Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, directed by Zack Snyder (143 min.)

Going out of the country for a week will disconnect you from the whirlwind of American media, which is usually a good thing to do from time to time.  The week I spent in Europe kept me decidedly insulated from the super storm of Superman press leading up to the release of Man of Steel.  And then, once I was back on American soil I was disappointed to see the reviews for the Superman reboot hovering somewhere just north of 50%.  I expected much better for the film honestly, and while I realize it won't hurt the picture or the franchise in the long run it is still much more encouraging to see an important film (for me, in the superhero film pantheon anyway) bring in positive reviews pushing past 80%.  I had my own concerns about Man of Steel leading up to its release, namely the involvement of director Zack Snyder, but the trailers curbed those misgivings for the most part.  Then the reviews zapped that optimism, so as the lights lowered I was a conflicted, concerned, and curious mess.

Man of Steel is not great.  That is the negative.  But it is very, very good, touching moments of greatness which overcome the drawbacks in the end.  It is also a solid foundation for a new franchise reboot that I have more confidence in moving forward, and the Superman film I have been wanting since 1978 when the original (and still the only true quality) film was released.  Zack Snyder's action epic, from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, tells its own version of the familiar Superman story.  All of the classical elements are there, mostly, and the history of the character remains in tact - a worry I had after hearing various internet rumors - though some of these new tweaks and twists to the mythos might be a little unnecessary.  The only thing Man of Steel suffers from is excess, but that can always be corrected if the foundation of a super franchise is in place.  And that foundation starts with the actors.

The relatively unknown Henry Cavill stars as our hero, Kal-El, son of the great scientist of Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe).  We all know the story: Krypton is dying and Jor-El opts to send his only son to the planet Earth in order to protect him from death and send the human race a savior, where he lands in Kansas and is raised as a human by Jonathan and Martha Kent, played in this version by a solid Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.  Those are the basics, but the surrounding beats of the origin story involve the angry General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his team of revolutionaries threatening the infant Kal-El, and an entirely new and, in my opinion, unneeded version of Krypton.  There are large beasts and flying creatures and all sorts of things that reminded me a little too much of a new Star Wars film or something regrettable like John Carter.  I didn't need these evil thoughts floating around in my head at the beginning of my Superman movie.  Thankfully, once the story gets away from Krypton, things greatly improve.

We first meet Kal-El as the human Clark Kent, fully grown and adrift in the world, taking up jobs as fishermen and barkeeps and utility workers, trying desperately to figure out how he fits in on this planet.  He is also struggling in the face of emergencies and bullies to keep his powers under wraps.  His Kansas upbringing, told in flashbacks and shot with glorious sepia tones and nostalgia, shows us his relationship with Martha and mostly Jonathan, who instills in him what it takes to be a good man.  These Kansas moments show how Clark was shaped into a young man on out planet while still struggling to find out who he was and where he came from.  Young Clark must show off his powers from time to time, but Jonathan warns him the world is not ready for him yet.  He must discover when the time is right on his own.

Let's fast forward a bit in the film where certain plot developments bring characters into focus and bring the story's second half together.  Enter Lois Lane, the precocious and energetically unflappable Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The Daily Planet played to perfection by Amy Adams.  Of course there is Perry White, sparingly introduced via Laurence Fishburne.  And, more importantly, General Zod finds his way to the planet Earth to settle his score with the son of Jor-El and recapture an important biological piece to his diabolical puzzle.  This whole big pile of developments gets us to the action, and man is there some action.  There is so much destruction and throwing around and flying fights it gets repetitive for a few moments.  Thankfully Snyder and his team recognize the tiresome nature of these action scenes and interject secondary characters taking care of important plot points or moments of exposition to allow everyone in the audience to catch their breath.

Which leads me to Snyder, and my main concern going in.  He does a serviceable job and has room to grow in the franchise, and thankfully avoids his crippling tendency to lean on slow motion.  He is encouraging here, but not as much as the cast as a whole.  Henry Cavill nails his chance to catapult into superstardom as Superman.  His look is obviously spot on, but he carries deep concern in his eyes which add depth to the character and, in the end, has the brightness in his smile to play the alter ego.  The Superman suit works for me right along with Cavill, a nice mixture of the old and the new, complete with no underpants.  Beyond that the rest of the cast fit into their roles seamlessly except, oddly enough, Michael Shannon as Zod.  There is something that doesn't quite click for me with his interpretation as Zod.  Shannon is a marvelous actor and an intense presence, but hidden beneath the costumes and armor his psychotic nature as an actor feels too muted.  Not that Shannon is bad by any means - that is almost impossible for an actor of his caliber - it's just that a super villain might not be his bag if you ask me.

Sure, there are warts on Man of Steel, and maybe if we are comparing it is no debut film along the lines of Batman Begins.  But I would argue it belongs on that next level of super debuts with Iron Man.  I like the complexities of the script and the way the realistic human reaction comes into play with the introduction of what amounts to an alien.  There is real depth in Goyer's writing.  The most promising aspect of this new Superman franchise is it will be a franchise whether you like it or not, so there is room to build.  There are easy fixes with the action and the overt outer space influences, and as long as they work on these minor details everything will be fine.  Perhaps the most exciting thing about Man of Steel is not where this story has been, but the so many places it is able to go from here.