Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Man of Steel" Is No "Superman Returns," for Better or Worse...

Directed by Zack Snyder, written by David S. Goyer, story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan, starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburn, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, and Michael Shannon - Rated PG-13

The Kurgan is not a fan of humanity, but even he didn't kill this many people with his collateral damage...

Superman has had a rough (and strange) go of it in Hollywood over the years.  The promising start in the late 70s quickly fizzled out into arguably one of the worst movies ever made with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  In 2006, the franchise was revisited with Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer’s ode to the Richard Donner films. Returns was a critical and commercial success but somehow was not good enough to spark the franchise.  So here we are again with Man of Steel, a, for lack of a better word, grittier and more sci-fi influenced entry.  My gut reaction to this new version from Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is positive.  Man of Steel is a big, action-packed summer movie and it never slows down during its lengthy 140+ minute running time.  So if you want the short review, quit reading after this paragraph.  Man of Steel is worth the price of admission.  Now, if you want to know how it stacks up in the series (or you’ve seen it and you want to see if we agree or disagree about certain elements), keep reading, because that’s a trickier issue.
I referred to Man of Steel as a “gritty” movie above, and that’s a good starting point.  I didn’t want to use that word because it has become so unoriginal in modern cinema.  Gone are the days of a hero wearing a costume simply because that’s what he wore in the comic books.  Now we need a “realistic” hero that wears a uniform almost solely for its utility.  I’m actually okay with this approach if done correctly.  The best example of this is the recent series of Batman films.  I just don’t think this is completely necessary for every hero.  Superman has always been that squeaky clean hero (he still is, for the most part) that stood apart from the rest.  Man of Steel does not make Superman stand apart in the cinematic world; he is on the same level as Batman.  That’s not a bad place to be, but it’s not a different place, either. 
The grittiness of Man of Steel isn’t that major of a problem, and a squeaky clean version might have been a disaster.  But I can’t help but look back on Superman Returns and think that that is Superman done right.  No big deal, though; if I want that version of Superman, I have a DVD player. 
Man of Steel’s more realistic look is simply awesome, however.  Zack Snyder and his team (including Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan serving as a producer) have crafted detailed and interesting worlds.  From a purely visual standpoint, this film is far and above the best of the series.  That goes for the action as well.  While some of the sequences bordered on exhaustion, they were all impressive and showcased both Superman’s and his enemies’ incredible power.  That showcase of power might leave you feeling a little troubled, though (more on that later). 
Great action and visuals can be enough for some people (it certainly goes a long way for me) because of the entertainment value therein, but the casting of Superman and his opponent can also make or break a film like this.  Henry Cavill (Immortals) does a great job as both Clark Kent and Superman.  He is believable, looks natural in the uniform, and, most importantly, he’s likable.  Michael Shannon as General Zod is equally impressive.  I’ve been a fan of Shannon’s for years, but this is most likely the first time many viewers have seen him in a major role (although fans of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” are already aware of his talent).  Shannon brings his usual intensity to the role.  This is an actor who can convey so much with a stare.  He’s not going to get an Oscar nomination or anything like that, but at least Man of Steel will showcase his talents to a larger audience.  The rest of the cast is just as strong, just in more limited capacities.  Amy Adams turns in yet another good performance as Lois Lane.  Russell Crowe holds the first twenty minutes of the film so well that I almost wished that had been its own movie.  Diane Lane and Kevin Costner provide the emotional impact of the film, most notably Costner in some scattered fatherly advice scenes (perfect timing, by the way, releasing this film on Father’s Day weekend).  Maybe it’s the memories of the father-son moments from Field of Dreams, but I found his scenes to be very effective.  And Laurence Fishburne provides some much-needed comic relief as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet.
I haven’t mentioned the plot yet because, well, it’s not terribly important to a film like this.  Like most, if not all, superhero movies, the safety of the entire world is at stake.  General Zod wants to turn Earth into a different planet that can sustain life for his nearly extinct race, and Superman must stop him.  Pretty simple, really.  Although there are quite a few moments and elements that might confuse you, it isn’t that big of a deal because it’s all done so well.  Of course, if you don’t care for the movie, then nitpicks about character motivation and inconsistencies will bother you much more.  I enjoyed the movie enough to lose focus on those elements and say, “Well, it is a comic book movie…”
Man of Steel does stretch a bit into the science fiction world, though, and that might be an issue for some.  I was surprised by how far into Krypton the movie went.  The portion of the film that takes place on Krypton is actually my favorite part, so I was definitely okay with seeing this new world and its technology brought to life.  It might be too much for some viewers.  But hey, The Avengers had an alien invasion and that was popular, so maybe audiences in general dig sci-fi more than I give them credit for.
The alien element in general was fine with me, but whenever a powerful enemy to earth is introduced, destruction must take place.  In the past, superhero movies were mainly about preventing death and destruction.  Now, it seems like killing unseen thousands (maybe millions) of people in a film is okay.  Not to spoil anything, but mass amounts of a large city are destroyed in this film, and it’s ridiculous to imagine that everyone made it out safely.  Multiple skyscrapers topple to the ground, yet we only see Superman get upset about humans dying when he has to actually see people in harm’s way.  I know that the audience doesn’t technically see any death happening in these action sequences, but anyone who thinks about it a little is bound to be troubled by what is happening off camera in these scenes.  I don’t know…I know these summer movies have to keep upping the ante with the destruction, but it leaves a bad aftertaste when that destruction involves buildings filled with innocent people.  This is where that “It’s just a comic book movie” line should help me out, but this part was just too much.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the Superman of Superman Returns a little more.  There was less collateral damage in that film, and it’s a feel-good movie, which is what a Superman film should be like.  Man of Steel is cooler, more action-packed, and more entertaining, but it doesn’t feel any different from all the rest of the superhero/summer movies out there.  This is not to say it’s a bad film.  I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on buying it on video and watching it many times again.  It’s just that it didn’t blow me away.  Perhaps this is simply a result of hype.  Man of Steel is the movie of the summer, what with all of the random product tie-ins (“Try the Super Bacon Burger at Hardee’s!  And be sure to check out Man of Steel!”).  I just got my hopes up way too high.  So I didn’t love Man of Steel.  I merely liked it…a lot.  Nothing wrong with that.  It is just a comic book movie, after all.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
As always, the IMDb boards are a minefield of lovers and haters of the film, and they've covered any complaints I might have with the film.  But I still feel like airing some of my grievances here.
I had no clue if the Kryptonians were automatically superhuman when they got to earth or if they had to be exposed to the air.  I know that Zod changes when his mask is off, but the others who weren't exposed still seemed to possess Superman strength.  So was it the suits?  It's not that big of a deal because all the fights would suck if Superman just knocked them out with one punch, but it still left me a bit confused.
The biggest question I had after the movie was over was why Lois Lane was asked to board Zod's ship.  Someone on the boards said that it was because she could lead them to the codex.  I'll have to watch it again to see if that's ever stated or implied, but at the moment it seemed like she was just there to make sure Superman got out of a jam and he would've been screwed had she not been there. 
Speaking of the codex, all that business of genetic engineering and no natural births on Krypton had to be explained a bit too quickly, which is why I would love to see more of the story from Krypton.  That first part of the film is great, but soooooo much is going on that I feel like I need to watch it a few more times to pick up on everything. 
Back to the destruction.  Between this and Star Trek into Darkness, I've seen millions of people killed this summer.  I just don't understand why skyscrapers and entire cities have to be demolished in all of these movies.  Is everyone drinking the Roland Emmerich Kool-aid? 
I was hoping the whole Clark Kent wears glasses and Superman doesn't gimmick wouldn't come into play with this incarnation, but I guess some things are sacred.  Can't take Batman out of the Batcave, right?  (Although that facility he was in in The Dark Knight wasn't much of a cave, per se, and people love that one more than all of the others...but whatever.)  I just figured they would abandon that because it's supposed to be a bit more realistic.  I mean, it took Lois a day or two to figure it out?  How hard could it be to identify him in this world they have created?  At least make Superman grow a beard or something when he's Kent.  Speaking of which, anyone else notice that when Clark saw the suit in the ship he had stubble, but he was clean-shaven the very next scene as he was flying around?  So can he grow and discard facial hair at will?  Was there a Bic on the spaceship?  (Or a Gillette?  Is that the tie-in for this?)  All joking aside, there should be more to it than just glasses and a slightly different hairstyle.  If everything else gets the gritty new realistic upgrade, then this aspect should too.
Finally, just because I prefer Returns doesn't mean I think Routh is a better Superman.  (Honestly, the goofiness of Returns and Kevin Spacey's performance is what put me over the edge.)  I think both Routh and Cavill are great as Superman in their respective films, but neither would work as well in the other film.  Routh is better for the goofy Clark Kent stuff while Cavill makes for a more believable powerhouse.  Perhaps Cavill could work in Returns, but no way would Routh fit in Man of Steel.

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