Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel

The Dark Knight trilogy has ended its hugely successful run, Green Lantern was a financial and critical failure and the Superman franchise was pretty much dead in the water after the un-stellar performance of Superman Returns back in 2006. What was DC to do outside of continuing to make popular television shows based on their properties (not counting the Aquaman fiasco)? You take a page from the Marvel’s book of success and start a reboot series that begins to tie together all the characters from their universe, but still tells a great standalone story as well. Smartly they chose their most enduring character to be the first in a (hopefully) long line of retellings that will eventually lead to a Justice League film – Superman, the Man of Steel.

After young Kal-El is sent to Earth by his Kryptonian parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) to escape the imminent destruction of their world he is found by a loving couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and raised as their own child. His alien nature gives him superpowers that he uses to help mankind, and when General Zod (Michael Shannon), a ruthless military commander from Krypton, comes to Earth with his army to find an ancient relic, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must do what he deems is right to save his new home from annihilation.
Believe me when I say that this is the best film adaptation of Superman to date. It has everything you could ever want and more when it comes to this iconic character. You have epic battles that result in some of the most insane amount property damage ever committed to film, an understated and believable burgeoning romance, tender moments between father and adopted son, an interesting and sympathetic villain and a theme about trust and isolation at its core. Some of the earlier films tread these waters before, but never in this way or as brain meltingly awesome.

First off, you have to have the right actor play the title character. Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh both had the boy scout aspect and charisma to pull it off.  British thespian Henry Cavill (Immortals, The Cold Light of Day, Stardust) replicates that in moderation while also giving him a modern edge. He has a bit of an attitude and plays the part completely seriously. He has the right look for the part facially and physique-wise, and when it comes to his action scenes he performs admirably.
Amy Adams plays a great, sassy Lois Lane. On top of the fact that she’s cute as a button, she has the chops to sell all her scenes and never plays a victim. There are actually a few moments where she gets to be a bad ass by blasting rogue Kryptonians in the face with a rifle. She sells the slight romance angle, which isn’t overdone and in your face. When she does kiss Superman it’s mostly to say “thank you for saving my life” and not of the “I want you inside me” type of advance. I got the feeling she identified with him and never wanted to exploit him for her job as a reporter. She had every opportunity to, but I was thankful the script never made her into an asshole. She kicks the shit out of Kate Bosworth’s turn as the character.

Michael Shannon, while going completely overboard with the scene chewing periodically, portrays General Zod not as a monster, but as a man dedicated to protecting his people from extinction. Sure he participates in horrific acts of violence, but it’s all in the name of Krypton. I bought into his mission and never really felt like he was playing a villain, but just a dedicated soldier doing what he was bred to do. I haven’t liked him in some of the other roles I’ve seen him in (PremiumRush), but here he is quite good.
Kal-El’s two father figures are tops as well. Kevin Costner gives his best performance in decades as Jonathan Kent and sets up the selflessness that drives Kal/Clark/Superman. He’s kind of phenomenal in the part, and when the teenage Clark asks him if he should have let a busload of children drown in order to keep his powers a secret, Costner’s delivery of “Maybe” made me gasp. There is a later scene that made me gasp in a whole other way, but I will not spoil that moment. Russell Crowe is great as well in the Krypton scenes, making Jor-El out to be the sole voice of reason on his dying planet and an action hero as well. It’s only when he turns up later as a hologram does he go into auto-mode as an exposition device. Regardless, he brings his small part dignity and gravitas.

Everyone else is awesome as well, from Laurence Fishburne as Perry White to Antje Traue as the evil Faora. The only iffy spot of casting was Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy who is written as a generic military character. He would have made a marvelous Lex Luthor in a future film, but the ball was dropped.
Director Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) has made plenty of other successful adaptations of comic book characters in his career, and he can add one more to the list. While he does tend to substitute moments that call for a quiet rage with screaming and histrionics, he also sells the majesty and epic grandeur of the property with aplomb thanks to some outstanding cinematography from Amir Mokri. His redesign of Krypton is phenomenal, the action is intense and he wrings great performances out of the majority of his cast. I have never seen any film taken to such an extreme as this when it comes to getting across just how powerful these characters are when they fight. Unfortunately he also tends to take things a little too far. I wish some of the restraint he showed in Watchmen was present here because he certainly goes off the deep end with the action. It all looked amazing as it went down, but as I was watching all the craziness flash by on screen I wondered if Snyder actually gave a shit that he was demolishing entire cities and killing thousands in the process. I would have liked to have seen Superman attempting to stop all the destruction (the World Bringers are a different story altogether) while fighting Zod and the Kryptonians by forcing them to take their brawls into the air or away from populated areas. At one point this does happen, but by then the damage had already been done. Still, this is based on a comic book about an alien that can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes, so I let it slide unlike most people seem to be willing to do.
Writer David S. Goyer (Blade, The Dark Knight trilogy) certainly put a unique and modern spin on the property that was most welcome. He still tends to give his characters dialogue that ends with an exclamation point, but again, this is based on a comic book so I can’t fault him for that. He misses the mark on occasion, especially in how he glosses over the Kent farm stuff. I always enjoyed those parts from the original movie, and seeing them relegated to a series of short flashbacks definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I did like the non-linear way the story unfolded, I just wished there was more of those scenes mixed in. Because of this format we don’t really get to know Martha Kent at all. He does get the nature of the main character right, and while he’s not as squeaky clean as previous versions of Superman I really dug his take on it. The climax is one of the best moments of any recent superhero movie, regardless of the fact that it goes completely against what we know of his moral code. This is Superman’s origin story, and he never one mentioned what he stood for or what his “rules of conduct” were. Therefore I will take this act as the event that forces him to go down that path. Goyer smartly doesn’t force a romantic relationship between Clark and Lois, gave the villain a relatable purpose and reworked the history of the character to make it more accessible and less syrupy. Personally I think he did a fantastic job and can’t wait to see what he comes up with for the inevitable sequel.

Hans Zimmer’s soaringly overproduced score is loud, but fantastic. While it doesn’t have an overture for Superman like John Williams concocted back in the 70s, the main themes used are so freaking epic that I had them stuck in my head for a few day after seeing the film. Like the director, he does go overboard a few times and resorts to loud percussion and horns to fill the aural soundscape, but he makes up for it with the somber melodies used throughout the soundtrack. It reminded me of a cross between his The Peacemaker, Crimson Tide and Driving Miss Daisy scores. It’s top notch.
I want to make this absolutely clear – when I go to see a movie I want to be entertained, plain and simple. When it comes to movies based on comic books, novels or video games I enjoy I do not bring with it the baggage associated with whatever property it may be. If I wanted the book, I’d read the fucking book. When I go to a movie I want to see a movie that works. If the filmmakers manage to make it as close to the source material as they can it’s a bonus. I understand that what works in a comic book or video game sometimes doesn't translate to the big screen and changes have to be made to get it to function properly. Yes, I know that there were alterations to the Superman character and backstory in the Man of Steel script, and I don’t give a fuck. This flick is a blast, plain and simple. It’s a successful reboot of a franchise that was floundering and will (hopefully) usher in a new series of DC superhero flicks that are just as awesome (I want a Flash and a real Green Lantern movie dammit!) that will culminate into the rumored Justice League feature. There already seems to be a plan to tie all the other characters together without having to resort to a post-credit scene setting up the next installment (Wayne Enterprises was scrolled across the communication satellite used for an action beat, and a tanker truck had the LexCorp logo etched into its side). Having Christopher Nolan producing these films was the best choice Warner Brothers has ever made since he lends a seriousness to his projects that earlier DC films lacked in the extreme (Catwoman, Steel, Superman IV). The reigns to this awesome universe are in the right hands, and I hope it stays there because Man of Steel kicks it off in a big way.

4.5 out of 5

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