Monday, June 17, 2013


Finally, Superman is back in theaters!  But it's not what you're expecting.  And if you're expecting anything in particular, you may very well be setting yourself up for disappointment.

There is A LOT to discuss about this latest version of the timeless Superman tale.  It's not the one we've come to know after all these years through the various films and cartoons, and I doubt very much (although I don’t know for sure) that any version like this one ever existed in the comic book world.  So, without giving any plot spoilers away, I'll start at the beginning.

Welcome to Krypton - a remote world of caucasian humanoids and gigantic CG bugs and space cows.  This Krypton is an alien world not much unlike the worlds of the Star Wars prequels or James Cameron's Pandora from 2009's Avatar.  We seem to have come into this world at a tumultuous time, when the planet’s foremost scientist, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), argues with the Kryptonian high counsel that drilling for oil and fracking and stuff is bad for the planet. (Tree-hugging Kryptonian hippie!)

Oops!  Too late!  The world is about to explode because of it!  Leader of the Kryptonian military, General Zod (Michael Shannon), agrees with Jor-El but is much angrier at the high counsel about it and stages a coup, even though the world is about to end.  (Smart.)  Well, he gets busted for it, but not before Jor-El and his wife secretly conceive a male child - the first natural birth in generations on Krypton (because now they just do Matrix-style people-farms as a form of population control and efficiency) - and ship their only begotten son off to some distant planet with a much younger sun in a bulbous, metallic, worm-holing space ship (the likes of which could not possibly be used to evacuate millions of adult beings to any other places throughout the universe in case of such a catastrophic disaster; this one's just for newborns) for which Zod gets mad and kills Jor-El.  And before he is sentenced to an "eternity in a black hole" (a contradiction in itself for anyone who understands the very basics of what a black hole is), a.k.a. "The Phantom Zone", Zod vows to hunt the child, Kal-El, down and to reclaim/harvest the genetic code from his dead body in the name of rebuilding Krypton anew.

So, yeah, we spend a lot of time dealing with space politics, eco-conservation, and alien genetics (a'la "Prometheus") before we even get to Kansas.  But then, in the blink of an eye, we see Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a man, traveling the world, saving lives anonymously, and then moving on to new identities while he flashes back in time to his childhood and how hard it was to, a) discover he is not human, b) hide his amazing powers from his peers and c) come to terms with his dual identities... as alien/human, immigrant/American, immortal/mortal and natural family/adopted orphan.  All good character development stuff, but... this film lays it all on a bit thick... again and again.  That was a bit tough to keep diving into.

On that note, the melodrama in this film is played too often and not well enough.  The dialog, though mostly insightful and well-written, is performed, in many cases, like in a poorly-rehearsed grade school play.  These scenes are shot and edited with the focus only on capturing the actors saying the lines, regardless of mood, realism or motivation.  Reading the script would reveal much more dynamic scenes in the mind than the film itself does in these moments.  That's a major problem with trying to cram the emotional drama of "Growing Up Kent" - a major storyline of its own - into an already overly-long movie.

Now, here's an interesting twist for which I applaud the filmmakers: There ain't no Kryptonite in this movie.  There's no Jimmy Olsen, no icy Fortress of Solitude, no "mild-mannered reporter" Kent, and the word "Superman" is uttered exactly three times in the film's entire 2-hour-23-minute-runtime.  It's interesting to note that the film is titled "Man Of Steel", which now obviously seems to be more  about 33-year old (Jesus much?) Clark Kent's sense of himself than just his brute strength.  The movie is not about the usual stuff that all of our previous film iterations of Superman have been about.  It's an entirely new take on the character and his lore.  So forget the iconic imagery of the Man/God holding an American flag waving in the breeze and saving the hapless Lois Lane (very well portrayed here by Amy Adams) from certain doom at the last second (which he will do, but... eh, it's not the same).  This is a film that strives to be a character piece at its core, but (like a certain character) that effort is ripped apart in a tornado of special effects.  But certain changes to the lore are respectable ones, like how Lois and "Clark" first meet and the dynamic between their characters is different than ever before but somehow quite believable and appropriate.

This is a much darker and noisier Superman movie than the good ol' ones.  Remember 9/11?  Okay, well, Man of Steel illustrates disaster on a scale that increases 9/11 by a factor of 20 or so.  Superman battles villains by rocketing them (or they, him) straight through the skyscrapers of Metropolis and the shops of main street Smallville literally dozens of times, while the villain's evil space ships pulverize dozens more buildings.  Entire buildings topple like dominoes again and again, train engines and moving vans are used as projectiles by villains to bring down aircraft and just to smash people up.  And yet, not a single fatality is admitted to in this film.  Not one death occurs by innocent bystanders.  In fact, the only people we ever actually see in peril are three Daily Planet staffers who get caught in some rubble and expect to be killed imminently until, at the last second, Supes silences the cacophony and destroys the colossal "World Engine" destruction machine.  Oh, good!  Everyone is saved!  (But, of course, because we watched live on television in 2001 as two large buildings toppled to their foundation and 3,000 people were killed, we ALL know that upward of about a million deaths would result from chaos on this level.  It's ridiculous.)

Now, that's not to say that the fight scenes between Superman and the bad guys isn't interesting to watch.  Yes, there's a lot of overuse of CGI to tell this story and it's pretty overwhelming and over stimulating for pretty much all of the last half of the film's second act, it does succeed from time to time to speculate what a fight between such super-humanoid aliens might actually look like; how fast they would move, the destruction such actions would cause to their surroundings and how powerful they would be.  So, that was kind of interesting to watch.

There was a noticeably absent sense of humor to this film.  When attempts were made, most of them failed, but there are a couple chuckles that landed.  Other than that, a story of a man from space disguised as one of us who battles aliens and bald evil geniuses using laser eyes and the power of flight deserves a few more tongue-in-cheek moments for levity and acknowledgment at the absurdity of it all.  A joke made after Clark and Lois first kiss feels so shoehorned-in and bland that you'll wish it existed only on the cutting room floor.

And now for a note to the director, Mr. Zack Snyder: The main problem with the overuse of CGI and "cool shots" to tell the tale of a wanton attack on human civilization is that, as a rule in storytelling, when everything is amazing... nothing is amazing.  The same goes for melodrama; when everything is deep and emotional and heavy, then it loses it's depth, emotion and weight.  Gotta mix it up, there buddy.

But in the end, I didn't hate this movie at all.  It was very entertaining and the writers weren't so lazy as to just reproduce the same old story again.  They strive here to re-imagine a time-honored American myth (based quite overtly on the story of Christ... like, a LOT!) and infuse it with a new spirit of awareness of ourselves and our fears of that we do not understand.  There's plenty of conversation to be had about what ideology this film is preaching, as when Superman brazenly destroys one of the U.S. Military's surveillance drones to secure his own privacy, or when Jor-El protests drilling in the Kryptonian Yukon.

The musical score by legendary film composer Hans Zimmer is elegant and nearly invisible throughout the film as it seamlessly blends into the action and the drama.  The understated theme is a truly beautiuful melody, but - without contrasting it agains John Williams' iconic score for "Superman: The Movie" - it leaves the listener waiting for that bigger, more epic chorus.  But, alas, and much like the film itself, it never climbs to those heights.

Finally, fans will appreciate seeing a young Lana Lang in one scene, catching brief glimpses of evidence that there is a Lex Luthor somewhere in this world, and that there is definitely room to continue the story of THIS Superman in inevitable sequels... and possible Justice League projects.

The biggest disappointment about this film, however: despite the gigantic Gillette razors commercial tie-in with the movie, we still don't get to see how Superman shaves off that beard.

I give it a C-.

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