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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Man of Steel (2013) - Review

Let me get one thing straight before you read further, I am a big Superman fan.  I am not a Superman historian.  I know some of the lore, but I certainly do not know it all.  So please, be understanding if I do not quite get every reference or connection to Superman's history.  If you want to discuss this a higher more comprehensive level, please do in the comments.  I would love to hear what you have to say. 

Once upon a time there was a special boy that was sent to earth from far away to protect, to inspire.  A boy with super powers.  A boy that would grow into an man that would be treated like a god by the people of Earth.  A super man.  Okay, enough about me let's just get to the film review.  But, before I do I think it is important to revisit the last few years of Superman on the big screen.

As revealed in my review, I am one of the few people that left Superman Returns excited about a followup film.  As weeks, months and years passed waiting for an official sequel announcement I realized it would never come.  Surprisingly, it turned out $200 million gross does not guarantee a sequel these days.  I came to terms that after a long, torturous $250 million return to the big screen there was a chance we would not see a new Superman film for years to come.  Lucky for me and the other fans of the man in the red and blue tights, the film climate changed.  Superheroes remained hot, very hot.  Even after the lukewarm reception to Supey's last film, Warner Bros. had to bring the man in blue tights back to the big screen to capitalize on the box office trends.  Knowing that this would be the second attempt too reboot the franchise since the Christopher Reeve days, the consensus was they could not afford to get it "wrong" again this time... besides the Superman name at stake, so was the potential for the long rumored Justice League (DC's answer to Marvel's The Avengers.)  This film HAD to be done right, Warner Bros could not fail us, they would not fail us.  Then they announced whom would direct the film, one of, if not the most integral part of creating a great film.  And the director is... Zack Snyder.  Awesome!  The same director that brought us classics like The Watchmen and Sucker Punch.  Oh crap!  That Zack Snyder?  Come on Warner Bros you failed us.  We're screwed.

Fast forward about four years, the trailers for Man of Steel started to be released and much to my surprise, they looked awesome.  Maybe this had something to do with the involvement of Christopher Nolan (of the Dark Night films) serving as a Executive Producer.  Is there a chance this film had a chance to not only be good, but to be great?  Do we have a new classic on our hands?

Fast forward another six months and there I am on opening weekend, approaching the theater about to see the first Supey film in seven years.  Dressed in my blue Superman emblem shirt, I was about to return to the theater to see my favorite childhood superhero, the one, the only Superman!  I knew going in that they were not just relaunching the film franchise, this film was going to take some liberties to give Superman more of an edge, a better fit for current trends in superhero films.  That did not bother me too much, as long as it was a Superman film I would be satisfied.  Many people find Superman boring and old fashioned and if he needs a tune up to make him relevant in the new age of superhero films, I would rather compromise than have him bundled up in moth balls and put in storage.  With that in mind, I sat down in my usual fourth row center seat and prepared for the return of the Man of Steel.

As I expected the film does not open with the beloved John Williams theme - fine, I am coming in with an open mind, it is time for a new edgier Man of Steel.  To be fair,when we hear Hans Zimmer's new theme it is well done, dramatic, grown up and loud.  The film starts on Krypton, it is delivered to us in a way it never has been before, it is straight out of a sci-fi novel, with flying beasts, outlandish architecture and flying vehicles - it has a style that would feel at home in the Star Wars universe, pretty impressive.  We quickly learn that all is not fine and dandy, there are problems with Krypton.  The planet is self destructing due to an unstable core and there is little that can be done to save it.  General Zod, played by the amazing Michael Shannon, is hell bent on assuring the pure Kyrptonian race finds a way to prosper.  Jor-El (Russell Crowe) has other plans in mind.  He plans to secretly launch a rocket containing his son, Kal-El, the first natural born child of Krypton, along with the genetic codex of the Krytonian race to a planet where he can grow and prosper, one where he would be like a God, earth.  After a confrontation between the two, Zod and his crew are arrested for previous crimes and sent to the Phantom Zone as punishment for a very long time.  That punishment is cut short as the planet explodes setting them all free of their captive state. 

The entire sequence set on Krypton is quite impressive.  It no longer feels like a quick prologue to kick the story off, it actually felt like a integral part of the character's story.  The battle for the future of the Kryptonian race makes Kal-El much more significant than the outcast turned hero he is typically portrayed as.  Once on earth Kal-El is found by a couple in Kansas that raise him like their own, the Kents (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) call him Clark.  In a series of scenes delivered in nonlinear fashion we learn about Kal-El's days growing up in Smallville as well as Clark as a young man, searching for a place to fit in - going from place to place, forced to leave once he felt he was beginning to stand out (similar in feel to the old 1980's Hulk TV show.)    His father reinforces to Clark that he is different and must keep his true identity a secret because people will not know how to deal with a being from another planet.  Once he does reveal his identity to a snoop of a reporter, the (oddly) red-headed Lois Lane (Amy Adams) it does not take long before things start to really fall apart for the Man of Steel, both the character and the film.  A short time later he is located by Zod and Co. and his identity is revealed to the people of Earth.

I will not get into further details about the plot, the good moments are better to experience on your own, the bad are too monotonous to describe over and over again.  Essentially the last of the film becomes a mind-numbing display of generic blockbuster special effects that NEARLY cause the film, like Krypton, to self-destruct.  Overall it does not, but the film that seemed on the path to greatness quickly takes a wrong turn.  Watching all the potential for a great film head into mediocrity can be tougher to handle than an all out failure.  Man of Steel does so much right up front it almost felt like Christopher Nolan saw the first half and walked out of the editing room and said to Zack Snyder, "you take it from here."  What we get is a disappointment.  A wonderful setup followed by a loud, violent mess.

The fight scenes are an all out display of what crazy amount of destruction can be put on display when you have amazing CGI artists and an huge budget.  The scale and intensity is extremely overwhelming (imagine two super beings destroying entire blocks of a city by throwing each other into skycrapers... now imagine that about a dozen times over.)  There are no moments for the audience to catch their breath.  Lacking are the moments when Superman changes his focus of pummeling Zod to do something simple such as saving a group of citizens from a flying object.  The film needed at least one scene, similar to (or a straight copy of) the "Superman Returns" airplane scenes - it is one of my all time favorite superhero scenes and is not only exciting, it also connects Superman to the people of Earth.  The action here is so frequent and consistently over the top (I think someone told then to turn it up to eleven) that you cannot relate to it... it is destruction for destruction's sake.   The amazing thing with all the fighting, devastation and carnage - I am not sure if these two beings (Zod and Superman) are even hurting each other, making the barrage of crashing, crushing and visual mayhem more unnecessary.

I wanted to yell at the screen, "We get it!  Move on!"  The point was proven, Zod and Superman are incredibly powerful and nearly incapable of being injured - about 10 minutes of that action would have been sufficient to get that across.  When Superman saves the day, you are supposed to want to get up and cheer - not sit back completely indifferent.  This indifference is especially a huge issue when it supplants character development.  These action scenes are so generic that if you were not notified going into the film that it was going to be a Superman film you may mistake it for any generic superhero/sci-fi blockbuster - worse yet a Transformers film.  The audience is hopelessly held hostage to action sequences that won't quit when all you are hoping for are some smaller quieter moments.  Although my words may have lead you to believe the biggest flaw is the numbing action sequences that take up a good portion of the film, it is not.  It is the lack of heart, the lack of emotional investment that closes the film.  The film went larger and it needed to go smaller.  What worked - the family scenes, the diner scene, the conversations, Clark questioning who he was and who he is supposed to be - they abandon it all.  The film hits the gas and never applies the brakes making it difficult to connect with the characters.  It is a Superman film with little heart and lacking of the Superman magic. 

As mentioned before the focus on action prevented a then necessary character development.  For that reason we get a bad ass, yet kind of boring Zod.  Michael Shannon acts the hell out of it, too bad it is a one note character.  Amy Adams does a great Amy Adams, her Lois Lane needs work, or at least something to do.  Luckily for her she is following up the worst Lois Lane of all-time, Kate Bosworth so a mannequin would have been an improvement.  This is a strong cast, it is the material that fails them.  Two characters walk away unscathed Superman's two fathers, Russell Crowe his Kryptonian dad and Kevin Kostner his dad on Earth.  Besides Superman, they were my favorite characters in the film, I could have used thirty minutes more of the two of them.  Not only were their stories interesting, they also added weight to the inner struggle of Superman, background story delivered not just for the sake of delivering background - it added validity to the origin story.  At the core this is a story of a super being with two fathers and the decisions he must make on how he will live his life - to keep his powers hidden and fit in with other Earth people or use his powers to be good and be the god he can be.  Interesting stuff.  Once that is abandoned the film suffers.

As for Superman himself, Henry Cavill, not only does he look the part, but he plays it well.  He adds some vulnerability to Clark that was barely explored in the previous renditions.  My question is, if the sequel does bring back some of the Clark Kent charm will he be able to nail that as well?  As for the rest of the cast, most of them are nearly invisible, they are so under-developed that you forget about them the minute they are off screen.  Even worse, when they are on screen you may question who they are or why you care that they are in peril.  One oddly extended sequence puts a character in harms way, until they said her name again I honestly had no clue who she was... I still never cared.

Even with all the issues with the films that were previously discussed, there is one that trumps them all.  If this was corrected it would definitely sway my opinion of the film as a whole.  The problem is  the lack of memorable moments.  Somehow with all the time and effort put into making the film they forgot about creating memories, they forgot about making sure it was fun.  The potential is there for bigger, funnier, more powerful or more emotional scenes - emotions that if nailed would have provided us with those "moments" that you talk about and remember for years to come, moments you can't wait to experience again.  The Avengers was full of them.  Man of Steel struggled to deliver any.  It is not for a lack of opportunities to create them - the chances were there but time after time they were botched.  It as if the minute Clark put on that suit the film lost the ability to be interesting.   An example of a flubbed "moment" is one that could possibly have been one of the film's best scenes - the first reveal of the famous blue and red suit.  MINOR SPOILER ALERT - This is how it goes down in the current film - Jor-El opens a door and explains Kal-El what the suit is all ab out.  Yaaawwwn.  Excuse me.  Where's the music, the buildup the powerful revelation of the suit that transforms Kal-El/Clark Kent into The Man of Steel?   This is the defining moment - a destiny chosen.   If ever there was a moment where the old John Williams Superman theme would have been perfect, that was it.  Instead of delivering the audience a chills-all-over-your-body moment we get a rather flat scene.  How in the world do you mess that up?   I wanted a Superman moment.  Instead I was given a scene that will be talked about for...never.  This is just one example, there are plenty more.  The film has been out for a couple weekends, notice that you don't have anyone talking about the cool scene, that movie moment that you just have to talk about.  There is a reason no one is talking about it, it is missing from the film. FAIL.

Besides the flubbed suit reveal there were numerous elements that were not well thought out, (for the sake of not revealing any spoilers I will keep it vague.)   The most obvious was the aforementioned fighting - the scale of these fights are so big that they were destroying cities, where do you go from there - bigger was not the answer.  Perhaps going head to head against a more cerebral villain in a smaller scale, fight - where the violence had some impact on the character, leading to an engaged audience.   There is also an important moment in the film when the secret to defeating the villain is revealed to a central character.  This knowledge will help turn the tides of the battle and give Superman the edge.  I waited patiently for them to explain what the mysterious insight to overpowering Zod would be.  It had to be something big, a throw back to the old days of Superman lore - something when revealed would get us on our feet clapping and hollering.   Turns out, I was wrong - it was not really that big of a deal, a complete letdown.  Then there was the the (controversial) climax.  Once again, kind of stupid.   As for the ethics of Superman, feel free to discuss that in the comments section.

Where do you go from here?  Man of Steel looked destined to sail, instead it failed.  It provided a new take on a hero that needed a little bit of a makeover, but while providing something new they stripped him of all the classic elements for old fans alike to cling onto.   I understand, they went for the darker more realistic interpretation, answering the question, what would happen if a Superman really existed.  That does not justify stripping down the seventy plus year old hero of all the traits we know and love.  The re-imagining went too far to satisfied the interests of one director's vision.  Change made for the sake of change.  What it does right, it does exceptionally well.   What it does wrong, it does exceptionally poorly.  As a film, it is flawed.  It was like a Superman film without a real Superman.

6 out of 10

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