Friday, June 14, 2013

Man Of Steel (Movie Review)

I'm a big fan of superhero comics, and especially the DC Universe, home of the world's first and greatest superhero, Superman. So naturally I've been curious, and more recently very excited, to see what "300", "Watchmen", and "Suckerpunch" director Zack Snyder would do with the character.
Having been blown away by all of Snyder's previous live-action film efforts, I waited with hope and anticipation that his signature style would work for "Man Of Steel".

With a hefty run time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, Snyder had plenty of time to tell a rich origin story. And with a budget of $225,000,000, he also had the funding to give us a mind-blowing sci-fi, superhero action experience. But did he pull it off?

Man Of Steel spends the first hour developing Superman's back story, much of which features Jor-el, Superman's biological father, as the main character. The planet Krypton is dying and on the verge of a military coup led by General Zod, who aims to take control of the fate of all Kryptonians out of a misguided sense of fanatical loyalty to his own people.

Jor-el, played with both strength and subtle tenderness by Russell Crowe, realizes that Krypton is already doomed, and just manages to send his newborn son to earth in a small vessel in order to save him. Meanwhile, Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to imprisonment, even as the planet sounds the first rumblings of its own destruction.

But we haven't heard the last from Zod, as Kal-el, Jor-el's surviving son, grows up on earth and eventually discovers his alien heritage. Kal-el must decide where his allegiance lies: with Krypton or Earth, a decision that has tremendous cost either way. It's also a choice that will forever decide what kind of man Kal-el will be, and what will happen to the entire human race.

The early trailers suggested a movie that might be too heavy and angst-ridden for its own good. My fear was that Superman would feel all too grounded, with Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan serving as producer and co-story writer. But although Man Of Steel is rich with weighty emotions and decisions, it is also a well-paced, spectacular thrill ride with explosive effects that not only widen the eyes, but pierce the heart as they effectively serve to tell a dramatically intense story.

The visuals are very well done and the flying is the best I've seen in any superhero movie, using CG animation, green screen and wire work to get the job done. Superman goes back and forth from being grounded to hovering. Not just for take-offs and landings, but as incidental elements of shots in the middle of combat.

Snyder went above and beyond to make flying an instinctual part of who Superman is and the effect is worth the efforts of all involved. You may just "believe a man can fly" all over again.

I'd describe this movie as half superhero movie, half space science-fiction. The world of Krypton and the Kryptonian technology from it plays such a big role throughout the movie and gives the title character a more rich and interesting conceptual backdrop than he's ever had onscreen before.

This movie has a great cast that I'm not sure how to improve upon.

Henry Cavill gives us a great Superman who is both "super" and "man". Gone are the formal "yes ma'ams" and "pardon mes" of the Christopher Reeve era, but remaining are the compassion and friendliness of a character who is best defined by his love and concern for others. Cavill is every bit the noble strong man, but also displays the heart-wrenching emotions of a man who feels deeply as well. My only hope is that he is also well-equipped to give us an endearing "Clark Kent with glasses" in the future, which we only see him portray very briefly in this film near the end.

Lois Lane is wonderfully portrayed by Amy Adams, who doesn't hold on to any of the comedic awkwardness of previous versions of the character, but remains charming in her spirited toughness just the same.

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner provide numerous emotional anchors for the film, reminding us again and again of Superman's humanity. Costner and Lane were in the most emotionally tender scenes of the film and motivate and explain the vulnerable heart of the Man Of Steel. Without his parents, Superman becomes less man and more simply "super". I'm grateful that the makers of this film, if not the current comic book writers, seem to realize the importance of Jonathan and Martha Kent to the Superman  character.

Laurence Fishburne is great as Perry White. Although the story did not give him many scenes to work with, he was a strangely comforting presence in the scenes including him. I'll look forward to more of his character being featured in future films.

Michael Shannon has just the right odd and menacing look about him, in addition to his intense performance, to make a great Zod. He is easily a match for Superman and provides a terrifying foe for the Man Of Steel.

Speaking of which, the level of action and destruction in this film is easily on par with last summer's "The Avengers" and in fact goes several steps further in the destruction department. The stakes are amazingly high, and the scale is larger than most disaster movies. And this felt completely approprate for a character who is, by himself, a "one-man Avengers".

There was so much destruction and implied death in this film that I shook my head sadly a number of times thinking, "how can they survive?" The devastating power of Zod and his forces is so great that it seems hopeless at times. And of course these are just the moments when Superman arrives to rescue the helpless and pummel evil into the ground. (Though in this movie he gets pummeled quite a bit himself!)

Although there is action and spectacle portioned throughout the movie, the last hour kicks into high gear, with an almost unceasing wave of intense, visual effects action sequences. There is a tremendous amount of bang for your buck here. Every trailer you've seen is just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm not sure I know of a way to improve this film. I have a few preferences of things I would have liked to have seen as a fan. More Clark Kent with glasses would have been great. A clearly identifiable musical theme for Superman might have been nice.  But I'm not at all confident that making any changes to this movie would actually improve the viewing experience. Which means that although it is not a flawless film, it still easily gets my highest possible score. A feat not accomplished by any superhero film since the first Iron Man movie. (Including "The Avengers". So yes, I do think this is just BARELY a better film.)

There are a few interesting moments that touch on moral, spiritual or philosophical issues. As Clark is trying to decide whether or not to give himself up to save the human race, a stain-glass picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is lit in the background. Following that metaphorical line reveals several more subtleties that point to the life of Jesus.

Once again, Hollywood seems to be recognizing the philosophical and moral ramifications of Atheism, as Zod's menacing right-hand woman, Faora, tells Superman amidst combat that his moral standards make him weak and her lack of moral standards give her an evolutionary advantage, adding that "evolution always wins".

It seems to be a growing trend for Hollywood writers to acknowledge the connection between Atheistic evolution and a lack of moral standards. This isn't to say that Atheists have no absolute moral standards. They do. But there is no logical REASON for an Atheist to believe in any absolute moral standards.

I was a little disappointed in the pastor that Clark talked to advising him to "take a leap of faith" over and above "trusting". The biblical definition of faith is much closer to the idea of trust than it is to the way we typically think of the word "faith" today. But at least he didn't tell Clark to follow his heart.

These philosophical tidbits may stick out to some, but I'd bet that for most they will be overlooked because of the epic scope of the story. I had trouble bringing them back to mind myself after the movie was done, as the rest of the story has so many more moments that make bigger impressions.

Bottom line? If you like Superman, superheroes, sci-fi, action, space opera, or just have a pulse, go see this movie in the theater. Like, today.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.

Quality: 10/10

Relevance: 7.0/10

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