Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Man of Steel
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan based on characters created by Jerry Siegel   & Joe Shuster.
Starring: Henry Cavill (Clark Kent / Kal-El), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Russell Crowe (Jor-El), Antje Traue (Faora-Ul), Harry Lennix (General Swanwick), Richard Schiff (Dr. Emil Hamilton), Christopher Meloni (Colonel Nathan Hardy), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White).

One of the complaints I often have about remakes and reboots is that the filmmakers behind them are content with simply doing the exact same thing that previous filmmakers have done with the franchise. This was the case with last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man – a fine film in its own right, and probably better than Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man from a decade ago, but a film that doesn’t really try to do anything different with Spider-Man (no, giving him a different girlfriend and a different bad guy doesn’t count). If nothing else, you cannot make the same complaint about Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder, from a screenplay by David S. Goyer (with the help of Christopher Nolan, who also produced), it’s clear that all involved wanted to make a different Superman movie this time out. It is a retelling of the origin story of Superman – but it is vastly different from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman – and the sequels (including the overly reverent Superman Returns). I appreciated the effort behind the film and its ambitions however more than the final result. I’m not going to say Man of Steel is a bad movie – because it isn’t – the first half is actually very good, but the film has some flaws that hold it back from being a great film.

The movie opens on Krypton, as the planet is on the brink of collapse. These scenes are fairly well handled – with Russell Crowe as Jor-El, the planet’s top scientist, giving an intelligent, sensitive performance, knowing that his planet his doomed and placing the hopes of all of Krypton with his newborn son Kal – the first “naturally born Son of Krypton is hundreds of years” as he sends him to earth, before being killed by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who along with his cohorts will be captured and banished to the Phantom Zone – but not before he vows to find Kal.

We then meet Kal – now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) – decades later, as he is essentially a drifter, going from one place to another on a quest to find out who he really is. The first hour is packed with flashbacks to his youth – where he realizes he is different and doesn’t want to me. It’s in these scenes that we get the film’s best performance – by Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, the humble Kansas farmer who adopted Clark as his own son, and warns him repeatedly that he has to keep his abilities a secret, because humans will not be able to handle the truth about him. Costner, who is much better now that he is a character actor, and not a leading man, gives these scenes real emotional weight – even if you do have to question his advice, and in a key scene his decision, which really doesn’t make much sense, no matter how emotional the scene itself is, or how great he is in it.

Eventually, of course, Clark will discover the truth about himself – buried under the ice in Northern Canada, where they find an alien spaceship. This is also when he meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet. And, eventually, what will lead General Zod to Earth – and force Kal-El/Clark Kent to make a decision that will out him to the entire planet – something he has not wanted to do.

In general, I liked much of the first half of Man of Steel. The scenes on Krypton bordered on overkill at times, without ever quite tipping over. And the performances were generally spot on – Cavill doing more dramatic heavy lifting than Supermans of the past, as the movie strives to make him a little more brooding and complex than prior versions of the character. I’ve already talked about how great Costner is in the movie – the most realistic character by a mile. Michael Shannon makes a wonderful snarling villain as Zod – devoid of the camp that Terrence Stamp brought to the role (and that’s both a good and bad thing). Amy Adams is wonderful as Lois Lane. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that based on what we see in the film, Adams COULD be wonderful as Lane. She is the perfect blend of perky and tough – cute, but overly cutesy, and a wonderful love interest for Cavill. But because the movie’s second half devolves into one loud fight sequence after another, and because the movie seems to be saving all the Daily Planet banter for the second movie, Adams doesn’t quite get the opportunity to be a great Lois Lane. If the filmmakers are smart, they’ll give her much more to do next time out. You may say the same thing about Diane Lane as Ma Kent – you can sense that she is capable of more, but because the flashbacks put such a heavy emphasis of Costner, she’s kind of lost in those scenes.

I hinted at my major problems with Man of Steel in the last paragraph – but let me spell them out a little more. It’s clear that Christopher Nolan had a large influence on the film. Like his Batman films, Man of Steel wants to be a more realistic superhero movie – it takes the question of what someone like Clark Kent would actually be like as a child – the struggles, the questions, the desire to be normal, having the weight of the world on your shoulders. In general, I appreciate that, but it doesn’t work quite as well in Man of Steel as it did in Nolan’s Batman movies. For one thing, Batman (unless he’s being played by Adam West) always was kind of a brooding asshole – so Nolan’s take on the character made more sense. But the same idea doesn’t quite work as well for Superman – because his story is, of course, much more far-fetched than being a pissed off billionaire who likes to beat people up. It still works up to a point – and I appreciated the effort – but after spending half the movie seemingly obsessed with the question of how humanity would react when they find out about Clark Kent’s powers, the movie pretty much ignores the question in the second half – you know, when they actually find out – so they can get one big loud fight scene after another.

And that’s my bigger problem with Man of Steel. The first half of the movie seemed to be striving for something, that the second half ignores. The action sequences in the second half of the film are well done – and thankfully not as overindulgent as they have been in Snyder’s previous films 300, Watchmen or Sucker Punch (not nearly as much slow motion). In fact, they rank with the best work of any action sequences this year. But they drag on and on, and are piled one after one for pretty much the last half of the movie – or about 75-80 minutes. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing – and Man of Steel hits that point, and then goes well beyond it. I won’t complain about yet another movie that destroys skyscrapers and multiple blocks of a major city, and then never dealing with the aftermath (really, how many THOUSANDS of people must have been killed in these final scenes). The film uses imagery undeniable similar to that of a real life event like 9/11, and then never does anything with it. Okay, so maybe I will complain a little about it.

This probably sounds like I didn’t much care for Man of Steel – and that’s not really accurate. I really did like the first half of the movie. And while I grew tired of one fight scene after another in the second half, I have to admit they are well done – this is some of the best special effects and sound work you will see this year. But I also couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed in Man of Steel. There is so much here to love that the fact that the movie ends up being just okay is a little disappointing. I’m looking forward to the sequel though – I just hope they realize what they did well this time out, and not screw it up next time.

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