with that, as my brother would say) who is, as blatantly stated by one female character, "hot". Yet other changes take place that are inconsistent with the core character.  For a character who ostensibly has a need to save people, he has no qualms about keeping battles between demigods within the confines of city limits (but then, where would the spectacle be if Superman led his adversaries into corn fields or over an isolated stretch of ocean).  But one thing happens at the film's climax that does away with the notion that he is a "big blue boy scout."  Let's just say the moment justifies the muted colors of the suit and the strum und drang of both the visuals and the score.  Not that there isn't any precedent for this moment in the character's published history. The character did much the same in his earliest appearances and twice in relatively modern times (in one instance against the comic book iteration of Zod). The way the story develops, the ends do justify the means.  It also brings home the themes of choice versus design. 

However, the "S" symbol is reimagined as a Kryptonian glyph signifying "hope", and even Jor-El states in a line cribbed from the comics that Kal-El: "You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun," which, coupled with a plot contrivance regarding the housing of genetic coding, lends an even greater messianic complex to Man of Steel (and if that isn't enough to convince you, Snyder provides two heavy handed images to bring that aspect home, including one practically cribbed from 2006's Superman Returns). a beacon of hope, of aspiration, of striving to be better people with the gifts that we have either been bestowed or have developed.  However, for Superman to engage in the act that takes brings him, and what he represents, down...diminishes him in some way.  Yes, he reacts appropriately in the aftermath, but it doesn't balance the baseness of it. Yet it was unexpected and, thus, achieved its purpose which was to let the audience know that Superman had arrived...and he meant business. However, in my opinion, it was at the character's expense. However, every generation deserves it's own iteration, and its heroes are reflective of the times in which the stories are told.  Hence, for better or for worse, this iteration is a reflection of where our society stands now and the type of hero that it wants, if not needs.

As a movie reviewer, I would say that Man of Steel is an ambitious, thrilling actioner deserving to be watched on the big screen, yet conversely and soullessly morose with sporadic moments of light characterization.  In terms of presentation, it is epic in scale with visuals that many Superman fans (and non fans) had hoped to see realized on the big screen.  It is a film that is worthy of repeated viewings for as much of its exploration of themes of choice, patriotism, identity (both national and personal) and bildungsroman as it is for entertainment value.

As a Superman fan, however, it is not a movie I can recommend taking children to see and, moreover, (as pathetic as this may sound coming from an over 40-year-old male), a part of me died inside. 

Superman is dead.  Long live Man of Steel.