Sunday, June 16, 2013

"So How Did You Like Man of Steel?"

Some years ago, responding to the previous Superman movie, I wrote this:
Surely "Superman" is fast food for the emotions, with predictable thrills and predictable smiles, and with a guaranteed warm feeling generated by nostalgia? By the end of the movie, I was thinking otherwise: that these characters exist now independent of whoever tells their story. We all own them, and want to see moviemakers treat them with respect. (full article)
So, as a long-time Superman fan, I'm bound to be asked whether I liked this new movie.  Short answer: Yes! I've thought of little else since I saw it.   Long answer: 

The cast is fine.  Henry Cavill looks strong but always vulnerable, thanks to his hopeful smile and five or six eyebrows that furrow when his character doubts himself.   Amy Adams as "Lois Lane" embodies a character written this time to be all about her business, where earlier film incarnations focused on relationships.   Thanks to some clever writing, Superman and Lois work as a team in this one.  Other characters are mostly cameos, though "Perry White" gets his heroic moment, too.  Villainous General Zod gets elaborate back story here, and actor Michael Shannon makes him passionately self-righteous yet "haunted" by his conscience.

That conscience is Jor-El (Russell Crowe), one of four parents to baby "Kal-El" (a.k.a. Clark Kent, Superman).  The baby's birth is the first scene of the movie, and we keep picking up the thread of parents and son in flashbacks throughout the movie.   These mostly reflective scenes are welcome respite from the loud action scenes, and they tell the story of the adopted Clark who endures mockery while he gradually discovers amazing powers.  [Note:  Another blogger highlighted a moving scene in a primary school where young Clark flees the classroom and locks himself in the janitor's closet, overwhelmed by his super-senses.  "The world's too big," he tells his mother, who replies, "Then make it smaller." With teacher and class looking on, she tells Clark through the door to think of her voice as an island, and to swim towards it.  I agree with the blogger:  This was a highpoint of the movie.]  There's necessarily a repetitiveness to the scenes with the adopted father "Jonathan Kent" (Kevin Costner), adopted mother "Martha Kent" (Diane Lane) and Jor-El, as they tell their son about his destiny and responsibility, but they all felt right.   

Effects aren't so special, anymore, being pervasive.  The director Zack Snyder does his best to humanize the extended brawls in Smallville and Metropolis between Superman and a pack of Kryptonian fascist soldiers, male and female.   Imagine a barroom fight with smashing through mirrors, sliding on counters, smashing of furniture, and then extend it outward and speed it up to a blur.  But Superman saves a falling US airman, and asks, "Are you OK?" before the next Kryptonian tackles him.  At one point, Superman is floating, dazed, and the ground is above him -- so we get his disoriented perspective, before Zod tackles him.   An earlier sequence involves Superman against a giant machine that defends itself with swarms of metallic chips that coalesce into tendrils and claws -- again and again.  All of these action scenes are at once fantastic and, in the long run, tedious.

One great choice that the creators of this movie made was to keep the adult Clark Kent out of the picture.  Christopher Reeve playing "Clark Kent," got to show off his acting chops as he impersonated a "mild-mannered" bumbler with a secret.   In Man of Steel,  we see "Clark" early on, as a bearded, blue-collar drifter, working on fishing boat (and rescuing men on an exploded oil rig), busing tables at a New England truck stop, and serving as a civilian at a military outpost in Canada.  He helps people; he stands up to a bully but then walks away from the conflict.  So, for once, "Superman" is who he is, first, and the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet doesn't come into the movie except in its final moments. 

I welcome the new series with a caveat.   Each new one has to "top" the last one, and that means non-stop banging and exploding. This movie was best when it stopped.

No comments: