Monday, June 3, 2013
Man of Steel (2013) Film Review
This review contains minor spoilers.
Man of Steel is a well made and exciting film that could have used a bit more faith in its characters. It is a movie that takes itself very seriously but, unlike Nolan's Batman films, is never dour or desperate. It boasts the most awe inspiring action scenes I have ever seen in a comic book film-- bar none, but I found myself wishing that Lois and Clark could get a little more time to get to know one another. It, like it's spiritual predecessor, Batman Begins has an arc for its hero, and it will be damned if it lets the audience go ten minutes without restating its major themes. It contains most of the powerful and operatic elements of the Superman legend, but completely lacks the simple charms.
NOTE: Because this is a movie that comes out in a week and a half I'm going to eschew a synopsis and just focus on the themes and concepts I found interesting.
The Krypton presented here is a truly alien world. The impression I am given from the film's aesthetic and Jor-El's exposition is that Krypton's technological achievement is so enormous that there is no clear distinction between the technological and the organic, and that conservative elements at some point in the culture's history basically "locked in" at an indeterminate point in the past and ceased meaningful technological development. Like Confucians, they decided that they had to focus on internal harmony, and closed Krypton off. Mismanagement of planetary resources have brought about a planetary cataclysm that only the brilliant Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) can see coming. by a quirk of fate, both of their separate plans come to fruition in the span of an hour.
This Krypton clearly owes a lot in spirit to John Byrne's version in, oddly enough, The Man of Steel (1986). It's a dystopia with military coups, genetic engineering, and impossibly old plutocrats calling the shots while dressed like Byzantine kings. It is as far removed from the icy Olympus of the 1978 version as that one was from the daring and adventurous utopia from the Silver Age comics. Their technology seems to operate based on a liquid metal they control by thought and use for a variety of purposes. The best part of this new interpretation of Krypton is, with all the talk of gestation chambers and societal programming, it does recapture the "man against technology" aspect of the Golden Age Superman. The downside is that all this detail and political chaos really feels like a distraction from Kal-El's journey. It's like beginning a film about Christ with an account of the Roman campaign in Palestine. It's not irrelevant, but it's not why I'm here, either.
Smallville is not nearly as interesting as you would think it should be, which would be fine, if it wasn't the main setting for the film. I'm not saying it needs to be as effective as the 1978 film's Smallville, which was a direct feed from John Ford's brain, but this just looks like it was constructed six months ago on a back lot. (An aside apropos of nothing: I hope Sears and IHOP paid a lot to get in on this thing because their stuff is EVERYWHERE to the point of distraction, and I generally never complain about product placement. I audibly groaned when the film revealed that Ma Kent worked at Sears.) The neat Malick-esque stuff from the trailers comes in flashbacks that lend it a gorgeous "memory-play" quality. Also, the scene where Clark is first shown manifesting his powers is fantastic-- he starts hearing voices and when his teacher calls on him he "discovers" his x-ray vision all at once. It gets a neat call back in the third act, with the evil Kryptonians that was one of the cleverest bits of the movie.
Everyone says that action scenes are excellent, and that's because they absolutely are. Fast, thrilling, scary, and epic; these are the superhero fights I wanted to see since they started doing comic movies again in the 00's. Every fight feels like it has serious consequences and that huge numbers of lives are on the line. every punch makes us feel like our hero is in serious danger. We see a real progression through the action of our hero getting better with his powers. Growing and developing organically, and not falling for the same tricks twice.
The bad guys mean business, even if their actual plan makes no sense at all. The climax absolutely dwarfs the one in Avengers-- scarier, more dangerous, and playing out against a broader scope. The Phantom Zone crew is absolutely merciless, Faora being the real stand out, they just like killing people. The movie establishes that even though it only takes a couple months for a Kryptonian to really adjust to Earth conditions (and become a demi-god) they'd rather terra form the planet, murder every living creature on Earth, and be normal (Or maybe not? The movie is never clear on how the combination of yellow sun and lower gravity and atmosphere creates all the powers) because they're pretty dedicated to evil.
Henry Cavill is effective as Clark Kent/Superman given what he had to work with. The scene where he learns to control his flight is glorious, and the interview scene with Lois was the beginning of a great character moment. He has an easy charisma, and when he finally develops the self-assurance Christopher Reeve's Superman started with you can see his potential. Amy Adams' Lois Lane is in a bad spot, with very little to do and no time to explore her character in the least. They don't even get a first date! She's absolutely wonderful in a scene about halfway through where she's led about the Kryptonian ship by a ghost.
Michael Shannon's Zod perfectly epitomizes the movie's Yin and Yang. He gives a passionate and intense performance, trying to elevate mediocre material. We're told he's a friend of Jor-El, but the movie also tells us he's part of the machine: grown to defend Krypton without any thought for morality or convention. Single-minded of purpose and willing to do anything to achieve his goals. How were these guys friends again? Doesn't making the most important living Kryptonian a genocidal maniac who can't be reasoned with rob Kal-El's eventual decision of any tension or poignancy? Who cares? We gotta get to the next set piece here, fella.
For all the 1978 film's problems, it is a movie with epic sweep and bright optimism. From Brando's New Testament-by-way-of-Amazing Stories gravitas to Reeve and Kidder effortlessly flirting on the balcony it is a movie with bright, bold, lively characterizations that pop from the screen in their exuberance. It never fails to make me smile with it's lightness of tone, and depth of visual metaphor-- it is a great, focused, film. This film strives for realism at the expense of tone. You will believe a man can fly-- you'll just wonder why he'd want to. This review has come off a lot more negative than I intended. I was thoroughly entertained by most of this film, and there's the makings of a great Superman franchise. I think this film was so focused on not being your daddy's Superman that it forgot what was so cool about that character. There's a lot of potential here, but they haven't quite hit the sweet spot yet.