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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

SUPERMAN has to be THE most popular superhero in the world! He has also been the most featured superhero in movies and TV since the 1940's. Since the beginning of the modern superhero movie with 1978's Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve, there have been many incarnations of Superman on both TV (Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville) and movies (Superman I-IV, Superman Returns). But, there has only been one Superman worthy of the silver screen...until now. While 2006's Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh, Hollywood tried (rather unsuccessfully) to reignite the franchise. It was both a critical and commercial disappointment (mostly due to early writing and directing issues), leaving many Superman fans wanting. With the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, Hollywood and DC Comics have again tried to reboot the Superman franchise with Man of Steel. The film is directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Ghost Rider, The Blade Trilogy) and stars Henry Cavill (Immortals) as "The Man of Steel".
Man of Steel tells the origin story that we all know so well (or at least think we do?) of Kal-el, the last son of Krypton, who was sent to Earth from his dying home-world to eventually become Superman! It begins with the birth of Kal-El to parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) on Krypton. While their planet dying from the inside, the ambitious General Zod (Michael Shannon) has staged a coup to overthrow the council and set up a new world order. Even though Zod asks Jor-El to join him, he denies him as he prepares to send his only son to Earth, saving him from their fate. Zod is stopped by Jor-El, arrested, and sentenced to the 'Phantom Zone'. Krypton is destroyed! Kal-El arrives on Earth and is raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent in Smallville, Kansas. Now named Clark Kent, he slowly discovers his powers and realizes he is destined for greatness and he wants to help people. He is conflicted in dealing with his ever-increasing powers and their limitations. So much so, that he eventually leaves home to find himself and his purpose.
Henry Cavill IS Superman!
While this all sounds very familiar, the particulars to the story of Man of Steel is very different to what we would normally expect. It's hard not to compare this one to the classic 1978 film, which for generations made us "believe a man could fly". The original Superman movie was told in a more linear style, this latest film is told in a series of flashbacks. As we begin with Superman/Kal-El's birth and Krypton's destruction, we are then brought forward 33 years (as we soon discover) where we see an adult Clark Kent working on board a fishing trawler in the middle of the ocean. We then find Clark working at an Arctic archaeological site where scientists have discovered a mysterious object buried in the ice. To cover this historic occasion, we meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who has a knack for getting stories in dangerous locales and as we soon discover, getting into trouble!
Through much of the second act of the film Lois is searching for the mysterious man who rescued her and has been spotted at several other locations. In the third act we find out that Zod has returned and is looking for Kal-El and if the people of Earth do not surrender him he will destroy the planet (which he will most likely do anyway)! Superman learns of Zod's true purpose, and begins is a non-stop battle for Earth's fate as he must stop his fellow Kryptonians (who now have almost the same powers as he does) from destroying the Earth and killing the entire human population.
Man of Steel is an impressive and fast-paced superhero movie that barely gives you any time to catch your breath! While it does have a somewhat darker tone like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel retains much of the optimistic and hopeful themes to which the story has always been known. Although very special-effects driven with over-the-top action and especially intense fights and destruction scenes; Man of Steel is the Superman movie many fans have been waiting for but not necessarily the one they expected. Director Zack Snyder has been known for his involvement in several  recent comic book adaptations (300, Watchmen) including movies with heavy CGI special effects (Sucker Punch). He is well suited to direct Man of Steel.
Kneel before Zod?
The biggest character difference with Man of Steel is that while Clark/Kal-El deals with his powers growing up, he becomes conflicted with using his powers. When he eventually decides to use them, he has to face the moral question of when is it "right" to use his powers based on the (somewhat contradictory) words of his adopted father. This fact becomes apparent when Clark/Kal-El is faced with a situation where he has the ability to use his powers to save someone (No Spoilers!) but due to the actions of his father is forbidden to interfere. This choice also becomes relevant during the final epic battle between Superman and Zod when Superman is forced to do the unthinkable. Without giving anything away (although the Internet is already a buzz with spoilers of the films controversial ending) I believe his actions are completely justifiable despite what many have said. This version of Zod (played previously by Terrance Stamp in the original movie and Callum Blue in Smallville), seems much more of a threat than his melodramatic (Stamp) counterpart. No longer the power-mad despot, he is merely the unquestioning soldier with a single-minded purpose who lets nothing stand in his way. As for the support characters, many prove to be very bland and dull compared to Cavill's "Man of Steel". Amy Adams presents Lois Lane as a more headstrong and albeit "fiery" red-headed version of Superman's quintessential damsel-in-distress. As a strong and confident character, she seems somewhat wrong for the part given her previous parts in more "family-friendly" roles such as Enchanted and The Muppets and I half-expected her to break out into song at any minute. Others who are a necessity with Superman stories such as Perry White, played by a rather stout Laurence Fishburne, as a much milder incarnation to the more aggressive "great Cesar's ghost!" Editor-in-Chief. Characters such as Jimmy Olsen and Superman's traditional arch-enemy Lex Luthor are nowhere to be seen. One of Superman's lesser-known support characters makes an appearance in this movie, Professor Emil Hamilton, played by Richard Schiff, appears in a few pivotal scenes. Coincidentally, Man of Steel was released over Father's Day weekend, not surprising since the story revolves heavily around Superman's father figures: Jor-El and John Kent. Not so much in Costner's presence as his often cryptic fatherly advice is subverted significantly by Russell Crowe's stiff scenes.
While there are many differences with the original classic Superman, both in comics and movies, this version presents the audience with a much more realistic view of the Superman story. With its strong elements of science-fiction and fantasy, Man of Steel feels very grounded in reality, addressing what our world would be like if there was someone who had superpowers and how would he use them. Stylistically, the scenes of Krypton borrow heavily from the 1980's comic designs of John Byrne with a little bit of James Cameron's Avatar thrown in (Jor-El riding atop a 4-winged dragon into battle!). While the technology of Krypton has a much more "organic" style in this one as opposed to the original shiny, crystalline structure of the original movies.
As for the redesign of the costume; this has more in common with the new comics than tradition. His new, somewhat-darker and streamlined costume, sans outside underwear, has created a lot of controversy. Some issues with the movies over-the-top action and particularly with its over-use of the "shaky-cam" and featuring scenes of ultra-destruction have been panned. Some may criticize that Man of Steel has too much violence and destruction, most don't seem to realize that this IS what a super-hero comic book is all about! Finally, we get to see Superman in an all-out super-fight with an actual super-villain and all the chaos that comes with it! One of the oddest features of the movie comes from its obligatory usage of product-placement. Everything from Sears, 7-11, IHOP and U-Haul are featured in this film. In one of the major fight scenes between Superman and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), Zod's right-hand woman, takes place primarily in an IHOP! This is not a new-concept in movies, or even superhero movies, as there has always been products featured in movies. Even the original 1978 Superman featured a very commercial-like scene with a box of Cheerios on the Kent's breakfast table. Man of Steel may not be the "best" Superman movie in the last 35 years, but it is better than the last attempt and it certainly tries harder than some of DC Comics previous attempts (i.e. Green Lantern) to bring super-powered superheroes to life.
Man of Steel is an impressive, equally entertaining and enjoyable movie experience. Unlike some of the other Summer superhero blockbusters like the inadequate Iron Man 3 and especially laughable special-effects driven disasters like Star Trek Into Darkness. Even after 75 years, Superman still manages to inspire and entertain each new generation. Superman lives on! Although he may change along the way, like in the comics with DC Comics' recent "New 52!" line, the basic spirit of Superman stays true as continues to fight for "truth, justice, and the American way!"