Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Man of Steel"

 2 / 5 

It's no small accomplishment that Henry Cavill makes an excellent Superman in Man of Steel.

For millions of people of a certain age, watching an actor other than Christopher Reeve play Superman is as disconcerting as going home and finding Angelina Jolie in the role of your mother, but Cavill makes it feel all right.  He also manages the extra super-human feat of being the very best thing about Man of Steel, a movie that fails to inject new life and relevance into this 75-year-old hero.

Superman, it's made clear countless times in Man of Steel, has been sent to Earth to help save us. Why, then, does he spend so much time destroying everything around him?

In one of the movie's countless and interminable battle sequences, Superman not only fails to save his fellow man, the best he can do is offer up a helpful verbal warning to get inside and lock the doors.

This is not a Superman who steps in to save innocent bystanders and pull kittens from trees, he's a new Superman created for a hyperactive generation of youth that has enormous ambivalence about the world in which they live. In a way, Man of Steel may be the Superman they deserve, which just makes the concept even more depressing.

Directed in barely coherent fashion by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is so impatient to distance itself from its cinematic predecessors that it even dispenses with opening credits (instead lavishing much attention on the logos of the production companies that funded it) and substitutes generic orchestral ramblings for the kind of musical score Superman deserves.

As the film opens, Russell Crowe is Jor-El, the scientist on Krypton who warns that the planet is self-destructing, and in the first of many ham-fisted efforts to incorporate political commentaries, explains that Krypton's rapacious energy needs have led to the planet's demise.  In walks General Zod (Michael Shannon, who screams impressively throughout), establishing Man of Steel's central villain, while Jor-El and his non-descript wife send their child to Earth, and Krypton vanishes.

Though it lavishes much attention on Krypton, once Man of Steel gets to Earth, it makes little narrative sense: Clark Kent has already grown and acquired a massive, hairy set of pectorals, but can't forget his tortured childhood, so the movie bounces back and forth, back and forth, never settling on anything for long.  There's some intriguing stuff here, like how a young Clark is scared of his own powers, especially his creepy X-ray vision, but the shaky, dizzying camera never focuses long enough to really let any of it sink in.

Instead, we move right on to the introduction of a very modern Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who quickly comes to know Clark's secrets almost before he does, and stumbles onto a story so huge ("Alien Man Walks Among Us") that even her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) thinks it's far-fetched.  Narratively, it's all a jumble, and though it comes together after a fashion, Man of Steel never makes a compelling case for why it couldn't just tell the story in a simple, linear form.

Filled with whip-pans and extreme closeups that often make the action downright impossible to follow, Man of Steel temporarily manages to capture some of the essence of Superman in the scenes where Clark learns of his past, meets the spirit of his long-dead father, and understands that his task is to help lead Earth to greatness.

But the movie never lets him do that.  Superman gets no chance to just be Superman before General Zod comes crashing back onto the scene, and for more than half of its very long running time, Man of Steel devolves into one thundering, destruction-filled fight after another between Superman, Zod and his minions.  Since none of them can be killed (or, at least, easily), exhaustion sets in rather quickly.

Along with that exhaustion comes another, unexpected feeling: uncomfortable worry over the hundreds of thousands of people who must be getting killed by the destruction Superman causes both in his hometown of Smallville and in Metropolis.

If 9/11 cast a bit of a shadow on the climactic scene in The Avengers, it hangs over Man of Steel in an ugly, disturbing way.  Individual shots seem designed rather pointedly to recall some of the more harrowing images of human suffering from that day. Time after time, we see buildings of all shapes and sizes explode, implode, collapse and crumble, and get shots of people fleeing the carnage while characters emerge from the ruin covered in concrete dust.  This is fun?

Once Metropolis is reduced to rubble, Superman doesn't get a moment of introspection, never sees the destruction he has wrought as any sort of moral dilemma.  I kept waiting for a moment in which Kal-El would look at the devastation and feel the sort of anguish that made him defy his father and turn back the clock in 1978's Superman: The Movie.

It may not be fair to raise the specter of that far superior film, but as with any piece of literature (and comics are most certainly literature) that is adapted over and over, it's impossible not to compare retellings, and this one falls short on many levels, and fails to understand some of the basic ideas of who Superman is.

After all, he fights for truth and justice -- forget the American Way, if you're so inclined.  By any account, we live in a world where both of those attributes seem to be in short supply, and Superman, more than any other hero, can remind us why they matter.

Man of Steel, though, insists on making Superman conflicted about his mission, more focused on his own uncertainties than on the pure joy of being a man who can fly, much less inspire people.

Despite the frenetic, breathless way in which Man of Steel forces a darker, glummer Superman, watch Cavill's face as his Clark Kent/Kal-El learns to fly for the first time.  He smiles the kind of smile that Superman should have, he exudes the supreme confidence that Superman embodies.  He's the reason, despite being utterly disappointed by Man of Steel, I'm looking forward to a sequel: If Henry Cavill gets the chance to show us the super man Clark Kent has become, the next movie could be something really special.

Viewed June 14, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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