Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013) Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Russell Crowe, Christopher Meloni. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay: David S. Goyer. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on the Superman comic book by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder. Runtime: 143 minutes. U.S. Color. Action, Adventure, Comic Book, Fantasy.

Superman first appeared seventy-five years ago in the first issue of Action Comics from Detective Comics, now DC Comics, and has appeared in every conceivable media ever since. The character has been the star of radio, TV and movie serials, feature films, comic books, daily comic strips and video games. Everyone is introduced to Superman in one way or another, which means someone like me, who has never read a Superman comic book, still grew up with the character.

The first appearance of Superman.
My first exposure came in the form of repeats of the Adventures of Superman TV Series, starring George Reeves. The 104 episode long series originally ran from 1954 to 1958, but was still being shown during my childhood. Superman, who under his alias, Clark Kent, was a reporter on the Daily Planet in the city of Metropolis, which even then I knew was supposed to be New York City. Kent worked under Editor Perry White (John Hamilton), who’s catch phrase of disbelief was “Great Caesar’s Ghost”, and worked with reporter Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates and for three seasons Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson). His contact with the police was Inspector Henderson (Robert Shayne). Essentially, Superman was a crime fighter, oftentimes having to save Lois and Jimmy from peril. Kent, like Peter Parker is for Spider-man, was the reporter Superman let cover him.

The Adventures of Superman ran on TV from 1954 to 1958.
After that show stopped airing, I didn’t have a run-in with Superman again until 1978, when Superman starring Christopher Reeve in the title role hit the screen. There was big ad campaign at the time that the film would make you believe a man could fly, as if George Reeves had walked everywhere on TV. This was an event movie at the time, one that everyone was talking about or was going to talk about and I had friends who wanted to go see it, so I went. The film co-starred the likes of Marlon Brando (as Superman’s father, Jor-El), Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Perry White and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.

Christopher Reeve was Superman for four films.
Superman suffered from some of the same problems that the original Star Trek movie did. The emphasis was on the look and not the story. The film, obviously filmed in the U.K., was in love with itself. And while Superman flew, the film seemed cliché, suffered from stunt casting and looked over the top even back then. Every extra spoke with an English accent and the love affair between Superman and Lois seemed forced and that god-awful love poem she wrote him. So many things were wrong if you bothered to look.

Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Reeve as Superman.
This love interest seemed forced from the get go.
I hung with the series through the first sequel, cleverly called Superman II (1980), seventy-five percent of which was shot when the original had been. I don’t remember thinking this film was any better than the original and I dropped out, but the series carried on without me.

By the time of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Warner Bros. must have realized that series had run out of steam, since they co-produced it with Cannon Films, the outfit once run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Cannon was considered less reputable, though they made a lot of money for a short time. The move seemed a bit desperate on WB’s part. Warner Bros. has since taken back full control of the film.

In 2006, long after the death of Reeve, from complications of being thrown from a horse and paralyzed in 1995, Warners tried to revive the film series with Superman Returns. I didn’t. The film, directed by Bryan Singer, was billed as an homage sequel, starring Brandon Routh as Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Frank Langella as Perry White. While the $200 million production made about $400 million, Warner Bros. decided to reboot the series, rather than make another sequel.

Brandon Routh as Superman in Superman Returns.
So now, the Man of Steel is back. Rebooting, of course, means retelling the origin story and resetting all the relationships between characters. And once again, this is an event movie, like most superhero films these days.

Going in, my expectations were low and I will have to admit Man of Steel did not disappoint. A movie about Superman almost begs to be liked; to paraphrase Elvis Costello, what’s so wrong with truth, justice and the American way? But there really is none of that in this film. I don’t want to write about too much of the story, since it is still in theaters, but safe to say the origin story has been tweaked, I would say severely so.

Perhaps identities are harder to hide in the internet-age, except perhaps from the government, which is generally portrayed as ineffective, but there is a certain charm lost at the same time. And Lois Lane is not only a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, as she reminds her editor, but perhaps the best detective on film since Sam Spade.

The movie drags in places, specifically the beginning and at the end. It sort of feels like they’re trying to pad the movie out to over two hours and twenty minutes, as if that’s a sufficient length to be considered substantial. A lot of this padding has to do with fight scenes that seem to go on and on, not all of which end in the climax of the film. I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan’s presence on the project was a boon or kept the film from breaking free of the Batman-like mold.

The story, sadly, is not devoid of holes and the more you think about them the worse they seem to be. Sloppy story-telling seems to rule the day. As an example, more than once a scientist will figure something out that they could only have known if they’d seen the daily rushes from filming. And some of the suspenseful moments seem to have a paltry payoff. Again, I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but you’ll know them when you see them or wonder how characters come to conclusions they do based on what you’ve been shown.

The plot moves along in fits and spurts, going back and forth between current and flashbacks with not everything being revealed when you think it should be. As an example, we’re never told why Superman needs his suit or worse, the cape. While Zod and his army wear similar-looking outfits, Superman is the only one with a cape, so it’s not to help with flying. It’s more of a case of here it is put it on, no questions asked. And he doesn’t need to wear it to be heroic, as he shows earlier in the film before the outfit is revealed to him.

With this being a superhero film there are plenty of visual effects and for the most part they’re done very well. And, yes, the flying looks good, though when he first starts flying I was really reminded of a similar scene in Hulk (2003), which isn’t a good thing. The look of the film is styled after the Batman franchise; the colors are muted and you can literally see every pore in every character’s face.

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman in Man of Steel.
The casting is actually pretty good. While I was initially disappointed that no American actor could be found to play such an iconic American superhero, Henry Cavill is very good as Superman and not just because he visually fits the part. Amy Adams (Lois Lane) is a bit over the top in places, but I think it’s the dialogue, not her acting that I have the problem with. And the love interest is much easier to take this time around as well.

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
While in the first go round with this series, Terrence Stamp played General Zod, the role is actually improved upon by Michael Shannon, who has more to do and is more menacing. A little over the top perhaps, but this is a very prominent character. I’m sure I’m not the only one that sees the trend of reboots being very close to remakes, as they seem (the JJ Abrams Star Trek, being another example) to retell what has already been told, rather than going off into new territory. Zod is not an original character for the comic book series, as he didn’t appear until 1961, however this and Superman (1978) treat his character as one that the plot has to go through in order to advance.

Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man of Steel.
Another trend this film seems to incorporate is the indestructible villain as nothing seems to ever kill a Kryptonian unless it is being burned alive after a direct hit, and even that isn’t always true. Now these are superior beings, but surely something would kill them. And is it just me, or is it getting to be cliché to have a soldier keep shooting even when the bullets seem to have no effect?

The stunt casting from Superman (1978) is pretty much avoided this time, though Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Russell Crowe are obviously taking smaller roles as their careers continue. Again the problem with the characters is not the acting, but the telling of the story. Jonathan Kent sort of makes his son act ashamed of his powers to the point that Clark doesn’t move to save Jonathan’s life, instead acting like a dog waiting for the prompt from its trainer rather than acting on instinct.

Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent with Dylan Sprayberry as Kent age 13.
Diane Lane’s Martha Kent actually has more to do in this version than I remember ever seeing portrayed before. And Russell Crowe’s Jor-El, Australian accent and all, seems to have more to do after the demise of Krypton and this is handled much better than it had been in previous versions. Laurence Fishburne is okay as Perry White, though there isn’t really that much for the character to do.

Russell Crowe makes a better Jor-El than Marlon Brando.
Man of Steel is certainly an improvement over the original Superman film, but it is far from being great or, dare I say, super. I get the feeling that the film is trying too hard to be important and to set up what I’m sure Warner Bros. and DC hope will be the Marvel Avengers-like series of Justice League films. Sadly, this film doesn’t come close to the Avengers’ standard. But given the initial box office, I wouldn’t bet against a sequel or two to follow.

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