Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel is Merely O.K.

     Out of all of the superhero comics and films of the past fifty years or more, is there any caped hero more cherished or more loved than Superman? But he's also the one who is the most divisive among the rabid fan base of comic lore. In 2006, director Bryan Singer (who had already showcased his big budget hero aptitude with X-Men and X2) tried his hand at adapting Super's story with Superman Returns, a film that was decent and decently received by critics and fans. It was also lighthearted, big and bright. Flash to present day, 2013: Hollywood tries yet again to adapt a version of Kal-El's story, this time enlisting slo-mo-obsessed Zack Snyder (whose film career peaked with his first film--2004's Dawn of the Dead remake) to form a darker, more dangerous take on the man from Krypton. Luckily, there isn't much slow-mo. Unluckily, Man of Steel serves as a passable summer action film that fails to excite or incite tension, a movie that tries to be dark (like Nolan's Batman trilogy; he's a producer here) but instead ends up drab.
     Finding an actor that can portray America's favorite superhero is no easy feat. This time, it's British actor Henry Cavill, who does a serviceable job as Earth's salvation yet doesn't particularly bring any amount of charisma to the character. He zooms and flies around, ponders at the sky above him, wondering why he is the man who was sent to Earth to potentially help the greater good. But before he can bash and punch any bad guy (or girl) that threatens the human's safety, Man of Steel begins by showing how Kal was sent to our world to become Clark in the first place: Jor-El (Russell Crowe, who gains your attention without much effort, since most everyone else isn't incredibly exciting) has one last chance to save his race as the planet Krypton crumbles around him. He needs to send his son, Kal-El, to a planet where he can thrive. But General Zod (Micheal Shannon, whose usual insanity is utter brilliance, but here is too subdued) has other plans. It doesn't really matter what--this prologue is packed full of bombastic sci-fi action, all ending with Zod being banished into space and Kal-El slamming to Earth. I think we all know that banished space psychos don't stay banished for too long.
        Through flashbacks we get the general gist: Kal--now Clark--has been adopted by a caring Kansas couple (as the dad, Kevin Costner gets to give plenty of vague insight about potential and becoming the man Clark was meant to be...typical superhero back story). He has trouble not showing his incredible power: saving the kids on a crashed school bus, avoiding getting back at the bullies even though he could rip their throats out. As a man, Clark becomes a bit of a Nomad, catching work at a dive bar or on a Deadliest Catch-esque fishing boat deep out to sea. All is well and good for the loner, until an alien ship is discovered deep under the ice, reporter Lois Lane (portrayed by Amy Adams, whose romantic connection with Cavill is shaky at best) starts getting up in his business, and a distress call allows Zod to try and take revenge.
     It's all just kinda...been there, seen that. The second half of the film deals with Zod and Superman battling with their brains and their brawn, and it's here that many of the films problems arise to the surface: first, is it possible for a superhero franchise to come up with a story that doesn't involve an alien ship beaming some form of laser into the Earth, either to extract its resources, destroy its core or alter its gravitational pull? It's getting kind of tiresome that the biggest threat to humanity is hardly ever a well-developed character and is typically a scientific object (I thought Star Trek into Darkness nicely avoided this earlier in the summer).
     Secondly, I feel like it may be nearly impossible to make a Superman film that has actual, palpable tension. The hero is nearly indestructible, and the viewers know that basically any threat that is thrown in front of our red and blue salvation will be taken care of with ease, or only a little bit of difficulty. Plenty of action scenes in Man of Steel pit Superman against Zod and a few of his select followers, and the action completely consists of Superman Zipping through the air, bashing into people and objects, demolishing buildings and vehicles, smashing back and forth. It's all CGI in front of green screens, and although the special effects look good, they do nothing exciting to propel the story forward. There's barely any innovation, just an all out punching and throwing assault between Superman and Zod that grows tiresome after a couple of minutes.
     And speaking of General Zod again--and although Micheal Shannon was fine as the film's villain--I was definitely hoping for more. In nearly every single film and television role that he is in, Shannon displays an insanity and exciting unpredictability that inches you to the edge of your seat: as ticking time bomb Agent Van Alden in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, as the schizophrenic psycho in the hilariously freaky Bug, or the father who is obsessed with tornadoes in Take Shelter, he is always incredibly watchable. Here, he's just a typical superhero villain that is spayed by the film's script and rarely has a chance to display his ferocious intensity.
     If it feels like I've been a bit too hard on Man of Steel, it's actually pretty understandable: just in the past couple of months, we've seen summer blockbusters that just did it so much better, like Tom Cruise's Oblivion, Tony Stark's innovative Iron Man 3, and especially Star Trek into Darkness. All three contained at least some of the childlike wonder that accompanies the best big budget films of the summer movie season. Man of Steel--for the most part--lacks it. It tried to fit the story of Superman into the Batman Begins mold, and although nothing is particularly less than decent about it, it could have been so much more. News of a sequel have already been announced. And like the "S" that sits at the front of Superman's suit, maybe it's a symbol of Hope that next time they can do a little better.     (C+)

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