Monday, July 01, 2013

In Theaters: Man of Steel

Man of Steel poster

I really have to wonder who it was in the Warner Bros./DC hierarchy that looked at Superman Returns and decided the big problem was it wasn't solemn enough. I know I'm in something of a minority concerning my very positive opinion of Bryan Singer's take on the comic book legend by way of Richard Donner, but I was still willing to give a fair chance to Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan's reboot. Man of Steel is a very reverent and sincere try at placing the original comic book superhero in the pantheon of modern superhero movies, an ambitious retelling of the title character's beginnings and ascent to legendary status which takes some controversial liberties in the name of keeping things fresh, but what brings it down is not its emphasis on violent spectacle nor its changes to the character. No, the problem is the sheer weight of the plot, which crushes warmth, humor, and characterization underfoot while trying to tell the story of an alien finding his essential humanity.

We begin on the planet Krypton, an advanced civilization on a dying world, having mined out most of its own planetary core for energy. Scientist Jor-El (Russel Crowe) has a plan to save the Kryptonian race, but is interrupted when General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a violent coup. Before the planet can implode on itself, Jor-El and his wife send their only son off to a distant star system, along with the technology that could revive the Kryptonian people. On the strange world of Earth, young Kal-El (eventually played by Henry Cavill) develops superhuman powers and, after being raised by the kindly Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), sets out to help save lives and make the world a better place. However, around the time he figures this out, Zod and his retinue show up, having escaped Krypton's demise and having learned of Jor-El's plans. They present an ultimatum to Earth to hand over Kal-El, who promptly gives himself up, along with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who has discovered perhaps more than she should about this mysterious superman. Zod and company plan to use reclaimed Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a mirror of their lost planet, but this process would of course kill everyone currently living there, so Kal-El just won't have that.

There is a lot of controversy regarding some things Superman does late in the picture, and in general the film is unafraid to make changes to the familiar legend, and present us a Clark Kent who truly feels alienated and apart from the people of Earth whom he nonetheless feels compelled to protect, a Clark Kent who is still building his moral code. We're clearly meant to leave some of our preconceptions of who Superman is at the door, and generally speaking I see no problem with this. However, the specific approach the filmmakers take with Man of Steel does open them up to certain problems- namely, that in focusing on an alienated and isolated Clark, the film denies both him and us the kind of interactions that would really form a bond not only between characters, but between the picture and the audience. It's telling that we see more of young Clark being all-too-realistically bullied in school than we see him receiving the support of his parents- the scenes are well executed in and of themselves but they contribute to a sour vibe.

This is a very dour, humorless film- approximately half an hour or so elapses before the first thing happens which could be regarded as funny, and while nobody said all superhero movies need comic relief, it's never clear why the film has to take itself as seriously as it does. Almost every scene is handled by Snyder as a Big Dramatic Moment, with very little space to breathe in between, but it's in most films' less dramatic moments that humor and intimacy and life seep in. The film's not entirely lacking in these subtleties, but part of the problem is just how needlessly complicated the story is- between matrices and planetary engines and space weapons, the characters have to spend most of their time delivering exposition, and rarely get the opportunity to display emotions other than "tense".

It really doesn't help that the ensemble is as overstuffed as it is. We have both Harry Lenick and Christopher Melioni as your hard driven military types, Jor-El constantly showing up and jockeying for time with Superman's adoptive parents, a nerdy scientist (Richard Schiff) who seems to be there because movies like this have scientist types hanging around, Laurence Fishburne acting very stern as Perry White, Michael Kelly as a fellow reporter who is apparently important, an intern (Rebecca Buller) who is cute and that's pretty much it, Zod's entire retinue of Kryptonian fascists, the list goes on. With the script so heavily devoted to naked plot delivery nobody gets much time to be fleshed out, and you get the distinct feeling that these characters either had a lot more purpose in an earlier draft or are simply there to be under contract for the sequel. It's a problem that writer David S. Goyer specifically didn't have in his work on Nolan's Batman trilogy, so I'm not sure what happened but I suspect Warner Bros. just couldn't keep their filthy mitts off.

To be sure, some of the action scenes are fairly impressive, even if we spend a curiously long time watching people run in terror from collapsing buildings and dig each other out of rubble while Superman's busy fighting a kind of robot thing on the other side of the world because the script has gotten that complicated. The art design of Krypton is also impressive, even if it suggests a culture so diseased that Kal-El really shouldn't mourn its passing. (Which makes the conflict between his human and alien identities rather one-sided.) Snyder does break out the shaky handheld camera a bit too often for my tastes but it's not fatal to any of the proceedings, just a little distracting.

I can't bring myself to forgive a film which takes Amy Adams, a charming and talented actress who projects energy and warmth almost effortlessly, casts her in the iconic role of everyone's favorite stop-at-nothing reporter, and sticks her for most of the film reading dry exposition or reacting worriedly to things. Similarly, I'm pretty sure Henry Cavill has a handle on the character of Superman, but he only gets to show it in fits and bursts, as in when he learns to fly for the first time or calmly informs the military that he's playing along with the whole "captivity" thing for their own comfort.

This is a movie in which a lot of very good individual parts fail to make much of a strong, affecting whole. It seems to fall apart not due to laziness or carelessness but simply losing sight of basic human connections, which is death to a picture that's supposed to be about an alien choosing humanity over his own kind. You can see what the filmmakers are aiming for, but a leaden joylessness keeps the picture from ever making that essential connection. The picture's a hit, so apparently just putting in more explosions was enough, but I honestly hope that for the sequel, the filmmakers take a breath and remember the little things that make our heroes larger than life.

Based on a character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder

Grade: C+

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