Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

Though I've never read a single frame of Superman in his comic-book form, I know enough about the franchise to perceive significant departures from it when I see them. Man of Steel features several, and while some work and some don't, it departs even more dramatically from what I would consider sensible narrative practice when your studio is endeavoring to start its own Marvel-like compound franchise.

The Avengers assembled (YEP I WENT THERE) its constituent hero team from a scattered group of uneven but generally successful superhero movies connected by rather thin and easily-ignored tendons of in-universality. This strategy obviously worked in terms of getting butts in the seats, but more than that, it worked for each hero-specific film: it freed up each filmmaker to pursue styles and stories independently for each feature, with really very little need to worry about stepping on the compound franchise's toes. This not only gives each feature a freshness that one doesn't get in more limited and repetitive franchises (such as Harry Potter) but also opens up the potential for pretty impressive feats of long-form storytelling. I personally don't feel that the Marvel films have achieved any such feats (though Iron Man 3 was a step in the right direction), but the potential is there, thanks to the Marvel formula.

Man of Steel follows a different playbook—initiates it, I suppose—and suffers as a film because that playbook seems to have been poorly thought out.

This really should have been at least two or three movies (paging Mr. Jackson) instead of one. Man of Steel's plot moves way too quickly and contains way too much earth-shattering stuff. As briefly as I can sum it up: Krypton's dying, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, making minimal effort) sends his newborn son to Earth, the Kryptonians banish the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon, often scary) rather than kill him I guess so that he can survive their world's end, Superman gradually controls and embraces his powers as everybody around him makes it clear that Earthlings will reject him for them, plot convenience allows Superman to discover the film's equivalent of the Fortress of Solitude (and in the process allows Lois Lane to see him in action immediately), General Zod shows up demanding the Earthlings turn over Superman, the Earthlings (which is to say the U.S. military, because action movie) comply without hesitation, Zod interrogates Superman and Lois, Lois helps Superman escape, and fighting fighting fighting destruction explosions fighting skyscraper-collapses fighting smashing fighting more fighting.

To its credit, Man of Steel never feels confused or jumbled amid all these rapid plot developments. But it does feel terribly rushed. I for one would have liked to have seen the following:

  • Man of Steel I - all the Krypton stuff, all the young Clark in Kansas stuff, and instead of going all oil-rig hermity, Clark gets his Daily Planet job specifically because he wants to maintain a low profile—but in getting to know Lois, who's obviously the crusading sort of journalist, his lingering adolescent-alien angst is dissolved and his affection for humanity is fully awakened. Most of the film is therefore about Clark concealing himself, and rather than wacky workplace comedy, its feel is akin to a political or espionage thriller. And somewhere in there is a plot thread enabling Clark to discover the Fortress. Maybe use the "Superman's genes" thing in some fashion—misguided supergenius scientist character with a genetic-engineering scheme? Gotta be a Superman villain in the comics like that. Anyway, end the film on a nice big reveal scene, Superman hovering over a grateful crowd or whatever—with his alter ego narrowly maintained.

  • Man of Steel II - the Luthor one. Opening scenes demonstrate that Superman has fully come into his own, and Earthlings know how lucky they are to have him around despite a lingering and not-insignificant undercurrent of suspicion. Luthor exploits this in some scheme that's actually brilliant and plausible for a superintelligent zillionaire industrialist, unlike anything else we have seen from film Luthors. Superman's identity as Clark is strained the most here, as Lois's investigations of Luthor's shady dealings put her in constant danger. This movie could end on the exploding oil rig from the beginning of the actual movie, which would afford all kinds of great opportunities for spectacle and super-heroics.

  • Man of Steel III - the Zod one, where the Kryptonian chickens come home to roost, where Lois finally figures it all out, and—and this is key—colossal city-scale destruction happens for the first time in this Superman franchise.

    I can't help but speculate that the suits figured audiences (or Zack Snyder) wouldn't have the patience for more than one Superman movie, so we'd better cram in as much spectacle and attendant merchandising opportunities as we can right now. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, it leaves a viewer unsatisfied, because so much professionalism and competence is on display here—especially in the fights—that we wish the story had taken its time. In my review of Superman Returns, I criticized it for being too long and slow. But Man of Steel makes the opposite mistake.

    I was pleasantly surprised, though, that the grimdark wasn't as oppressive as I feared it would be. Not much of the angst here feels especially fresh or deep, perhaps because the Nolan Batman franchise put us through a whole lot of it, but at least it all makes some in-universe sense. The Christ imagery remains overly thick, and we are reminded far too often of the risks humanity poses to Superman, but at least this is a superhero movie with a theme. I never saw Smallville (and from what I've heard, I haven't missed much), but it's safe to say it went to the alienated-boy-Clark well a lot. So does Man of Steel, but not quite to the point of engendering impatience.

    It certainly could've used a more defined sense of humor, though. There's a fun scene involving Pete, a rotund red-headed kid who torments Clark and (by the iron law of cinematic payback) grows up to become an IHOP host. In the scene, his IHOP is being torn apart by Superman battling one of the Kryptonians, and Supes pauses for a moment to give Pete a look. In a Reeve movie, he would've said, "Pete! Hi," or something.

    And speaking of breaching the Clark/Superman divide: wow does this movie waste no time in doing so. It practically inverts the whole Superman alter ego tradition. I have nothing against this as an idea, but the execution here is too implausible. In the final scenes, Superman (who apparently lacks the world-monitoring power demonstrated by Super-Seth in Returns) decides he needs a job, like say oh I don't know at a newspaper, where he can keep an eye on global events; enter the nerd glasses. Yet Lois knows who he is, and more weirdly, nobody else at the Daily Planet does. It's hard to swallow the notion that no camera anywhere across the Earth during the literally world-shattering recent events got one single glimpse of him—he was in Grand Central Station ferchrissakes—and that no one at the major newspaper where Superman's girlfriend works would have seen such a photo. And if we're meant to chalk it up to the old winking notion that the glasses make him completely incognito, well, you pretty much couldn't make a movie less tonally adaptable to such a notion. Call it a nitpick if you like, but it is how the movie ends, which makes it especially awkward.

    Nevertheless, Man of Steel succeeds at delivering impressive action, lush sci-fi imagery, and convincing super-effects. The film's fight scenes are continually kinetic and fun; the Marvel films have only intermittently had fights like these. If DC wanted to really distinguish themselves from Marvel in this arena, Man of Steel shows they may succeed. (Which might help keep them in the game, in light of all the other stupid, stupid decisions DC is making.)

    Casting-wise, everyone is at least adequate. Henry Cavill manages several moments of genuineness (and most of the Young Clarks are quite good, considering their ages), but is otherwise remote—perhaps appropriately. Kevin Costner as Pa Kent is, well, subdued and undemonstrative, just like a Kansas farmer facing baffling otherworldly forces should be. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, and Chris Meloni do what is asked of them, but their talents are constrained by a script that has no time to let them develop. Shannon's Zod, on the other hand, gets plenty of character-establishing opportunities, and they help make his scenes absorbing…especially once he starts absorbing some of that Terran yellow-sun goodness.

    And I really am impressed that this story they sped through so rapidly managed to not be confusing and alienating like that of The Dark Knight Rises. I just regret that so many rich opportunities for what could be a really outstanding film superhero character arc have been missed…assuming no third reboot, which, well, you know it could happen.

    I also regret the template of Troubled Superhero now being so very dominant. If I'd been in a sour mood going into Man of Steel, I would've groused about its done-to-death tone, despite the lighter touch used herein. So while Man of Steel is objectively a superior film to Superman Returns—though barely, I'd argue—I enjoyed the latter more.

    Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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