Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

*Gonna try and keep this as spoiler free as humanly possible, but if you're one of those people who absolutely wants to know NOTHING before you go to the theatre...I think it goes without saying to stop here.*

I've said for awhile now, since the superhero genre really caught fire at the box office, that comic book heroes are almost our 21st century pantheon of gods. They're the legends that we hand down from generation to generation. They serve as cautionary morality tales, tales to inspire bravery and heroism, and tales that serve as an escape from the mundane reality of everyday life. Their powers make them unlike any of us, so they're set apart. Often, they come from among us, be they chosen by cosmic forces (Green Lantern) or the victims of an accident that brings about a transformation (Spider-Man, and countless others). So if these heroes are a pantheon, Superman is pretty much the Zeus/Apollo/Odin/Ra etc. He's the ultimate. The standard bearer. His morality and sense of justice seem to be pitch perfect (not to mention black-and-white), he's essentially indestructible, and he has no agenda for world domination. His presence as a benevolent beacon of light, who saves people from unthinkable fates at times, might harken to another famous Figure from the pages of a Book. So basically, when you make a movie about Superman A) it's hard to create conflict and a sense of urgency when the hero is an indestructible Christ-like Boy Scout and B) he has SUCH a key place in pop culture, you'd better not screw it up.

SO....did they???????

My answer? No. Not in the slightest.

Before I proceed ANY further, let me say this: I'm anything but a Superman purist. I was always a Batman kid growing up (Adam West was in re-runs daily, The Animated Series premiered and was AWESOME, and Michael Keaton was lighting it up the box office. It was a good time to love Batman.). I watched the old George Reeves television series with my dad on Nick-At-Nite religiously, saw a bit of Lois & Clark here and there, and missed Smallville entirely, and the Chris Reeve films were before my time. So, like many in my generation, Superman wasn't all that accessible, and could pretty much only be found on television (Lois being very short lived, and Smallville COMPLETELY over-staying its welcome, not to mention being far too teen angsty for where I was in life when it premiered) and in comics. So it was hard for me to form a die-hard connection with Supes. As such, the liberties taken with his origin story, etc in Man of Steel do not bother me at all. Some might hate them with every fiber of their being. I get that. But I digress. Let's get back to the movie.

It became apparent to me within MINUTES of the movie's start that JJ Abrams has made a big impact with his Star Trek movies. Man of Steel is RIFE with lens flares, shaky handheld shots, and the sudden zooms (usually a double close attention to both and you'll see what I mean). So if you hate those things about JJ, that might be strike one for you right out of the gate. I don't mind it in theory, I just mind it if it's ripping off another filmmaker's signature look. And it felt that way to me several times. 

The film shifts gears notably as it unfolds, and it almost feels like 3-4 separate movies in one, in retrospect. Act I is on Krypton, as you can imagine, and these scenes felt STRAIGHT out of the Star Wars prequels to me, specifically Attack of the Clones. HEAVY use of CGI for epic battles on a large scale. It's impossible to take in every single thing happening onscreen, that's how big these fights scenes are. I realize invoking the Prequels sounds like an indictment, with the stigma they carry. I don't mean it in a negative way at all. But the visual effects, creatures, and shot compositions had me mentally comparing it to SW the entire time. Couldn't help it. Another thought that occurred to me was "WHY couldn't Green Lantern have been more like this?!"

Act II onwards is set on earth, with the film making jumps back and forth through time, often without warning. It can be a bit jarring at first, but you grow accustomed to it after awhile. Each point in time has a different look, with the past being very cool blue tones, almost washed out to be monochromatic in appearance. The present is more colorful by comparison, but even at its highest example of this, Man of Steel ain't exactly a Lisa Frank piece, if you get my meaning. Its colors and tone are very muted, and almost mournful in a way. More on that later.

Another thing that has occured to me since leaving the theatre was the lack of a discernible theme song for Superman. The John Williams score from the Chris Reeve era is iconic and instantly recognizable. In Man of Steel, I could perceive no such theme. If I tried to whistle the music I heard last night, I'd probably get light headed and pass out. That's a recent trend that has really upset me since the superhero explosion began. Green Lantern had about 5 notes I could hum to you as being distinct. Just makes me realize how much of a class to himself John Williams truly is. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Superman...even the NBC Nightly News!!!!! All classic, all instantly recognizable, ALL John Williams.

Many critics have complained that the film is much too somber and gloomy. While it's not a stretch to notice Man of Steel doesn't resemble it's cinematic brethren from the 70's and 80's in campy, sunny feels, why does this have to be a negative?? And this is where not being a Superman fanboy personally will almost certainly come into play. The comics are known for keeping it light and fun, not brooding and miserable. I get that. Many Spider-Man aficionados had the same complaint with Andrew Garfield's outing last summer. Both are meant to be fun. But in the times we live in, it does not seem that audiences want to be distracted by nonsense they feel to be inauthentic (for those of you who tend to make snarky observations, YES, I realize that's odd to say about the superhero genre. But it has been proven there are ways to ground it in as much reality as possible without sacrificing good storytelling). 

Audiences seem to want to see something gritty and emotional, that makes them feel a connection with the hero onscreen. And Superman is about the hardest hero to relate to in history, for reasons too numerous to list. Focusing on his isolation, his self doubt, his quest for meaning in the world (done in a VERY on-the-nose way in the film, but I won't say more than that) is the ONLY way audiences filled with people struggling to pay bills and provide for their families can connect with a demi-god. Otherwise, why should they care? What does he POSSBLY have to lose, given his immeasurable strength and unworldly abilities? The only way to threaten Superman, truly, is to make the people he desperately loves, cares for, protects and saves, fear or reject him. It's as simple as that. That isolation is more effective for Superman than Kryptonite could EVER be.

The casting for Man of Steel was especially wonderful, and outside of the costumes and visuals in space, my favorite part of the movie. One of the most glaring flaws of Superman Returns was the casting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She just never felt right. Amy Adams rectifies this perfectly, with a great blend of fearlessness and tenderness that gives the character a genuine feel. She is not relegated to the role of screaming damsel constantly mucking about and needing rescuing (see: Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale in 1989's Batman). Rather, she assists in any way she can, showing fear on her face, but continuing on regardless. Lawrence Fishburne raised eyebrows upon the announcement he'd been cast as Perry White, but blew any concerns out of the water. Perry is the kind of character Fishburne was born to play. There is no Jimmy Olsen whatsoever, which really does show that Snyder and Co. were determined not to play this thing for cheap laughs. Costner and Lane as Ma and Pa Kent are fantastic, and Russell Crowe does his best at making the Jor-El character all his own. That is extremely difficult, given that his cinematic predecessor was Marlon Brando. Crowe takes the character in a different direction, and breathes new life into it. Michael Shannon also shines as Zod, and the script does an amazing job making his motivations a bit more sympathetic. Zod in Man of Steel is a classic example of the misunderstood, truly acting in a way he sees as honorable in the end, and even admitting that his methods to achieve his goals are fairly reprehensible. To him, his people are all that matter.

Last but not least, I was VERY pleasantly surprised by the scope (or rather, the lack thereof) of Superman's powers. In his cinematic past, his abilities border on the insane and terrifying (even for a comic book character). Donner's first film had Superman going and changing the earth's rotation to reverse time as a way to solve the problem, which in ITSELF creates a whole host of new problems and questions. In Superman II, his kisses can roofie women. We won't even get into the funky cellophane "S" he can throw at unsuspecting villains. In Singer's film he literally lifts an ENTIRE continent on his back, alone, and hauls it into space. In Man of Steel, it's made apparent that he is powerful, but not to those fantastic extremes. He struggles to keep a collapsing crane on an oil rig from collapsing, so you really don't get the feeling he'll be hurling continents like a shotput anytime soon. 

As a side note, I found it incredibly interesting that they made it a point to emphasize Superman revealing himself to the world at the age of 33. The circumstance of this revelation are his wanting to present himself as a sacrifice to Zod in the place of mankind. It has never been a subtle point that Superman is a Christ-ish figure (Brandon Routh's Superman falling to earth in the crucifix pose wasn't at all what you'd call 'subtle'), and according to scripture, 33 was the age of Jesus when handed over to the Romans for execution. This could perhaps be  nothing more than a huge coincidence, but I was so intrigued by its inclusion, I felt it necessary to point out. If nothing else, it opens the door for many interesting conversations.

On the whole, Man of Steel is breathtaking in its spectacle, poignant in its emotion, and well paced from beginning to end. The science behind Zod's plan of attack is so far beyond false and ridiculous, it goes without saying. So if you're an MIT intellect without the ability to overlook such things, you likely won't be having a good time. Cavill brings a quiet sadness to his Clark/Superman, but also exudes kindness and love for mankind. There are several points where you just want to give the poor guy a hug. This, to me, is the sign of an excellent performance. If this film is a sign of things to come for other DC properties, I am extremely excited about the future. I loved Man of Steel, and I'm already planning when I'll be able to see it again. I hope you enjoy the film, and if you've seen it, please start a discussion below! Did you love it? Hate it? Agree or disagree with anything I've said? Let me know! Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

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