Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

It's fitting that, like its protagonist, Man of Steel is from two worlds.  In one way, it succeeds with flying colors (HAH! Get it?) as a superhero movie.  In another way, it fails to be decent as a film.

Coming from Christopher Nolan's Batman co-writer, David S. Goyer, and 300 director Zack Snyder, Man of Steel earns a place in the new school of superhero movies by making the hero's backstory more cohesive and elegant while packing the film with tons of stylish CGI fighting.  You can see Nolan's influence both in the effort to bring something this fantastical down-to-earth (by abandoning or reworking all of the goofiest aspects of Superman) and in all the thoughtful staring into space the characters do.


As an action fan, my jaw was literally sitting slack for about ten minutes straight during Superman's first big fight sequence.  Seriously, I think a few flies wandered into my mouth.  This is the best Superman movie ever, if only because Snyder so perfectly nailed Superman's fighting on film.  Previous movies were hamstrung by the special effects of their time and perhaps the imaginations of their filmmakers.  Before, Superman would lift something heavy very slowly and we were all supposed to be impressed.  Man of Steel thinks nothing of punching characters through entire city blocks of buildings.  At one point Superman brushes a truck off his shoulder because it's getting in the way of him punching someone through a wall.  It's the real deal, and if you're as much a fan of punching as I am, you'll love it.

Just another ho-hum Tuesday in Metropolis

One of the keys to making the new generation of superhero movies work for the general public has been to modify their worlds and lore so they seem as close to believable as possible.  Man of Steel does the best job of this I could have imagined for this character (with one small exception).  It takes pains to make Krypton a real place, and brings a villain who arises naturally from the events of Kal-El's origin, rather than feeling random or contrived - or cartoonishly villainous like film depictions of Lex Luther have been.  Kryptonite isn't a glowing green rock, and Lois Lane, the Pulitzer-winning reporter, isn't going to be fooled by a pair of glasses.  In classic Nolan fashion, the villain and the core conflict of the film are linked to the core themes of the film and the main character's own challenges, instead of seeming randomly plugged-in just to fill the pre-requisite villain slot.

Holy shit look at this guy.  They don't even need to pad the fucking suit.

Man of Steel also stands out in the casting department.  Henry Cavill is Superman, and I hope he gets to keep playing that character for at least another decade.  He plays a calm, controlled version of the character who just emanates kindness and trustworthiness, but also shows flashes of emotional release and humanity - whether it be joy at discovering he can fly, or righteous fury at threats to his loved ones.  Amy Adams fits into the role of Lois Lane so naturally that I forgot she was an actress, and Michael Shannon's Zod lends the character so many qualities that enrich him, even as the script tries to shove him into the land of hamminess.  All of Superman's many parents act the shit out of their scenes, and give performances that elevate the entire film.  Laurence Fishburne is mostly wasted as Perry White, but when he gets one chance to act, he grabs it by the throat.

Unfortunately, the pitch-perfect reimagining of Superman and the jaw-dropping battle sequences can't save Man of Steel from being more than just stylish spectacle.  The plot is fucking perforated - there are innumerable holes and so many belief-stretching coincidences that they stick out even in a movie about a flying alien who punches spaceships.  The character development is shoddy, and somehow fails to really flesh Superman out as a character even though it spends the entire first half of the movie just following him around while he broods.  The motivations and decisions made by almost all characters throughout the movie are inconsistent.  The villains plan is pretty terrible, which is surprising considering that the movie makes a huge point out of how he was bred and raised to be great at military shit.  Did they just not teach strategy and tactics in Kryptonian West Point?  He's a fucking general, for god's sake!


You can see Goyer and Nolan make gestures towards thematic resonance, but they are nowhere near as successful in Man of Steel as they were in The Dark Knight.  The plot wasn't set up well enough to give Superman the kind of agency he'd need to make his choices matter, and the constant plot problems undermine the message every step of the way.  It definitely feels like whatever was thought-provoking about the original script had to be twisted or cut out to make way for more CGI punching and product-placements (OK, we get it, you want us to notice SEARS and IHOP.  Thanks, Warner Brothers Pictures).  On the other hand, given all the brick-over-the-head obvious christ references, maybe Goyer and Snyder are just hacks.  Further evidence for that case: the amount of property damage and human death Superman directly causes or allows to happen.  It creates a dissonance that disrupts the whole movie.  For the final half hour, all I could think was "Superman would get this fight away from civilians" and "Bruce Wayne is going to be SO MAD at you, Clark!" *

And to top it all off, like all blockbusters, it gives the ladies short shrift.  Lois is actually done pretty well early on, but as the movie progresses she devolves into combination damsel/lovestruck puppy instead of the brave, plucky reporter of the first half.  Martha Kent and Mrs. El are both barely in their scenes, making way for Kal/Clark's two fathers to take center stage, and pretty much all the credit.  Even the villain's second-in command, a badass lady soldier, finds a nemesis in a run-of-the-mill human.  Zod's nemesis is Superman, her nemesis is some random soldier with no superpowers, unless you count a previously starring in Law and Order: SVU as a superpower.  That gives you an idea of what the people who made this movie think of women: a woman with godlike superpowers is roughly equivalent to a normal man with a knife.

Roughly equivalent.

Despite the writer's daddy issues and the plotting failures, I think Man of Steel is worth seeing in the theater.  It's definitely the best summer tent pole blockbuster I've seen since The Avengers, and creates an excellent foundation for the new DC film universe (I'm assuming Nolan's Batman won't be the one we see in the Justice League movies).  It's a treat for the senses and the fight scenes knock it out of the park.  Just don't think too much while you watch it, and definitely don't go in expecting The Dark Knight with laser eyes.

*I think the obvious step for the sequel is for the world to be mad at Superman for all of the damage he and his brethren caused.  It makes a great motivation for a complex version of Lex Luthor: he's not evil, he just wants to get rid of Superman before he and his alien friends destroy the planet.  Make him a humanist who would never do anything to hurt other people and is working toward building a legitimate utopia, but becomes sidetracked trying to get Superman to go away and get Earth out of the line of fire.