Film Review: Man of Steel

If you want to know all you need to know about MAN OF STEEL in just over three minutes, Hans Zimmer’s theme music is a perfect synecdoche – a small part that effectively stands for the whole. Beginning with a delicate piano motif, the cue soon swells larger, with rhythmic percussion and strings building to a powerful crescendo of undeniable power – which somehow never finds a soaring melody that will lift the music off the ground and send it into the stratosphere.

The problem, you see, is that producer Christopher Nolan, director Zack Snyder, and writer David S. Goyer have grounded the new Superman in reality. And when something is grounded, you can hardly expect it to soar.

ANGST AND ALIEN ANCHOR BABIES

Although most of elements are familiar (Krypton, the Daily Planet, Smallville, etc), MAN OF STEEL attempts a radical recreation that consists of discarding any reverence, any sense of comic book escapism, in favor of approaching the material as if it were something new – if by “new” you mean something that hews closely to the blockbuster superhero science fiction genre of the past few years, with a dour sense of angst that makes television’s SMALLVILLE look like a frat-boy comedy by comparison.

The approach pays appreciable dividends: it’s not as if anybody is going to miss the comic relief antics of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE’s Otis and Miss Teschmacher, and it’s always nice to see a little dramatic weight added to the familiar framework. MAN OF STEEL is not just about super-heroics; it is about the alien Kal-El finding himself and his place on his adoptive world of Earth. In a sense, it is the ultimate story of an alien anchor baby who makes good, earning his place among the natives.

There are, however, two problems with this approach. One is fundamental to the nature of the source material. The other is a failure of artistic vision – or, perhaps, never.

PROBLEM #1: No matter how much Snyder and company try (and they do), MAN OF STEEL can never truly ground the Superman story in a completely convincing sense of verisimilitude. This is not even a piece of hard science fiction; it is a fantasy in which some Kryptonian rebels are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, which conveniently saves them from the apocalypse that befalls their planet.

The Kryptonian rebels reappear with the inevitability of movie logic.
Meanwhile, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) has sent his son Kal-El (Henry Cavill to Earth), where he tries to keep a low profile. Coincidentally, just as the cat is start to come out of Schrodinger’s box, the Kryptonian rebels, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon) show up; with all the planets in all the galaxies, it took only thirty-three years to cross countless light years of space and find their way to Earth at exactly the crucial turning point in Kal-El’s life. And needless to say, although their ship was intended as a prison, it has more than enough alien weaponry to make INDEPENDENCE DAY look like a trip to Disneyland.

In case I have not made my point clear, let me spell it out: this is a movie in which certain generic elements, whether or not they are believable or scientifically plausible, must play out in a certain way, because that is the movie we paid to see. Call it movie logic, dream logic, or comic book logic, it’s gotta happen, and there’s no way it will ever seem really “real.”

PROBLEM #2: “Grounding a story in reality” is a gambit. You lose some of the fun of indulging in a safe, enjoyable fantasy. What you get in return is the gravitas that comes from playing the previously safe formula as if their are now serious stakes involved, with life-and-death situations no longer pitched at the level of kids playing shoot-em-up in the backyard but more akin to a real-life tragedy witnessed on television or – worse yet – up close in person.

I’m not sure this path is the right one for the Man of Steel. It works for Batman in the Christopher Nolan films because Batman is, after all, the Dark Knight – it literally says right in his nickname that his proper tone is dark. This approach also works for James Bond in the Daniel Craig films, because 007 is a spy doing dirty work in a dangerous world; jettisoning the escapism and camp brings the character to a fuller realization of what he should be.

This approach does not necessarily work for Superman, who was always a boy scout fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Superman is a fantasy, an ideal – not a reality or anything even approaching reality, unlike Batman and Bond, who are mortals (even if extraordinarily well-equipped and skilled mortals).

However, giving Nolan, Snyder, and Goyer their due, their approach could have worked – if they had stayed true to it. But they refuse to go all the way. Where do they stop short? Collateral freakin’ damage – that’s where.

When Superman throws down with Zod on the streets of Smallville, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the damage he is causing, and the film simply assumes that it is only property damage, as if there were no chance their might be human beings in the buildings that are being pierced and punctured by a pair of superhuman Kryptonians blasting through like cannonballs.

In the later battle in Metropolis, the sheer scale of destruction suggests the inevitability of casualties, but these do not weigh heavily on Superman’s mind, nor do the filmmakers expect us to care much, either (until it becomes a plot point, and then it’s a big deal only because it forces Superman to get his hands a little dirty). In fact, this is so far off the radar that, in spite of some lip-service threats from the villains (”for every one you save, we will kill a million”), Zod and company never actually use hostages under a death threat to blackmail Superman into surrendering.

Up until then, we are in the familiar movie-movie world, in which the only lives that matter are those of the audience identification figures – in this case, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who despite being rather resourceful and not particularly helpless, manages to fall out of an airplane, so that everyone else on board can die in a crash while she is saved from a precipitous fall by the inevitable arrival of the Man of Steel.

By the way, did I mention that the airplane is carrying a weapon that will destroy Zod’s ship, but there is one of those unexpected last-minute hurdles that are supposed to juice up the suspense. This is a particularly lazy one: the Kryptonian control stick (essentially an alien flash drive) that is supposed to slide into a slot, doesn’t, but exactly what’s wrong is never explained, and the solution to the problem is hardly more sophisticated than banging on a TV set.

In short, it’s a moment that is there because it was expected to be there, not because anybody cared enough to come up with something interesting. Which would be fine in a comic book movie with its tongue in its cheek, asking us all to sit back and have fun. It’s not so fine in a film that is asking to be taken very seriously.

Jor-El tells his wife – and by extension, us – that the radiation of Earth’s young yellow Sun will be absorbed by Kal-El, making him strong as he grows up in this alien environment; he also tells us that Earth’s atmosphere is a little more nourishing that Krypton’s.

So, fine, Kal-El sucks up solar energy for thirty-three years, and it makes him really super. Then he steps aboard Zod’s spaceship and immediately loses his powers because he is breathing Kryptonian air (which we are now told will not support Earth life).

Uh, huh? So the sun didn’t really have much to do with it after all?

Also, Zod and his minions (including Antje Trau as Faora) are instantaneously as strong as Superman. Not only that, they immediately know how to use their new superpowers as if they were born with them.

So I guess, soaking up solar radiation and testing his powers for thirty-three years did give the Man of Steel much of an edge.

This becomes particularly amusing when Zod brags that he, unlike Kal-El, has trained as a warrior all his life, as if this will give him an advantage in their fight to the finish. I’m not sure how training in weapons or even in hand-to-hand combat is going to prepare you for flying at super-speed and tossing opponents through buildings. Knowing how to block a right cross while delivering an upper-cut simply is not going to help you much when your opponent flies into with the speed of a bullet and the power of a locomotive.

Despite these mis-steps, and an overabundance of action for attention-deficit viewers, MAN OF STEEL understands the mythic proportions of the Superman story. As much as the film tries to portray Kal-El as a man trying to find his way, he is much more than that – not just a superman but a savior of mankind, someone who will not solve all our problems but will set a shining example to be followed.

The Christ parallels have always been there (the son sent down from the heavens), but MAN OF STEEL pushes them further than before, specifically making Kal-El thirty-three (the age at which Jesus started his public ministry) and even placing him in a church when he has a crucial decision to make, a stain-glass window of Jesus behind him, as he weighs the wisdom of sacrificing himself.

Cavill is an excellent Kal-El – totally different from Christopher Reeve, somber without projecting self-pity, serious and thoughtful (and unfortunately, without the clear demarcation between the Clark Kent and Superman personas). For a character who seems strong enough to carry any burden, Cavill somehow manages to convey the weight pressing on his character’s shoulders, especially when Zod’s relentless hostility, which allows no room for surrender, forces a life-or-death choice upon the formerly innocent Kryptonian.

The rest of the cast is almost equally good, especially Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. The other stand-out role, of course, is Zod, which Shannon embodies with power and authority but without the operatic grandeur that such a large-than-life malevolent force should convey.

As Lois, Adams ditches Margot Kidder’s wackiness in favor of a cool professionalism that does not preclude a certain hint of romantic interest in her “rescuer” (as she initially calls him, before learning his identity). Hopefully, any sequels will explore the romantic repartee between Lois and Clark.

MAN OF STEEL contains more than enough supersonic action to fill not only a superhero movie but also an alien invasion movie and a planetary romance as well (there is something Barsoomian about Krypton, with Jor-El riding a winged, reptilian steed). The special effects are often outstanding; although the high-speed blur is somewhat over-used, diminishing the effect of the fights, the scenes still pack more punch than the battle from SUPERMAN 2 (1981), which too often had an almost Peter Pan-look to its aerial altercations.

More impressive than the bang-boom-bash, however, is the way that the flashback structure (we initially skip Clark’s early years, glimpsing them in bits and pieces later) allows for occasional quiet, dramatic moments that help make sense of the action, providing a clear sense of the formative experiences that have brought the character to the moment when he must finally stand up and bring those past lessons to fruition.

In moments like these, the grounded reality pays off; the action seems a bit more than spectacle – more a test of character on a spectacular level.

Now if only the film had found a way to add this gravitas without allowing the gravity to pull its hero so close to Earth. Superman needs to soar – like a bird, like a plane – breaking not just the law of gravity but also the sense of mundane reality. If you sense something missing in MAN OF STEEL, it is this: a Sense of Wonder.

Update: In the first draft, I neglected to mention that the post-production 3D conversion works very well. The look is almost natural – i.e., not distracting – during the quieter scenes. And of course, it magnifies the impact of the special effects sequences to magnificent proportions.

MAN OF STEEL (Warner Brothers: June 14, 2013). Produced by Christopher Nolan. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David S. Goyer, from a story by Nolan & Goyer, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Raged PG-13. Running time: 143 minutes. Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne.

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