Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: "Man of Steel"

Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 143 minutes

The great irony of Superman's status as a true all-American superhero is that he's not even from our world. As has been pointed out in more than a few essays over the years, Kal-El is a true immigrant from among the superhero pantheon. If anything, his immigrant status is what allows him to best rise to the lofty (and often unreachable) heights of American ideals. It truly takes an otherworldly, yet still characteristically human, figure to save the day, time and time again. The trick with Superman, however, is how much times have changed. Despite the relative levity of the current Marvel franchise, the shadow of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy still looms large over the cinematic landscape. 

Nolan's influence is felt more strongly in Superman's latest outing for obvious reasons. Credited as executive producer and story creator (along with actual screenwriter David Goyer), Nolan has transfered some of his operatic doom and gloom to the world of one of the best known, and more typically upbeat, superhero worlds. Throw in Zack Snyder in the director's chair, and things start making more sense. Snyder's excessive stylization, as contrasted with the Nolan/Goyer method of writing and storytelling, largely balance each other out across Man of Steel, the latest and most epic Superman adventure committed to the silver screen to date.

The approach taken with the new Superman (The Tudors actor Henry Cavill), is a bit of a mash up of the approach that Mr. Nolan used in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The former was an introduction to a new vision of an iconic character, jumping around in chronology as it transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman for the first time. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, took Begins' foundations and used them to craft a bigger, more epic film, complete with a towering villain who pushed Batman to his very limits. The combination of these two arcs is the source of Man of Steel's greatest strengths and weaknesses.

For the most part, the film is broken up into three parts, beginning with a surprisingly extended sequence detailing the fall of Krypton. Wondrously designed (shades of H.R. Geiger are present), Krypton is on the brink of total destruction after aggressively exploiting its natural resources. Complicating things is a last-second military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon). The planet's last hope is Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who sends his son off into space as the planet continues to violently fall apart. 

Yet as much time as Krypton gets on screen, Man of Steel moves rather briskly though episodes of Kal-El/Clark Kent's young life. In a refreshing structural choice, Clark's childhood is largely seen through flashbacks, often triggered by small incidents in the adult (and insanely sculpted) Clark's life as a wanderer. On one hand, it lends the film a constant sense of movement. The editing across timelines is often quite slick, keeping the film eventful. The downside is that Goyer's dialogue construction isn't quite as effective as his plot structure. Snyder does his best to overcome this with some Malick-inspired camerawork, and more often than not he succeeds, although just barely.

All the same, Goyer's writing remains a problem across the highly eventful (and never, ever dull) runtime. All other aspects of the film seem so finessed and in control, and it's a shame to see the film occasionally stumble through Goyer's awkward dialogue exchanges. The result is a film that looks great (even with a slightly oppressive blue-grey tint flooding every frame), and is often entertaining, yet still not able to reach its full potential. Moments that should hit hard feel obligatory than genuinely emotional, even as the cast tries their best to make something out of thin material.

Whatever problems Goyer contributes, however, are frequently compensated for by engaging work across the ensemble, and Snyder's relentless storytelling. Cavill, though not given much to say, makes a nice, albeit understated, impression as the titular hero. Rather than make him a blank figure of simplistic patriotism, Cavill's Superman is a man torn between his two identities. Although not given much substance on paper in regards to this dynamic, Cavill does have some nice moments as he struggles to reconcile his split identity (even as some of these scenes end too abruptly). It's not big enough performance to be a true star-making turn, but the handsome actor does prove that he's worthy of donning the (smartly redesigned) iconic outfit and cape. He may not erase Christopher Reeve from anyone's memory, but as a more forlorn, wary Superman, he fits right in with the Nolan-ized aesthetic of the film. 

More outwardly engaging is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Though Superman does save her several times, Man of Steel's treatment of the character is refreshing. She's not just a spunky reporter who stands up to her boss. Rather, she's a journalist willing to go to great lengths to get what she wants. And, later in the game, she even plays a pivotal role in devising a plan to help stop Zod. And speaking of Zod, Michael Shannon deserves his share of credit for crafting a villain with a mix of bug-eyed fervor and understandable drive. His mentality may be inflexible, yet there is a (rather dark) logic to Shannon's character and performance that fits in with the mythology of the dying world of Krypton. His will is to ensure the survival of his race, no matter the cost. He may pose a threat to the humanity, but his destruction isn't just for kicks: it's to save a proud race that is sitting at death's door.

The real surprise of the film, however, are Superman's two fathers. The first 20 minutes of the film are basically a mini-action movie for Mr. Crowe, and he lends his role a palpable, but never overbearing, level of gravitas befitting of an alien lord. On the other end of the spectrum is Kevin Costner as Clark's Earth-bound father. Though he isn't afforded much screen time, Costner (along with Diane Lane as his wife) brings a comforting, low-key presence to the role. Despite Superman's foreign origins, his relationship with his adoptive parents is where his true character comes from. Thanks to Costner and Lane, that character rings true when it's displayed on screen.

And even as Goyer's script underwhelms, Snyder manages some stirring moments as a director, even though the impact is largely visceral, rather than emotional. Often criticized as prizing style over substance (to an extreme), Man of Steel isn't exactly a huge detour into hard-hitting character work. However, jarring product placement aside, the film does show Snyder as capable of effective self-control. Rather than become a slave to comic book frames (as he did in his adaptation of Watchmen), his imagery is energetic and muscular, resulting in an impressive, if exhausting, visual assault. Aiding him the whole way is a tremendous score from Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer. Alternating between thunderous horns and delicate pianos, Zimmer creates a perfect compliment to Superman's humble humanity, as well as his larger-than-life abilities.  

It might have initially seemed tired to show Superman's origins again. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, didn't even bother with them (or Clark's childhood). Yet in laying such an extensive groundwork and mythology, the Snyder/Goyer/Nolan trio has created a rich new world for Superman to explore. Though the film's structure suggests rich themes and then jumps too quickly through them, the film does stick the landing in enough moments. It may not have an element as galvanizing as Heath Ledger's Joker, or as charismatic as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, but Man of Steel and Mr. Cavill are certainly worthy of taking Superman into the 21st century. Superman Returns was too simple and reverential for modern audiences, while Man of Steel flies at warp speed into the future. And, despite some turbulence, this is a Superman film that truly flies, even if it struggles to completely soar to new heights. 

Grade: B 

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