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Man of Steel - Did Superman Get Off the Ground?
Since the very first teaser trailers came out for it nearly a year ago, a considerable amount of hype had been surrounding The Man of Steel, Zach Snyder's big-screen reboot to the Superman movie franchise. Some have felt that this movie would breathe new life into the hero, who has had a rather lukewarm appearance in the theaters since 1980's Superman II, while others felt that a reboot to the series would fail to live up to the legacy that it was "replacing".
A few days ago, I was able to sit down and watch The Man of Steel, and despite some prejudice that I had going into it, given the nostalgia glasses I wear whenever watching the original Superman and Superman II, I approached it as unbiased as I could. Did this movie end up blowing me away with its reinventing of a seemingly tired story, or did I find this new "Last Son of Krypton" unable to even get off the ground?
Note: Given that this is still a relatively new movie, I will try to avoid too many spoilers. However, some spoilers are unavoidable, so read on at your own discretion.
A Familiar Story Told Anew
Excluding a few "what-if" stories to be published by DC Comics, few can argue that there is anything that's been more set in stone than the origin of Superman. A Kryptonian scientist, Jor-El, seeing that his planet was soon to be destroyed, sends his infant son, Kal-El, into space in order to avoid Krypton's fate. Crash landing on Earth, Kal-El is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas, where they raise him as their son, Clark. The Kents soon realize that their adopted son is "blessed" with extraordinary powers, including super strength, speed, and eventually flight, all thanks to the Earth's yellow sun.
Man of Steel, rather than changing everything by having an origin story completely different from what is practically ingrained in the minds of both casual and die-hard Superman fans, follows all the major guidelines, but embellishes them just enough to keep it fresh. It is this re-working of Superman's origin story before donning the crimson cape that I found to be the strongest aspect of this movie.
The majority of Clark's backstory is told through flashbacks, fragmented throughout various parts of the movie at moments relevant to the plot. The first major flashback relates to Clark's early childhood, attempting to grasp hold of his emerging abilities while also trying to keep them hidden from the outside world. We first see him as a very young child in school, panicking as he's unable to control his x-ray vision and super hearing, and is forced to hide in a janitor's closet until his mother, played by Diane Lane, is able to help him focus his senses onto her, and thus gain some control.
We then jump forward to Clark and a number of his school mates in a bus, where they are berating him for his odd behavior before the bus goes over a bridge and begins sinking into a river. Without hesitation, Clark pries open the rear door and pushes the bus up onto the bank before pulling one of the bullies, who had been swept out of the bus, back onto shore. Following this event, Jonathan, played by Kevin Costner, confronts Clark about what had happened, and in a few short questions, we see the turmoil that the young hero faces with his powers.
"What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?"
In Jonathan's answer of "Maybe", we see his own turmoil, in that as much as he knows that his son wants to help others with his abilities, he risks his own life and future by revealing his powers, and that for his own good, Jonathan feels that Clark shouldn't interfere before the "time is right", even if it means letting others die.
In the final flashback, we see just how devoted to his son that Jonathan is. When coming up to a traffic jam caused by an oncoming tornado, Clark, Jonathan, Martha, and several others make way for a highway underpass in order to try to seek shelter under it. Realizing that their family dog was still trapped in the car, Jonathan insists on going to save it rather than letting Clark go. Upon saving the dog, Jonathan's foot gets pinned in the car, and despite freeing himself, he knows full well that he couldn't make it to safety with the injury. Clark, seeing his father injured and unable to reach them in time, begins to make his way toward him, only to stop as he sees Jonathan hold his hand up.
Rather than letting his son save him, thus revealing his powers to the world, Jonathan lets the tornado sweep him up and kill him.
Though the general aspects of this is no different than so many other versions of Superman's origin story, I thought this was the strongest telling of it to date. We see Clark struggling with who he is and what he is capable of far more than we've ever seen before, and we see Jonathan and Martha doing everything they can to help their son try to cope with situations that none of them are prepared for. With so many of the other origin stories, the troubles the Kents go through in raising Clark is sort of passed over, but this details the struggle in a way that I felt was needed to set this apart from its counterparts.
Kent History is Out, so Now Comes Action!
Following the majority of his origins being revealed, Superman is almost instantly whisked into a conflict involving renegade Kryptonians, lead by General Zod, who have come to Earth to seek an object that Jor-El sent to Earth along with his son. This object, known as the codex, houses all Kryptonian genetic material, and would be integral in creating a new Kryptonian race, which Zod aims to do after terraforming Earth to become a new Krypton.
It is in this, and the ensuing struggle between Superman, Zod, and the other renegade Kryptonians, that results in one of the problems I had with the movie. There was just far too much happening in it to really develop any connection to these or the supporting characters. Though there is some backstory developed for the likes of Zod and his followers, it's still so thin that one could just label him "General Generic and crew" and the story would still flow just about the same. Granted, there was tension put on Superman by forcing him to choose between his adopted home planet and his race, but there wasn't enough time devoted to him dealing with these feelings to really make that a heavy plot point.
Now, I do believe that the actual plot with Zod and his fellow renegade Kryptonians coming to Earth to "seek" Kal-El's aid and terraform the planet is a very good story, I just don't feel that there was enough time devoted to it to flesh it out properly, and I think that was a major opportunity missed to make this a far more amazing movie than it ended up being.
The Big Three; A Taste of Mediocrity
A movie is only as good as the characters and how they're portrayed, and unfortunately, I felt that the majority of the characters in Man of Steel were very underwhelming, to the point that I'd consider them to be the weakest aspect of the movie in its entirety.
Despite looking the part very well, I felt that Henry Cavill wasn't able to sell the role of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman as well as he could have, partially because he delivered so little emotion to the character. Barring about three instances in the movie; when he's first learning to fly, when he's protecting his mother against an attack by Zod and a few of his followers, and a scene near the very end of the movie that I won't reveal for the sake of spoilers, Cavill's Superman was extremely bland and emotionless. There were other scenes where he tried to show emotion, but they only managed to fall short, like he was trying to force it rather than it being natural for the character.
This though pales in comparison to how underwhelming Lois Lane is in this version, played by Amy Adams. Whereas most other versions of the character in more recent years have proven to be strong-willed, go-getting, and willing to do whatever it took to get what she wanted. In here, despite attempts to make it seem she's ambitious, in reality she just seems to be someone that's in the way most of the time, proving to be little more than a modern day "damsel in distress" than someone that can actually take care of herself.
I believe though that it was the overall lack of chemistry, and the subsequent "forced" relationship, between the two that seemed to hurt the film the most. Though Lois is able to deduce Clark's identity and is the one that he reveals some of his past to, namely the story involving his father and the tornado, there is actually only a little bit of dialogue between the two. Despite this, they are soon shown holding each other close and sharing passionate kisses, as if they had known each other for a long time and that their love has blossomed to what it is now. We're led to believe that despite what is enough dialogue between them to constitute a casual conversation with someone on the street, we're to believe that this romance has just appeared out of thin air.
As a villain, I felt that General Zod, played by Michael Shannon, was underwhelming, but I don't blame his performance for this. Appearing briefly at the beginning of the movie to set the tone for his motives, he doesn't appear again until nearly halfway into the story. With this, there wasn't enough room to further develop the character at all, and we're left with a rather empty shell of a villain. We know that he's driven to restore Krypton and that it is his driving motivation for his actions, but there's no real interaction between Zod and Superman prior to their climactic battle in the end; no attempt for the hero to try and reason with his fellow Kryptonian, and instead just immediately start clashing with one another.
I will also say that this Zod isn't the same grandiose, almost over-the-top sort of villain that Terence Stamp's version in Superman/Superman II was like. Shannon's was, ironically enough, more grounded in reality, and I feel that if he had more time devoted to fleshing his character out, he'd have given a far more memorable performance.
Despite the major three characters, for one reason or another, not living up to the expectations they garnered, I felt that a number of the supporting cast were very enjoyable, and helped to keep the movie from sinking entirely.
I feel though that the three performances that managed to do the best as far as keeping the film afloat were by Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe, as Jonathan, Martha, and Jor-El, respectively. With Crowe, despite that he never has a chance to meet his son for real, as Superman only interacts with a holographic simulation, you still get the sense of pride from him in seeing the man that his son has become. You can see that it, despite how much it pained him, sending Clark to Earth was the only option he saw fit, and his sacrifice to let his son live was something he would have done again.
Likewise, with Costner and Lane, you can see and hear in every scene involving them the love they have for Clark. In Martha you could see how much she cared for him, knowing exactly what to say and how to say it to help him pull through a situation that had him in a panic. Despite the fact that she wasn't his real mother, her words and actions spoke otherwise. in Costner's case, you could see the admiration that he had for his son in what actions he wanted to take with his abilities, and how much it hurt him on the inside to suggest that he should let others die if it meant keeping his powers a secret. The way Costner delivered his performance was subtle, and yet so powerful at the same time in its simplicity.
Character wise, I felt the movie was a mixed bag at best.
The Special Effects and Music
For a modern movie with a large portion of its budget being spent towards special effects, I found myself feeling surprisingly underwhelmed by some of what I saw.
I was very impressed with the designs for the ships, armors, and animal life of Krypton, with the former two feeling sufficiently advanced, but all of them feeling equally alien. Even without seeing them in the context of it being an alien planet, one could look at the ships and armor, and easily make the assessment that their origin is non-terrestrial (and not just a matter of being futuristic). From a standpoint of the technology and the non-humanoid life, I found this to be one of the strongest contenders of any movie in the past few years.
However, when it came to scenes involving computer-generated people, I found the effects to be surprisingly lacking for such a modern movie. The movements of the models were very unrealistic, and the lighting, for the most part, just didn't seem to match how an actual individual would have been lit in that situation. Combining these two resulted in a good portion of the CGI involving "people" to just look very artificial, especially when you compare it to something like last year's "The Avengers" or this year's "Iron Man 3". The CG work for those two films were very well done, and while you knew when something was CG because of the stunt involved, it wasn't so immediately apparent to the eyes that it was fake. For a film made with such a major budget, this sort of lack of attention to the effects just really shouldn't happen.
The music was probably one of the biggest saving graces to the movie, due in no small part to being composed by the superb Hans Zimmer. Each scene was punctuated with melodic tones perfectly augmenting the situation, from rousing and intense themes during scenes involving heavy action, to softer and more gentle music during calmer moments. He was concerned about the difficulties of living up to composing the score for a Superman movie, in no small part due to his admiration of John Williams, who had composed the score for the original 1978 Superman, but I felt that Zimmer pulled off a very memorable score.
My Final Thoughts
I was really excited for this movie when it was first announced, and was one of those fans of Superman that was anxious to see what this reboot would do to the character and the franchise as a whole. Unfortunately, this wasn't the perfect superhero movie I was hoping for. There were issues with pacing, some underwhelming performances, and questionable special effects that kept me from loving this movie as much as I would have liked.
That being said, what did work ended up doing so really well. Despite the issues with pacing, I felt that the story as a whole was very well written and executed for the most part very well. While the main cast didn't impress me by their performances, the supporting cast managed to make that up admirably, and I can't help but feel that this was the strongest score to a movie this year, and one of the strongest in the past few years.
This wasn't a great movie, but it wasn't a terrible one either. I know that with how well it's done financially and commercially that a sequel will likely be inevitable, and I only hope that Zach Snyder, or whoever else sits in the director's seat, manages to see the flaws in this one to make the sequel the best film it can be. The world's greatest hero deserves nothing less.