Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Bringing a movie about one of the most recognized characters worldwide is a daunting task.  It’s akin to writing a new Star Wars movie, only more difficult.  The reason for this is because everyone has a stake in the character and everyone has an idea of what kind of story it should be, even the most casual of fans.  And after seventy-five years, there are a lot of versions of the world’s most famous alien.  Some adhere strictly to the version of the man of steel straight out of the funny pages, while most from the mainstream holds onto Christopher Reeve’s (and director Richard Donner’s) iconic but dated version.  And then there are the critics who back in 2006 bestowed so many platitudes upon Bryan Singer’s publicly ridiculed version of Superman; for them Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is clearly most difficult for them to embrace (evident from the highly polarized reviews), as this film is the cinematic antithesis of Singer’s Superman Returns.

Ninety-nine percent of the world has at least a broad sense of Superman’s origins.  Where this film differentiates itself is that it builds a richer backstory to the narrative – fleshing out Kryptonian civilization and bringing an element of science fiction that had sorely been missing from its more recent onscreen adaptations.  There is also a bold attempt to ground this film in reality much in the same way that writer David Goyer also did with Batman Begins.  For the purist, this can be a bit of a jolt as it’s a stark look at the character and what he might really mean in a world that tilts more towards skepticism and cynicism. 

So does it work?  It does because there is a logic to the way they approach story points and some nice attention to detail that really makes this new direction pop.  I’ve heard the complaints that it’s too dark and not optimistic enough, but that’s not the world we live in and the days of movies that are loaded with bright pastels with characters ready to break out into group hugs don’t exist anymore.  Just as other onscreen Superman depictions have been a reflection of the times in which they were produced, this is a Man of Steel movie for the times we live in.  Isolationism is a major theme; fallibility but with a strong determination to do better – those are authentic every day themes in our lives.  The former is something we all struggle with and the latter represents the best that each of us has to offer.

Now is the movie perfect?  No.  There are times where you feel the dialogue around Henry Cavill’s Superman could have been refined a bit, but then this is also a movie about grand themes and large action sets so to get hung up on that feels like nitpicking.  And there are times where the movie struggles a bit with the pacing, but this is born from the non-linear storytelling approach, but those flashback sequences are expertly shot and add so much depth to the narrative, that the pacing issue feels only minor. 

So what makes this movie the antithesis of Bryan Singer’s Superman?  Because Henry Cavill’s Superman has an intensity that drives this film and Zack Snyder brings this to life in the greatest (not hyperbole) action sequences I have ever seen in a superhero movie.  What comes to life onscreen is the type of flying, fighting, and struggling one would imagine a fight of this magnitude would have to be.  Whereas in other superhero narratives, the fight scenes seem clean and choreographed no matter the amount of destruction that goes on around the combatants, in Man of Steel, it feels raw, destructive, and emotionally charged.  Haters of Zack Snyder (of which there are many mostly for Sucker Punch and Watchmen) can criticize the man for his shortcomings as a director, but even they would have to admit the man knows how to do two things – frame a great action scene and deliver great visuals, and those two talents are on full display in this film.

As for the cast, while Henry Cavill has becomes a twitter phenomenon for his good looks, it can’t be overlooked that he does a good job as Clark Kent/Superman.  Is he the most charismatic version of the character?  No, that mantle now and forever will belong to the late great Christopher Reeve.  Instead, Cavill’s man of steel is an outsider struggling to balance a great number of emotions against a larger sense of purpose.  He does a nice job of conveying this with his voice and facial expressions.

Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent) and Diane Lane (Martha Kent) do a very good job in these roles with Costner darn near stealing the show.  Of all the themes that run strongly through this film, the notion of the father-and-son relationship runs deepest and Costner is the driving force behind this.  It is a redemptive showing for an actor who I stopped paying attention to after Water World and The Postman.  Russell Crowe (Jor-El) as the Kryptonian half of the father combo does a very good job in this film as well.  The tone and inflection of his voice really punctuates his performance, as he seems to hit the right notes in all the major scenes.  Ayelet Zurer as Lara, gets very little screen time, but does very good work with what time she is given.

As for the villain’s, Michael Shannon delivers a typical Michael Shannon performance.  His General Zod is intense, menacing, and calculating.  One of the biggest complaints with past Superman narratives was the lack of a formidable opponent for a hero with so many gifts.  Shannon delivers precisely that villain – one who is a legitimate threat.  Another candidate for best in show is Antje Trau as Faora-Ul, Zod’s henchwoman.  She displays a strong screen presence and does so much with a sparse set of lines.  Her menacing screen presence manifests from the succinct way she communicates and her cold hard stare.  Hers is not the most robust character, yet she manages to impact the movie significantly.

Then there is Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  I really appreciate the way the character is written and with some of the newer choices that were made.  And while I thought Adams was satisfactory in this role, I did not love her in Man of Steel.  She is not the worst Lois Lane I’ve ever seen (Margot Kidder), but there is a certain quality that seems missing.  Her Lois is spunky and no nonsense, and I get that from the way the script is written, but I don’t know that she fully embodies these qualities in the film.

By now it should come as no surprise that I would recommend this movie.  Don’t wait for On Demand or a rental or Blu-ray purchase.  You should absolutely see this movie on the big screen.  The visuals and the detail poured into the action sequences can only be appreciated in a cinema.  Whether you’re a superhero fan or not; or you just like to see a bunch of things blow up on screen; or maybe you think Henry Cavill or Amy Adams are really hot, I would encourage you to see this movie.  There may be all sorts of heroes like Iron Man, Batman, and dozens of Avengers (many of which you will see in the coming years), but the man who wears the S on his chest is one of the most iconic characters of modern American literature and pop culture.  That alone makes this film worthy of attention.

Standout Performance:  Kevin Costner.  Well done, sir.  Consider yourself redeemed.


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