June 17, 2013

Man Of Steel (06/17/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Wow, a good number of my friends seemed to really hate Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel over the weekend. Maybe knowing that when I went to see it myself today is what softened me up a bit: I really didn't think the movie was all that bad… In fact, I was surprised to find that I even kind of liked it for certain segments.

The main thing that cut through my cynicism, I think, is the stellar casting and a handful of really strong character moments spread throughout. The downside is that those moments are often way too brief and far between. Since the movie spends so much time detailing the intricacies of Krypton society at the beginning (backstory which I don't think I was ever all that curious about to begin with), and so much time in the back half with the big, kinetic, highly-destructive action sequences (where two indestructible guys punch each other endlessly, destroying most of Metropolis in the process), you don't really get much of a look at what Henry Cavill's take on Superman really is.

He seems to have found a performance that smoothly blends the character's wholesome boy-scout'dness of Christopher Reeve's portrayal with kind of a tortured altruistic loner quality… Every time you get a flash of what he's doing with the character, you really want to see more of it. When we first meet him (as an adult) he is a transient, wandering from place to place and helping people however he can, much like Bruce Banner or The A Team. The movie, of course, charts his decision to emerge into a public figure and become the Superman that we know. If it has a failing, it's that it severely shortchanges detailing who Superman is in favor of showing us scenes of what Superman can do.

I couldn't help but think of the Superman movies I knew as a kid more or less constantly during this one… not only because the film retells Superman's origin story a bit, but also because it brought back General Zod, Superman II's primary baddie (so memorably played by Terence Stamp) and recast him with Michael Shannon (of Revolutionary Road and HBO's Boardwalk Empire). Shannon is fine in the role, but a curious pattern of 2013 is that both this movie and Star Trek Into Darkness have recast incredibly memorable screen villains for their franchise revivals… moves which seem highly questionable to me because it's pretty tough to go up against people's fond memories of screen heavies of cinema past.

Along those lines, I think the movie did make a serious tactical error in retreading so much material from the earlier Superman flick. Whenever Man Of Steel had a scene that has an equivalent in the 1978 version (such as all the origin stuff, scenes with ma and pa Kent in Kansas, any verbal throw-down with Zod, et al), I almost always felt that the 1978 version was better. Although Kevin Costner is one of the strongest parts of this new movie, Jonathan Kent's death wasn't handled as well for me as it was 35 years ago. Having him die in a twister, much like the dad in the movie Twister did, lacks the simplicity and poignant beauty of Jonathan dying more or less of natural causes. "All those things I can do... All those powers…" laments Christopher Reeve's Clark in the earlier flick, "and I couldn't save him." Superman could rush in to pull someone away from a tornado (although I understand that the point of the scene is that Jonathan is adamant that he not do so), but he can't save someone from a fatal heart attack, a sullen reminder of the fragility of human life that hangs over much of the 78 picture and seems to guide much of the earlier Superman's character.

My other main thought is that doing an extended sequence on Krypton right at the start of the movie (much like the 78 one did) invited unfavorable comparisons to the earlier picture, and more than that, was simply a little confusing and kind of boring. I believe that if you were to lop that opening segment off and start the picture with Clark saving the people on the oil rig, the whole first part of the flick would have been significantly more gripping. All the Krypton backstory could have been revealed much later in the picture, when Clark himself learns about it. It might not have worked, but I think it'd be a lot more engaging than starting the movie with a bunch of bulky, lukewarm "Lord Of The Rings In Space" bullshit.

In the last 7 years, we've gotten two very different examples of how these movies can go. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns payed reverential tribute to the earlier movies in 2006… very much to a fault, I thought. It kept the musical themes and a lot of the same set designs from the earlier picture for no clear reason, struggled to establish awkward continuity links with 1980's Superman II, and cast a Superman for the primary reason that Brandon Routh (an actor I like, but who was a little miscast and underused) resembles the late Christopher Reeve.

Now in 2013, Synder's Man Of Steel pretty much ignores the Christopher Reeve version completely, reinventing and rewriting aspects of the franchise as it sees fit. To tell you the truth, I almost always prefer that another entry in a mega-franchise like this has the freedom to do its own thing and find its own voice rather than to be encumbered by past installments. Although I am not entirely in love with this version, I'm glad that it got away with doing what it wanted to.

MOS is not my ideal version of what a Superman movie is and can be, but it does take the Superman mythos and adapts it to the bleak, modern post Batman Begins style of superhero picture with some moderate success while still hanging on to enough of what makes Superman Superman to keep me interested. I've got several beefs with it, sure - and frankly, I can't imagine a scenario anywhere down the line where I'd ever want to watch this movie again - but if we're talking about a decent few hours at the cinema, it didn't let me down.

A few additional thoughts:

-When Zod and his army are imprisoned and sent to the Phantom Zone early in the picture, am I the only one who thought that it looked like they had been encased in individual flying space dildos?

-Another example of questionable production design: Krypton is a super advanced society, but they communicate with each other using Pin Point Impression toys that you can buy through the Sharper Image catalogue? (with compliments to Mike S. for the joke)

-At the end of the movie, when Clark starts at the Daily Planet a few days after the picture's big action climax, it seems that everything's back to normal... the slimy co-worker asks Lois if she wants to go to the game because the MLB decided not to cancel their schedule in light of the GIANT FUCKING ALIEN INVASION THAT DESTROYED MOST OF METROPOLIS AND KILLED COUNTLESS THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.

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