Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Man of Steel" review

Out of all the superheroes, Superman is perhaps the most famous of them all. He may have been recently eclipsed, thanks to all the Batman and Marvel movies. But there's no denying the icon and legend that is Superman. Richard Donner directed the first film in the franchise back in 1978. After the fourth Superman, which came out in 1987, there was nearly a 20 year gap between Superman films. Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" was the first attempt at a reboot, but disappointing box office returns forced DC Comics and Warner Brothers to rethink the whole thing. This leads us to "Man of Steel."

Wisely, DC and Warner brought in the filmmakers behind the The Dark Knight Trilogy to put together the framework for "Man of Steel." Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer came up with the story, and Goyer wrote the screenplay. Goyer has a great amount of experience with rebooting superheroes as he played a big part in the development of "Batman Begins." But he's at his best as a screenwriter when he collaborates with others (like with Nolan) as opposed to writing it by himself. Add mediocre director Zack Snyder into the mix and you have a well-intentioned film with some great effects that is rife with problems.

Having said that, "Man of Steel" actually opens on a high note. Jor-El, along with his wife Lara, give birth to their son Kal-El. It's the first natural birth, on the planet Krypton, in centuries. On Krypton, natural births are in violation of on basic laws of the planet, where babies are to be bred via genetic engineering with a specific codex that gives each person a specific purpose in life. With General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatening to take control of the planet and a planet that's on the verge of destroying itself, Jor-El and Lara launch a pod containing their newborn son into space, destined to land in Earth.

The sequence is a stunner even if it fills in a ton of story in a relatively short amount of time. So much story, in fact, that it has to be explained in detail to Kal-El when he meets his biological father for the first time in the Arctic. Kal-El grew up in Smallville, Kansas as Clark Kent, son of Johnathan and Martha Kent. Understandably, Clark was a confused child. As a kid on Earth, Clark has unrealized X-ray vision and super-hearing abilities which scares him, but his mother helps him to focus and harness his powers, which are occasionally put to the test in extraordinary ways. But, his father, afraid of how the world would react to learning about such a supreme being, tells his son to repress these abilities. The world's not ready for them, he says.

"Man of Steel" is a re-telling of the classic Superman story and is heavy on themes and symbols. It makes Superman a much more interesting character. Here's someone who is not quite of this world with superhuman abilities, but he's unable to use them out of fear. When he's finally able to find his real, biological father, his father helps him realize the great amount of power he has, and how he can become a symbol of hope to these humans. On the surface, this makes Superman easy to root for.

But unfortunately, all the other elements of this story is completely lackluster. One wonders if the lengthy opening prologue has something to do with this. This sequence is so long that it condenses the rest of the story. Whether it's the villain General Zod, or Clark's love interest Lois Lane, or a thin plot that leads to the destructive final act---the lack of well-rounded characters or depth in the storytelling makes Superman's adventure feel hollow and devoid of any thrills. The action sequences contain top notch visual effects, but they don't go beyond merely being eye candy. Ultimately, there is simply nothing to get excited about in "Man of Steel." Thanks to Superman's incredible powers, he never really goes through a real, physical struggle. When we meet him in present day, he treats his super powers with little-to-no wonderment and, therefore, so do we. His father, Johnathan Kent, was afraid of how the world would react to learning about Superman, but we never get to see that reaction. We never learn what kind of impact he makes on the world, aside from destruction and devastation. There's never a point where you wonder how Superman is going to succeed. Any problem he may have can be quickly resolved from him flying incredibly fast.

You can call Superman a superhero, but every foe he faces in "Man of Steel" leaves such a disastrous amount of carnage that I'm sure would make everyone on Earth wish he never arrived on their planet in the first place. Seriously, he has come with a lot of baggage. General Zod wouldn't want turn the planet upside down if it wasn't for Superman's presence on it. And thanks to him, the entire city of Metropolis is destroyed. We get an incredible display of destruction as a result, but it makes Superman seem completely irresponsible.

What make matters worse is the one-note villain, General Zod. The plan is to turn Earth into planet Krypton, a plan which gives General Zod a clear motivation throughout the movie. But General Zod does nothing else other than shout at people. There's nothing about General Zod that is remotely interesting here and this severely handicaps the story. Because "Man of Steel" is so straight-forward and serious, the lack of an interesting villain keeps the film from being as involving as it should be. 

The heart of "Man of Steel" is obviously in the right place. It wants to update Superman into the 21st century, modernize him, give him a clear motivation, and some strong thematic material to work with. It does just that. But the execution of the story is completely mishandled with overly-expository dialogue and characters (aside from Clark/Kal-El) who lack any depth. On top of that, lengthy action sequences that lack the kind of thrills and imagination that a movie like this desperately needs. Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder may have succeeded in making Superman an interesting character; unfortunately, they put him in a dull movie.

Grade: C-

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