Thursday, June 13, 2013

Zaki's Review: Man of Steel

Director Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is an ambitious attempt by home studio Warner Bros. to imbue their Superman property with the same sense of primacy with audiences that seems to come so easily to DC Comics stablemate Batman (who's taking a breather between film series right now). And while it doesn't quite remove the Richard Donner-directed, Christopher Reeve-starring Superman: The Movie -- the granddaddy of the wave of comic book pics we're currently in the midst of -- from its place of preeminence in my heart, it does sit quite comfortably alongside it as a worthy retelling of this most indelible piece of Americana.

I've often said that one of the keys to the evergreen appeal of the Superman myth is in its elasticity. The timeless tale of an infant rocketed from a dying planet to assume a mantle of heroism on Earth has a resiliency that transcends its Depression-era origins, allowing it to find new expression for every generation since. In that sense, Man of Steel (upon which Warners is hanging all its be-Leaguered hopes for a Marvel-style movie universe) isn't so much a reinvention as it is a reclamation. The Watchmen director's franchise restart accords the saga the same degree of respect and seriousness it was given in Donner's beloved film, but also grounds the proceedings with relevance and immediacy for 2013 auds.

What a difference this makes from just over seven years ago, when I watched Bryan Singer's Superman Returns in kind of a willful daze, trying desperately to convince myself that this flick I'd waited so very long for wasn't, in fact, the dolorous misfire it was shaping up to be. Singer's epic-length non-epic, a belated add-on to the Reeve Superman cycle of the '70s and '80s, didn't lack for passion, but it was so steeped in devotion that it came off as more retread than sequel. In the end it just confirmed that Singer couldn't be Donner, and star Brandon Routh could never be Reeve, irrespective of how good a Superman he might have ended up being (for the record, I thought he was fine).

In light of its swing-and-a-miss reception with audiences (though critics were slightly more favorable at the time), I couldn't help but view the Singer attempt as a tremendous missed opportunity. But as it turns out, just as the infamous flame-out of 1997's Joel Schumacher-helmed Batman & Robin killed that franchise but also cleared the brush for 2005's Batman Begins, Superman Returns' failure to catch on made it possible for Man of Steel to happen by finally making crystal clear (pun unintentional) that the Reeve era, which had kept the character's big screen prospects in a kind of forced stasis, was well and truly over, and no amount of slavish homage would make it otherwise.

While Man of Steel (godfathered to the screen by exec producer Christopher Nolan, with a script by David Goyer) goes to great lengths to imbue its aesthetic with "fresh" and "new," the thing that's perhaps most notable is just how familiar it all is. All the expected beats play out with very little variation. Noble scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe, channelling Maximus from Gladiator) sends son Kal-El to Earth, Krypton explodes, Kal-El is found and raised by kindly farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane), who name him Clark and imbue their foster son with a sense of decency and responsibility even as they cope with his powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

As almost a century of pop culture history has practically hardwired into our collective DNA, we know that Clark (played as an adult by Brit actor Henry Cavill), has a date with some primary-colored pajamas in his not-too-distant future, but thankfully this film takes far less time to get us there than TV's Smallville did with its leisurely ten season stroll through Superman's pre-Superman years. Like I said, it's a familiar story. And that's a good thing. Unlike, say, last year's The Amazing Spider-Man (which I enjoyed but still felt like a twice-told tale so soon after its original cinematic incarnation), Man of Steel has good cause to want to emphasize some of those old notes.

After all, it's now thirty-five years since Reeve first made us believe a man can fly. And while that film has lost none of its appeal or significance, it also holds very little resonance for folks who don't have decades of stored-up nostalgia to make them weak in the knees from hearing just a few chords of John Williams' iconic "Superman March." Thus, the approach Snyder & Co. (wisely) take with Man of Steel is to treat it as the first telling of this hoariest of superhero stories. No wink-nudge nods to the brand's long history (nope, not even the Williams theme). Just a simple, straight-ahead try at making Superman as relevant as Batman always seems to be (do I sound bitter?).

In fact, the Batman Begins influence is just all over this thing (doubly ironic, given that Superman: The Movie was itself an inspiration for Nolan's inaugural Bat-pic). With the cast practically overflowing with practiced professionals to bolster the unknown star, supporting turns are strong across the board (Crowe and Costner in particular get moments of rare poignancy for a film of this kind). And filling the requisite baddie role is Michael Shannon as escaped Kryptonian convict General Zod, who sneers and snarls with the best of them, and actually goes toe-to-toe with Kal-El for the kind of punchy-hurty that was frustratingly absent for Superman's last movie outing.

But at the center of it all, in what's sure to be his career-making role, is Henry Cavill, who takes ownership of the (muted) red-and-blue-and-yellow suit in a way I can't say about any of the other actors to wear it since Reeve (which isn't to diminish their work in any way, but rather acknowledge the sizable shadow they were toiling under). With a breathtaking physique that makes him look like a comic book drawing come to life, Cavill easily embodies the physicality that this character requires, but also has an openness in his face and a kindness in his eyes that are just as integral. While the special effects did the work of making me believe he could fly, Cavill made me believe that he was Superman.

Another key element of the longstanding Superman supporting cast is Lois Lane, played here by Amy Adams (and who first came into contact with the mythos twelve years ago as a Kryptonite-induced baddie in the first season of Smallville). Adams is ever the pro, and they've shuffled the deck with the Clark Kent-Lois Lane relationship in a way that may drive some purists bananas, but speaking as one of those selfsame purists myself, I dug it a lot. Also sure to stir up some discontent is a climactic development between Superman and Zod that I won't spoil here. While it was okay with me given how it's presented, I can completely see it becoming a "thing" (if it hasn't already).

That said, I do think much of the third act, centering on Superman's efforts to disrupt Zod's diabolical plan to terraform the Earth into a simalacrum of his dead world, gets a bit lost in all the pyrotechnics and all-out destruction. In fact, the poor city of Metropolis (not yet Superman's hometown, but give it time...) suffers through a beat-down so prolonged and pronounced that it'd make Michael Bay blush. Rather than invest us in the fates of those in jeopardy, drowning us in theater-shaking cacophony has the opposite effect of merely detaching us from the carnage. A little more restraint here might have helped to further drive home the emotional stakes.

Still, when I think back on my experience with the film, I find myself focusing not on the noisome finale but the quiet early goings, girded by its protagonist's quest for his identity and packed with moments of true emotional weight (including an absolutely wrenching moment between Cavill and Costner). Man of Steel culls from the totality of the myth to build its Superman: creators Siegel & Shuster's initial "working class hero" conception, John Byrne's 1986 reboot The Man of Steel, Mark Waid's 2003 story Birthright, Grant Morrison's revised "New 52" origin from 2011, the '90s animated series, Smallville, and others I'm probably forgetting (no shout-outs to 1990s rom-com Lois & Clark though...maybe next time).

Ironically enough, the filmmakers' conscious decision to make their opus so grounded is exactly what enables it to soar. And while it changes some of the window dressing and aesthetics (buh-bye, red trunks, you had a good run), Snyder takes care to preserve the core of nobility, humility and goodness that have made Superman so beloved all over the world for three quarters of a century (and counting), making for a film that's exhilarating, emotional, and even beautiful. Man of Steel is a true love letter to the World's Greatest Hero, and a bold start to his next great chapter. A-

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