Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Man of Steel" shoots for gravitas, settles for gravity


directed by Zack Snyder
starring Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni

For a movie about a guy who flies around Earth in a cape and red and blue Spandex, “Man of Steel” is awfully serious—a lot more serious than it needs to be. Surprisingly, it’s also more fun than it should be.

The latest reboot of the Superman franchise, coming only seven years after the tepidly received “Superman Returns,” bears the unmistakable thumbprint of Christopher Nolan, who produced (but didn’t direct) the film and co-wrote the underlying story (but not the screenplay). Nolan’s limited participation might explain why “Man of Steel” feels akin to his “Dark Knight” trilogy in concept and sensibility, though noticeably clunkier in execution.

Not that Nolan’s take on Batman is necessarily the ideal model for most superhero movies. Exploring the troubled psychology of a brooding, self-isolating figure and how it reflects—or refracts—the society he’s sworn to protect is one approach to redefining a superhero. It’s not the only one, and in fact seems peculiarly suited to the tortured, tortuous psyche of Batman. But Superman, the figure we’ve come to associate with Christopher Reeve, truth, justice, and the “American way”? Can he really be Nolanized and still be Superman? The short answer is he can—to a point. The model works only to the extent that Superman’s internal struggles are more a product of his external circumstances, rather than the other way around.

As if to emphasize that point, more than half of “Man of Steel” takes place before Superman becomes Superman; the first 20 minutes or so alone focus on events that take place before or shortly after his birth. Amid the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, his parents (played by Russell Crowe and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) make the fateful decision to send him to Earth, against the will of the militant General Zod (Michael Shannon). The action then shifts thirty-some years into the future, showing Kal-El (Henry Cavill) on Earth, fully grown but not fully actualized. While he still answers to the name Clark Kent, he’s about as far removed as possible from our favorite bespectacled, awkward Daily Planet reporter. This guy is a scruffy, silent drifter working a succession of menial jobs essentially incognito, content to remain unnoticed – as much as anyone who looks like Henry Cavill can really go unnoticed – and prone to disappearing every time he shows a glimmer of his superhuman self. It’s clear he hasn’t yet found his purpose in life, even though flashbacks to his childhood reveal that his foster father (Kevin Costner) is convinced he has one—that he was sent to Earth by his true father for a reason.

If that reminds you vaguely of a certain figure who was also sent to Earth by his father for an important purpose, well, that’s pretty much the idea here. Superman has traditionally been identified with both Moses and Christ, and director Zack Snyder plays up both the visual and narrative allusions to the latter in particular. (Kal-El is 33 when we first meet him as an adult—coincidence, much?) The question the film presents is how we mere mortals would receive someone who was as a god to us. Would we embrace him as our savior, or reject him out of fear?

That question is thrust upon Superman when he finally discovers the message his birth father, Jor-El, left for him and in so doing, attracts the attention of the still-alive, still-wrathful General Zod. From that point on, the plotting behind Zod’s mission to hunt down Superman, Superman’s response, and the U.S. government’s involvement gets a little convoluted and more than a little silly, though you wouldn’t know it from the solemn faces all around. Cavill’s Superman, as he surrenders himself to his fate, looks more than ever like a really hot Jesus, or at least a pretty dreamy saint, smiling enigmatically at his grim-faced captors before being made to suffer for them. Even the bright primary colors of his suit have been sanded down to more subdued hues. At least “Thor,” which had a superficially similar driving conflict—god-like beings from another world prevented by one of their own from wiping out puny humanity—had more of a sense of humor about the absurdity of the whole situation.

You’ll look in vain for such goofiness here. Even Superman’s interactions with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) feel oddly muted. Adams’ intrepid reporter pierces the Clark Kent veil fairly early on, which wins her points for greater savviness than past Loises, but sadly deprives us of any good Lois and Clark screwball comedy antics. The Daily Planet, too, is mostly sidelined, leaving the great Laurence Fishburne (as Lois’ editor, Perry White) little to do other than occasionally admonish Lois and watch in consternation alongside the rest of his staff as the forces of Zod threaten to grind them all into dust. Shannon, meanwhile, channels his usual intensity into the role of Zod, but gives the impression of consciously trying to avoid crossing into camp. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Zod’s formidable female second-in-command, Faora-Ul (played with zest by German actress Antje Traue), who mows through her adversaries with a wicked gleam in her eye. But her deadly efficacy doesn’t exactly lighten the mood.

With its oversupply of earnestness, and a run time of nearly 2 ½ hours, “Man of Steel” should be a drag. Yet, for some reason, it isn’t. There’s something compelling about Clark’s early struggle to stay under the radar and still stay connected to humanity, even if it’s unnecessarily underscored by hopelessly hokey lines that, to give Kevin Costner credit, sound more convincing coming from him than from either of the child actors who play Clark as a boy. Costner, along with Diane Lane as Martha Kent, are the best parts of “Man of Steel,” despite their relatively modest amount of screen time. They anchor Clark’s conflicted feelings, which could seem like a mere abstraction, in real human warmth and affection. Crowe, as his wise and benevolent real father, and Adams, as his other main link to humanity, can’t quite compete, despite turning in perfectly serviceable performances. Rather unexpectedly, it’s Christopher Meloni (the veteran TV actor best known for “Law & Order: SVU”) who proves next best at putting the “human” in humanity, bringing a sympathetic presence to the otherwise-predictable role of an Army officer handed the impossible task of apprehending Superman and negotiating with Zod.

The last third of the movie goes all-out (and all-in) on the action, as superhero movies are wont to do, and does it better than most. (As the director of “300” and “Watchmen,” Snyder knows a thing or two about filming digitally enhanced battles.) The hand-to-hand combat between Superman and Zod goes on perhaps a beat too long, but there’s a certain unholy, almost Emmerich-ian thrill to watching the buildings of Metropolis come crashing down during their fight. Viewers will get their money’s worth in mayhem, to the point that they may find themselves yearning for a return to the quiet Kansas plains of Clark’s childhood. But there’s no going back now. At least, not until the next reboot.



Blogger ToastyKen said...

Spot-on review! It's ridiculous how well-cast Kevin Costner was in this. What I found interesting about the "gravity" was that the action felt so harsh, the collateral damage (to buildings at least) felt so real. It gave a good sense of "This is what it'd be like if gods fought on Earth", more so than just watching things explode.

2:16 PM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

Excellent point. It was a lot less cartoonish, and a lot more terrifying, than we typically see in final-battle-sequences in superhero movies. Which would explain why I found it much more riveting than I generally do (this is the part of most superhero movies I usually find least interesting).

12:33 AM  

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