Monday, December 9, 2013

Man of Steel

It hit me about 3 days later; I could barely remember it. I was shopping at Target and saw an entire endcap devoted to MAN OF STEEL, the latest update of D.C. Comic's Superman saga, and was reminded that yes, I had seen it. It was the only film that even mildly tempted me out to the theater this past summer, though perhaps good sense won out and I waited. I now find I could've waited even longer.

This review, by the way, is not a slam or dismissal. Nor another rant from an older fan who grew up wide eyed over the old comics and Christopher Reeve pics. I realize that every generation reimagines and reinvents old franchises. It may smack of lack of imagination (and corporate greed) but once in awhile someone gets it right, creates an interesting twist on a long beloved hero. I again cite the recent Batman trilogy as commandeered by Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's involvement (story credit) on MAN OF STEEL was encouraging. Even inspiring. What he did with The Dark Knight was transcendent. Surely this fantastic tale of an alien who is sent from his dying planet to Earth was ripe with possibility. Maybe director Zach Snyder, whose WATCHMEN was an interesting but deeply flawed comic book epic, would have a fresh take on this by now ancient tale.

On that point, there's little argument. The film immediately distances itself from earlier efforts with its non-linear storytelling. But, so common anymore. Still, an audacious choice, as the drama of the evolution of Clark Kent/Superman is so compelling to watch. Here, the young man (Henry Cavill, looking very Chris Reeve-like in some shots) is first glimpsed on Earth, long after his infant's journey from planet Krypton (and the goodbyes of his biological parents, Jor-El and Lara, played earnestly by Russell Crow and Ayelet Zurer). Then his chronology goes backward in time, then zigzags. Like half remembered snatches. Maybe no one has the patience for A-Z exposition anymore.

The effect is commanding, but also disheartening. I noticed a considerable lack of soul in MAN OF STEEL. In its place - steely cold omniscience that merely documents rather than involves us.  This is also so common in contemporary superhero pics.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original stories were distinguished by a strong emotional narrative drive and depth as well as dark mayhem. The Reeve films continued those ideas and also added a good dose of send-up to lighten the load. Then and now I think that was very wise - superhero adventures always run the risk of self-importance (and, let's face it, are inherently ridiculous). Directors Richard Donner and Richard Lester understood the need to use humor to make the legends sing in ways 2-D comics never really did. Lester admittedly did get a bit carried away and contemptuous, especially in the awful SUPERMAN III.

This being a film concerned with Kal-El's origins, we are not given the sort of meaty relationships expected among the principals, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but surprisingly also with the boy's adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (an aged Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Krypton criminal General Zod (an effective Michael Shannon) is seen minus his old partners in crime (but with a different crew) and rather here is the front and center nemesis with powers identical to Kal-El, and bent on destroying Earth to create a new Krypton via genetic engineering.

David S. Goyer's screenplay, to its credit, gives Zod far more dimension than seen in earlier films. Zod's character is a megalomaniac, ready to destroy anything in his path, but his reasons are not mere ruthlessness or insanity. You can understand his m.o. While you can hiss at him, you are always uncomfortably reminded that he is attempting to do exactly what 'Superman" is, just from a different perspective. Shannon really gives the part some depth. Such complexity forbids summary dismissal of MAN OF STEEL, and is admirable.

But is not enough. Watching this new film, aside from a few interesting dramatic elements, inspired neither wonder or excitement. There are grand scale scenes of destruction late in the film that are dull and unimpressive, again due in part to a regrettable look of artificiality. The cinematography by Amir Mokri remains from opening to fadeout a greyed out palate of visual disinterest; I'm baffled as to why this is so prevalent in cinema these days. It made me want to watch Warren Beatty's vivid DICK TRACY as an antidote.

There are a few nods to the 70s/80s SUPERMANs, including a children-in-peril-school-bus-on-teetering-bridge scene and the Man of Steel having a tanker thrown at him (though in this film, he jumps over it). I watched those old movies numerous times.  Of course, I was just an impressionable kid. If I had been 9 when MAN OF STEEL opened, would I have done likewise? Maybe, but I would've been poorer in so many ways......
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