Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Not Bad but Not Super

- Moviegoers have a long list of comic book superhero films to cherish and look forward to in the coming years. Just about every bankable character from the most notable comic brands has either been made into a film series or is currently in development for one. After Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy caused a critical reevaluation of the comic book superhero genre; in the recent wake of the unparalleled ambition, variety and success of Marvel Comic's shared cinematic universe and continuing with Sony and Twentieth Century Fox's current rebooting and regenerating of the Spider-Man and X-Men characters (respectively), it was only a matter of time before DC Comics jumped into the mix. Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (the writing team behind the Dark Knight Trilogy) and directed by Zack Snyder (300 (2007), Watchmen (2009)), Man of Steel (2013) is meant to be the first of a series of films inside a connected DC cinematic universe. What better character could begin a DC film franchise than one of DC's oldest and longest-lasting heroes? Look out film buffs: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a Superman reboot!

I do not think the world was longing for another Superman origin film but DC and Zack Snyder give us one anyway - and the film does a good job translating the well-known story for a 21st Century audience. Superman is a unique superhero in that his alter-ego is a normal, seemingly unexciting front for hiding his real identity. Quite unlike other superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man, in which the main character adopts an alter-ego for fighting crime, Superman's alter-ego is the straight-laced everyman Clark Kent used to conceal his real identity as an alien being. Superman - named "Kal-El" by his birth parents - was sent to Earth because his home planet Krypton was falling apart. The Earth's sun fed Kal's body in a way that made him different from all humans: blessed and cursed with incredible strength, speed, flight, heat rays, x-ray vision and an extra-sensitive sensory perception. Believing the world was not ready for the realization that life existed outside of Earth, Kal keeps his identity a secret - to an extent. The reasons why Superman is "super" do not end with his extra-ordinary abilities but extend to his character and particular desire to help others at any cost. This of course tends to expose his super abilities.

However, these indestructible and incorruptible components of Superman make it difficult for the audience to truly relate and stay engaged with the character. Other screen heroes like James Bond, Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark are especially relatable and engaging superheroes due to the fact that they are not really super heroes but flawed people who are capable of great, heroic things. Superman is super because he can basically do anything he wants all of the time with little danger to himself - for a good cause. Man of Steel, however, manages to make the character of Superman far more interesting than ever by creating a story that shows Superman, Kal-El, as a misunderstood outcast on Earth. Kal had to learn how to adjust to life on Earth the hard way as "Clark Kent" from rural Kansas. When a group of fellow Kryptonians led by General Zod threaten Earth, Kal finds that the only way to save the world is to reveal himself to it. The film does an extraordinary job making Superman's abilities as convincing as it ever could within the parameters of a recognizably real world and the character's journey effectively embody the film's important themes.

The main themes of the film consist of self-determination and rising above the obstacles placed in one's way by others. Although the extent of the relatability of the Superman character is limited due to the limitless "super" part of this "hero," the film stresses the importance of rising above how society might define you and the limitations we put on ourselves. Man of Steel reminds us how sometimes the most valuable contributions to others are done by those considered outcasts by an establishment, something that has definite application to today. I can only guess that the effective nature of the film's themes originate from the Nolan/Goyer writing/production team because the film falters the most at the hands of director Zack Snyder.

Although clearly his best film to date, usual hang-ups associated with other Zack Snyder films are apparent in Man of Steel. The claustrophobic framing, poor color choices and manic camera movements cause one's eyes to strain in a futile attempt to follow the progress unfolding on screen. A certain synthetic quality also exists within the aesthetic content that often took me out of the film. Man of Steel is no Superman IV but, while some of the special effects create some visually spectacular scenes, much of the effects do look rather obvious and hokey. This happens a lot when Superman is in motion through the air and one scene in particular featuring a sea of skulls unexpectedly takes the film into strange Roger Corman B-movie territory. I find this rather odd considering the large number of other modern films that have been able to successfully incorporate special effects into real photography that, more often than not, completely suspends the audience's disbelief.

Zack Snyder however does incorporate something new into his visual style for Man of Steel. Unfortunately, it is not exactly original but just a re-branding of JJ Abrams' Star Trek (2009) rebooted-throw-back lens flare technique. Snyder seems to struggle with originality in general, as we have seen many of the scenes in Man of Steel before in other films. Many moments summon memories of Independence Day (1997) as well as the recent films of the Marvel Studios films (such as Jor-El putting armor on Iron Man-style and Zod agents ripping apart jets Hulk-style). Other problems with Man of Steel arise from simple blockbuster genre traps: an under-developed love story between Superman and Lois Lane, bloated action set pieces, lackluster dialogue, a lack of tension due to the fact that the audience knows nothing bad will happen with Superman on watch, a seemingly never-ending final series of fight sequences, etc. I am particularly waiting for the day when filmmakers will realize that a character screaming out one word or sound has rarely worked successfully on film except when it is done for comedic effect.

Luckily, Snyder could only go so far in ruining the film because, in addition to how certain plot points and themes are handled within the film, the cast is also simply great. Henry Cavill is a terrific Superman who brings much needed subtlety to the role of a practically indestructible alien do-gooder, Amy Adams is about as flawless as one could expect as Lois Lane, Kevin Costner gave a heartfelt effort as Pa Kent, Michael Shannon is an imposing force (even if he does begin to fray as the film goes on) as the evil General Zod and Russell Crowe steals every scene with what I thought was the best, most thoughtful and graceful performance of the film as Superman's father Jor-El. Also making a huge impact in the film is Hans Zimmer's powerful yet not overbearing score, which tends to provide the source of the film's atmosphere and momentum. Along with Goyer and Nolan, Zimmer proves to be an additional indispensable Dark Knight contributor within this expanding DC film universe.

Although Man of Steel has its noticeable flaws, it is enjoyable for the most part as a good but not great or ground-breaking superhero genre film. The failure to make an impact as the first of a series of films inside a shared DC film universe, as Iron Man (2008) did for Marvel's cinematic universe, does raise a few questions. How can this DC film universe unfold with the largely by-the-numbers superhero movie Man of Steel as a foundation? How can DC make things interesting later if their creative team failed in chapter one? All I know is that Zack Snyder should not be asked to contribute anymore if DC hopes to produce something even remotely similar to the quality, scope and success of Marvel's The Avengers cinematic universe.

CBC Rating: 6/10