Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Superman comics were among the first I ever read, and seeing the 1979 Christopher Reeve movie was one of my earliest memories of a theatrical experience. I watched reruns of the George Reeves series and have seen my share of the various TV versions since. Basically, like most everyone in the free world, I've had plentiful exposure to the Last Son of Krypton. I also suspect that all of us, no matter how much we may have enjoyed the various attempts to translate the character to live action, have always been at least a little disappointed in how low-key the action has been in those features. A great deal of money was spent on Superman Returns for him to appear far less super than the X-Men in their movies, and fans of Smallville waded through a decade of shoddy cosplay waiting for a payoff that never came. Man of Steel wants to make up for that. It wants to give you every super power and all the vicious alien adversaries and every extraordinary obstacle and all the titanic destruction every previous cinematic Superman was lacking, and it does. No super-hero movie has ever been as visually spectacular. You just have to bring all the baggage from those prior Superman encounters with you, because the movie gives you little else but the boom.
The throughline of Man of Steel comes directly from the two Donner films. On the planet Krypton, Jor-El tangles with the forces of General Zod while attempting unsuccessfully to convince authorities that their world is doomed. Baby Kal-El rockets from his exploding home world to Earth, where he's raised by kindly farmers in Kansas. Clark Kent is eventually told of his heritage, is counseled by his ghostly alien father, and grows to become Superman. Kal-El's presence on Earth attracts Zod and his surviving followers, who wreck havoc on Superman's adoptive world and threaten his reporter girlfriend Lois Lane.
Superman Returns was a surprisingly boring movie as it carried over threads from the Donner films and took them down weird, wrong-headed new roads. Man of Steel is surprisingly not a boring movie despite offering a stylish Cliff's Notes condensation of major story beats from two flicks thirty years ago. Director Zack Snyder is shooting for pure Americana, playing with focus and static shots to create an iconic pictorial with a Superman theme. The thing about icons is that they represent something universal in the simplest, most direct terms. The stick figure on a bathroom stall is immediately recognizable and functional, but they aren't known for their emotional resonance. Man of Steel is designed to remind the viewer of feelings inspired by other works, then deliver on their unfulfilled promises of grand comic book throwdowns. In this way, it shares a lot of functionality with the flood of XXX super-hero parodies, bringing the goods previously denied in an effective manner, but walking back the gains in respectability made by the medium in recent years by pandering to man's most primitive desires.
Similarly, this film is filled with former stars and current high grade character actors who were seemingly cast to compensate for their abysmal treatment on the script page. Henry Cavill is an attractive cypher in the titular role. He has a great body and carries himself well, offering as few lines as possible to maximize the viewer's ability to project whatever they want Superman to be onto his performance. Amy Adams helps to transition away from the annoying shrieking straw feminist Lois Lane of Margot Kidder and sands off the rough edges of Teri Hatcher and Dana Delany to make the dogged journalist to content modern audience while ensuring she still has long plunges to be caught from by strong Kryptonian arms. Jimmy Olsen has had problems making a connection with viewers, so he was recast as a spare damsel in distress, then the change was downplayed with enough ambiguity that her presence didn't register any offense being perpetrated. Laurence Fishburne plays a newspaper editor in a few perfunctory scenes, negating any objection to the colorblind recasting of Perry White by not registering in an appreciable way by the time the credits roll. God help us, Kevin Costner is probably the closest thing we have to Glenn Ford today, and he gets it done. I enjoyed Diane Lane's southern fried matriarch over Costner's po-face, as she rang true and is unique to the super-hero cinematic cannon, even if her primary reference for drawl and spirit was probably Steel Magnolias. The beefiest parts in the thin soup go to Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon, whose pair of Kryptonian leaders are elevated above the material via comparatively extended screen time and gnawing on the scenery itself.
Zack Snyder smartly avoids his more in-your-face gimmicks, and has turned up with some gratifying, appropriate new ones for the ⅔rds of the movie that requires a director. The CGI sections are fatty as a result, and while I dislike a design aesthetic that renders Krypton as steampunk Anne McCaffrey, the visuals are strong. The real problem, and I've been harping on this for ages, is screenwriter David S. Goyer. There was a time when he was one of the only writers who took comic book material seriously, even if his idea of adaptation was to essentially swipe sequences right out of the books and stitch them together with his own sorry authorial abilities. In the late '90s, that was enough, and even later than that his ineptitude was concealed by visionary directors, excellent casts and an all-encompassing creative unit within which he was consistently the weakest link. By virtue of the fantastic nature of Superman, Goyer's paltry contributions cannot distract and derail the way they did on the Dark Knight Trilogy, but I'm fearful that he might have an opportunity to damage less sturdy properties like Wonder Woman and the Justice League based on the good fortune he's found through association. Please remember in the future that Goyer unbuoyed brought us The Crow: City of Angels, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield, Blade: Trinity, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Marvel Studios may be heavyhanded in its oversight of the creative process on their movies, but consistency enforced from above still allows for varied colors within the margins. Every time the studios run back to safe, stupid Goyer, we get super-heroes processed through one creative sensibility and increasingly insurmountable plot holes.
Gripes aside, Goyer isn't all bad, and it would be difficult not to find value in a film containing this much talent. Krypton is a much more exciting place than it's ever been before, borrowing from the pilot to Superman: The Animated Series and yes, sigh, The Matrix. Clark Kent's course to Superman is altered in a way that facilitates action sequences and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. You can't say the stunt casting was a waste when seasoned presences keep you engaged despite their individual roles proving cynically threadbare. Two exposition heavy scenes are rescued by arresting CGI visuals that make an impression. The portion that liberally remakes Superman II is packed with cool punch-kick-block. Ursa and Non by any other name are very much the same, though Faora-Ul required martial arts and nifty FX where Sarah Douglas was simply scary through performance. Whatever its failings, Man of Steel is entertaining and occasionally even beautiful, at least until the lengthy final act cut scenes, a complete disregard for human life and PTSD disorders in the audience, and the tone deaf coda seeing the audiences out on a sour note. Despite Goyer's red carpet warnings, The Avengers needn't watch their back, since those movies by necessity retain a connecting human element with the need to develop unproven characters, whereas Man of Steel had all the room it needed for tedious, unengaging, full scale disaster porn since the characters came pre-sold. It's not the greatest Superman movie ever made, but it's certainly the best Dragonball Z one, and the sum of its parts are greater than the sloppy wet thud of the third reel.