Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer Movie Review - Man of Steel

There’s something we all experience during childhood that we hold onto for the rest of our lives.  Be it a moment shared with a loved one, especially when they’re no longer with us or something as simple as hearing a song or a seeing a movie, where just the thoughts of them spark memories like dancing lightning bugs on a warm summer night.  It brings us back to a far simpler time; it comforts us.  It reminds us of who we are.  Often times - it helps to define us. For me, that something was when I first saw the movie Superman starring Christopher Reeve. 

I was only three at the time; you have to be pretty impressed that my memory can vividly go back that far.  Just don’t ask me what I had for breakfast today.  I remember seeing it and being awestruck seeing a man fly.  Sure, Superman flew in cartoons but this was, well, real.  Of course as I grew older the story of Superman started to evolve for me.  It wasn’t just another childhood fantasy about a superhero and comic books.  It started having a far deeper meaning for me. 

Since the story of Superman is very father/son centric, it began to foreshadow my relationship with my own father.   My dad’s father passed away when my dad was just a child.  He had very few memories of his father and I think it had a great effect on how he raised me.  When I look back at my childhood and think of my dad it was as if he was trying to beat the clock, knowing somehow our time together would be short.  I was 17 when he passed but he tried to instill in me ideals and values. And now that I’m older and wiser and more appreciative, I’m proud to say those values are awfully similar to those throughout Superman’s story.  

Superman’s story may not be as slick and sexy as some in his shared genre.  He probably doesn’t resonate with today’s young emo and angst filled demographic. He isn’t torn between standing for justice or succumbing to raw vengeance as it was shown in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.  Superman for all intents and purposes, was just not cool anymore.  Or at least that’s what popular culture constantly would remind us.  Maybe he wasn’t as edgy as the Dark Knight but that wasn’t what Superman was ever about.  Superman is about what we all should aspire to. Superman is about hope.

Zack Snyder (300, Sucker Punch, The Watchmen) is the latest in a line of directors given the task to reboot a major studio franchise with this year’s Man of Steel, with the screenplay written by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises).  Warner Brothers thought their Bryan Singer film, Superman Returns, would have set the character back on track but with lukewarm reviews and box office receipts, the studio decided to shelve the Superman franchise.  At the time, Christopher Nolan and his Batman Trilogy was making its way into our collective minds – taking the first of DC’s iconic characters and thrusting him into the modern world in a realistic way.

Nolan’s influence is seen throughout Man of Steel.  As a producer of the film you would imagine so.  Be that as it may this was entirely Zack Snyder’s project.  The film starts off with the birth of Kal-El, introducing the audience to Russell Crowe’s Jor-El and Ayelet Zurer’s Lara.  From the moment you see Krypton you realize this is unlike any version of Krypton you’ve ever seen on screen before.  You won’t find any Waterford crystals this time around.  This Krypton looks more like something out of James Cameron’s Avatar than anything Richard Donner imagined.

Krypton is shown as an ancient yet highly advanced society in Man of Steel.  Yet, despite their obvious advancements in technology, for some reason, Kryptonians are not naturally conceived but grown – an almost blatant hat-tip to The Matrix trilogy.  Not only are they grown but apparently their roles in society are already planned out for them and what I thought was even more striking, those who are chosen to protect Krypton such as Zod, happen to be born without a sense of morality.  Explain to me how exactly does that demonstrate an evolved society?

Snyder does maintain the canon when it comes to Krypton’s demise.  This time around, Krypton is in peril because its ‘advanced” citizens are over mining the planet’s core due to a worldwide energy shortage.  So that’s two strikes against the so-called advanced people of Krypton. Zack Snyder deserves a great deal of credit in this film for his use of irony and some tried and true tricks of great storytelling; but more on that later. 

Russell Crowe play’s the role of Jor-El to perfection and let’s face it, when Gladiator starts a movie, that’s not even about him, riding a fictional flying beast, you know this is going to be special.  You totally forget Brando’s performance the moment Crowe speaks.  This part of the film seemed a bit rushed for me.  To go from Lara having Kal to almost immediately rocketing him off to earth left little time to reflect. 

Not to mention it was while they were trying to send Kal to earth that Zod and his minions attack Jor-El (with Zod eventually killing him).  Somehow after Zod is captured by Kryptonian police, they find time to put Zod and his followers on trial.  Did we suddenly forget the planet is on the brink of imploding?  We’ll chalk this up to poor editing.  A transitional scene showing some time had passed would’ve made more sense.

Of course Krypton explodes and Kal is rocketed to earth, to land in a corn field owned by Jonathan and Martha Kent.  One of the better aspects of Man of Steel, even though it’s a reboot of Superman, is it doesn’t try to retell every aspect of the canon.  We fast forward to present time and Kal (Clark) is around 33 years old and still hasn’t discovered his true lineage.  He doesn’t know his purpose in life and is constantly trying to keep a low profile – something his earth father Jonathan stressed throughout his raising of Clark fearing the world wasn’t ready to discover that we’re not alone in the universe. 

There’s a fantastic father/son dynamic shown between Kevin Costner, who plays Jonathan Kent and both the young and older versions of Clark.  The scene where he finally shows young Clark the ship that brought him to earth and hearing his son ask him “can I still pretend to be your son?” was as gut-wrenching as anything I’ve seen or read regarding Superman and when Jonathan replies, “you ARE my son”, it’s hard not to get choked up for Clark. 

How Snyder deals with Jonathan’s death is causing many fans to lash out.  I for one understood the reason and context he chose completely.  The audience has to understand where Jonathan is coming from.  He’s a father who priority isn’t for his son to be a savior but to protect him, at all costs, even if it means sacrificing his own safety.  This is something only a parent understands.  It’s the same reason Jor-El placed baby Kal in the ship to begin with and remained on Krypton with Lara. In the scene where Jonathan dies, Clark learns that sometimes there are no good choices and that he will never save everyone all the time.  It was cold and stark and yes, Snyder adds more meaning to Jonathan Kent’s death than anything we’ve previously been shown.

Snyder does an amazing job showing Clark trying to cope with these emerging powers as he becomes so overwhelmed by them.  Imagine being a child and out of nowhere being able to hear every sound miles away or see the organs of the kid sitting next to you in the classroom.  I’d freak out and I’m close to 40.  It’s a sensory overload that plays a huge part later in the film when Zod reaches earth. 

One of the themes I caught on with MoS that Zack Snyder expresses so well is the idea that anyone can be a hero, not just someone like Clark.  The scene with Clark on the fishing vessel stands out when the fishing cage almost falls on Clark.  But before it hits him, one of his fellow fishermen pushes him out of the way, saving Clark but placing himself in danger.  We see this type of bravery throughout the film.  It was a nice touch by Snyder and made a great point without being heavy handed. 

One of the main criticisms of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was that it was lacking action.  With CGI technology as advanced as it is – even more so now – Warner Brothers and Snyder knew that to get this version of Superman right, they had to take the action to an entirely different level, and that they did.  The action comes to a nexus when Zod makes his way to earth and goes toe-to-toe with Superman. 

Entire buildings in Metropolis are leveled to the point that it brought to memory the 9/11 attacks but on an even more horrific level.  To say that Metropolis lost millions of citizens in this attack would be an understatement.  I did have an issue with some of the hand-to-hand combat scenes as they were so frenetic that you could barely tell who was doing what to whom.  When it was all said and done, I had a sense of relief having felt almost a part of the action. 

I enjoyed the way Lois Lane’s character was used in this film.  For the first time I can remember she wasn’t portrayed as some ditzy, doe-eyed love bitten chick swooning over some guy in tights even though she’s ironically a Pulitzer Prize winner.  It was nice not to see her as being unaware that the guy she’s pining for is Superman because he’s wearing glasses. They say love is blind but Amy Adams played Lois the way she should be played, as a smart no-nonsense woman who is really, really good at what she does.  But, she has a heart and falls in love with Clark because of what he does versus who he is.  Although his body wasn’t hard to look at.  My wife made me put that in by the way.

Perry White is played by Lawrence Fishburn and he, like the rest of the co-stars of MoS, adds gravitas to an already solid story. He is used sparingly but he owns the scenes he’s in and will definitely be more of an impact player in the sequel(s).  Very good choice by Snyder even though some were questioning, in my opinion foolishly, that Perry White was always a Caucasian and should have stayed according to canon.  Give me a break people.   

Zack Snyder captures the essence of Superman without re-treading the same story we’ve all come to know, and some of us love.  All great story tellers learn early on the trick to good story telling is to show rather than tell your audience what is happening around them.  I remember in Superman Returns how big of an issue it was that the writers didn’t want to use the line that Superman stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way.  In fact Perry White in that film mockingly says, “Does he still stand for truth, justice, and all that…stuff?”   In Man of Steel, towards the end of the film when the General Swanwick of the US Army asks where Superman’s loyalties lie, Clark answers him, “General, I grew up in Kansas.  I t doesn’t get more American than that.”  Nuff said.

The ending will forever be debated amongst fans for years to come.  And while I won’t give it away I can say without a doubt that I totally agreed with what Clark did, for he had no choice but to do so.  Some have said that it breaks his moral code.  I say that it makes his moral code have meaning so that in future films we’ll understand the choices he makes and why. 

Man of Steel was a solid return to the big screen for the granddaddy of super heroes.  No film is perfect and this is no exception.  There wasn’t enough Clark Kent at The Daily Planet but this really wasn’t a “Clark” film; this was Superman’s coming out party.  The score by Hans Zimmer was meh and even though it would have confused the audience, I was hoping to hear John Williams’ familiar theme played at the end.  Some things should be universal and Superman’s theme should be one of them.  But I understand Snyder not wanting to use it. 

For me, the story of Superman makes me think of my own father and the values he tried to instill in me in the short time I was able to have him.  I know some might think it corny or even haughty of me to compare the two, that’s fine.  I don’t have a God complex, really!  I do believe that we’ve finally been given the chance to see the Man of Steel the way he deserves to be seen – in total kick-ass form.  I can’t wait to see what Zack Snyder has in store.  Justice League anyone?