Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Non Spoiler Review:
Probably my most anticipated film of 2013 is Warner Brothers' Man of Steel, the latest attempt to give Superman the feature film he deserves. With Zack Snyder directing there was the potential for greatness (Watchman, 300) or falling flat (Sucker Punch). I'm very pleased to say he managed to exceed my expectations in nearly ever respect.

Man of Steel stars Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Immortals), Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and Chrisopher Meloni, with Michael Shannon as main villain General Zod. Directed by Zack Snyder (The Watchmen) with screenplay by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises), and additional help from Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) who also served as a producer.

Man of Steel is a full-fledged retelling of Superman's origin, but it doesn't get mired in a linear story, providing flashbacks throughout to illuminate aspects of Clark's development and point of view. The film opens with an extended look at the final days of Krypton, as Jor-El and Lara have conceived the first child in centuries among their genetically engineered population. So baby Kal-El is already pretty special, and as Kryptonian society (and the planet) are in decay, General Zod attempts a coup, prompting Jor-El to act to save his son. Kal-El is, of course, sent to Earth, where he's found by the morally solid Kents and raised to hide his unusual abilities, something that isolates him from humanity. As an adult, he continues to seek the truth about himself, and his journey brings him face to face with Lois Lane. His search has also awakened distant remnants of Krypton who follow him to Earth in hopes of unlocking his secrets.

Superman has had a difficult history following the success of Superman II. Most recently Superman Returns made a fair attempt at modernizing the hero, but where it managed to achieve a level of maturity as far as the character interpretation, it fell into the trap of idolizing the Donner films and refusing to start fresh. While Superman I and II are classics, they remain a product of their time and the crystaline Krypton and land grabbing Lex Luthor no longer fit with our modern day. Thankfully Snyder began anew, revisiting the origin and tweaking it here and there, but remaining true to the mythology that has evolved in print over the decades.

Henry Cavill is perfectly cast. His Kal-El is troubled from years of constantly holding back against bullies and subverting who he really is. Some have criticized the role as being too brooding, but I found it worked extremely well for this incarnation of Superman. Coupled with the Kents' moral guidance, the man that emerges is not the one-dimensional boy scout we're used to, but a complex and evolving man.

Shannon's portrayal of Zod was a surprise. I really had little experience with this actor, so I was thoroughly impressed with how he pulled off what could have been a flat villainous role. Snyder succeeded in creating a nemesis that wasn't out for pure destruction, but was motivated in a way the audience can relate to on a level. Antje Traue as Faora was an equally impressive side-kick. The remainder of the villains got little focus to allow us to distinguish faces and names.

The human characters also get to be heroic and noble. Perry White, Pete Ross, and numerous others did a fair job getting some screentime against the larger storylines, and future films will no doubt give them more to do. But Amy Adams certainly brought a refreshing, more modern Lois Lane. And Crowe and Costner provide two solid father figures for Kal-El.

The film borrows heavily from more recent iterations of the comic book lore, including Birthright and John Byrne's Man of Steel (which is my favorite version). These include Clark wandering the world to learn about himself and the genetically engineered focus of Krypton.

Sets and costuming were meticulously detailed. When it comes to super-heroes onscreen, I've always fallen into the camp that favors the uniform look versus a costume. The classic Superman red shorts are abandoned to something functional, with roots in Kryptonian culture. It's a vast improvement on the original, with darker colours and a CGI rendered cape for added effect. Hans Zimmer's score is poignant and ominous, much like his Batman work. It's certainly memorable and iconic, and I'll definitely be picking that up for repeated listening.

As far as Zack Snyder's direction, this movie is oddly his most realistic looking, despite the incredible number of special effects. He took great care in making it look like the real world. Everything from Superman's flight, to spaceships hovering in the air all seem as if they're taken through the lens of a handheld camera. Dust, debris and haze are prevalent in plenty of shots, and characters look real, right down to Martha Kent's sun damaged face. It's especially evident when contrasting it with a movie like Green Lantern, which came off as extremely artificial looking. There are plenty of iconic shots, too, and the super-powered moments are the most stunning ever committed to film. It feels like we've been waiting decades to be able to watch Superman cut loose on screen, though some will critique Snyder for creating action porn.

Most of the criticisms I've read stem from those who hate Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and enjoy their super-heroes with plenty of camp and jokes. To be blunt, while Superman I and II are still enjoyable in context, they are extremely flawed in plotting. Christopher Reeves buried the franchise with his Superman IV and it's taken years for Warner Brothers to break from the past and proceed with something suitably epic for their property.

Having just watched Star Trek: Into Darkness, which left me cringing at ridiculous plot devices and poor writing, I can say there is very little that had me scratching my head with Man of Steel. It all held together (once you walk into a movie accepting the notion of Superman's powers). The motivation of the villain made sense, and the hero's journey held together. For the first time the greater context of Superman's extraterrestrial origin is a primary plot point, and how this is a first contact situation for the people of Earth. It all resolves itself pretty tightly, and you won't find any flying around the world in reverse climaxes here.

One thing I noted that did not get addressed at all is the massive loss of life that simply had to happen with the apocalyptic destruction in Metropolis. Whole city blocks were immediately flatted and towers kept toppling throughout the climax. There's a moment where Superman throws one of Zod's men through a gas station, and super speed punches send characters careening through several buildings at a time, and not once do people comment that it might be a good idea to take the battle out of the city. If this is my only criticism, then it's certainly not a big one. What I did like is the film delivered the weight of loss and big things happening with serious consequences at stake. But it is Zack Snyder, so the violence is pretty heavy-handed.

I kept my eye out for easter eggs, and while Lexcorp figured prominently in the background, I doubtlessly missed quite a few given the frenetic and shaky battle scenes. There is ample fodder to be found for sequels, though.

Man of Steel is an outstanding interpretation of the Superman mythos, modernized and evolved where necessary to keep the character contemporary. With a fantastic cast, a lot of emotion and a serious tone, it's easily one of my favorite movies since Dark Knight Rises (ironically enough). DC has a winner with this creative team, and it appears they will be continuing together with the sequel and a potential Justice League film. I'll be rewatching this one for a long time to come.

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