Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Lesser “Man of Steel”

            I’ve always looked forward to Superman movies, ever since I was a boy. Even though I personally favor Batman, films featuring the noble Man of Steel never failed to fire my imagination with hope for humanity. As Superman’s father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) told his son in “Superman(1978)”: “They (humans) can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.” Batman exemplifies dark poetic realism, with Gotham City a stark reflection of inner-city decay and the man himself a mere mortal with the funding to become a high-tech vigilante. Alternately, the refugee last son of Krypton always represented something greater, a higher ideal for us all with some comic book innocence and optimism for mankind’s future. That is, until now.
            I doubt I need to re-tell the story of Superman/Kal-El. i.e his evacuation from the planet Krypton and his inauspicious upbringing on a Kansas farm. Suffice to say, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) in “Man of Steel” spends the first half of the film searching for his place among us Earthlings, sometimes hiding his powers with superhuman inner strength. In flashbacks, Kal-El recalls the homespun wisdom of his Earthly father John Kent (Kevin Costner), assuring him that someday he’ll know the right time and place to reveal himself to the world. The trouble begins when other survivors of Krypton, led by the malevolently dedicated General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrive on Earth. Zod and his crew seek Krypton’s “Codex” which holds the genetic keys to re-establishing the Kryptonian race, but Jor-El merged this “Codex” with the infant Kal-El at the cellular level before sending him to Earth. Naturally, fistfights and all-out battles ensue, causing apocalyptic destruction from Kansas to Metropolis.
            This is where “Man of Steel” pays off for its action/adventure genre: the visual effects are spectacular! Richard Donner and the Salkinds - the team who created the 1970’s/80’s “Superman” films - could hardly imagine of the flying effects and epic scale of destruction brought to life by director Zach Snyder in “Man of Steel.” To some extent, this cinematic intensity is a bad thing, though, because the level of carnage spread through Metropolis (and in 3D no less) was enough to give this reviewer flashbacks to September 11th, 2001. Sometimes, less is more, and too much is just plain excessive.
            Director Zach (“300”) Snyder’s new image of Krypton is decent science fiction to be sure. Kal-El is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries as children there are grown in vitro with pre-ordained abilities and destinies in society. Kryptonian technology, envisioned by Production Designer Alex McDowell as an earthy yet organic “Geo-Tech”, looks and feels terribly derivative of David Lynch’s “Dune”(1983) and 2004’s “Chronicles of Riddick.” All in all, though, not a bad re-boot of Superman’s home world, but nothing eye-popping or groundbreaking either.
It was disturbing to see the amount of Christian symbolism in “Man of Steel.” From a scene where a confused Kal-El consults a priest, to Superman’s appearance before a group of soldiers looking like the second coming of Christ (Sun over his shoulder, cape billowing in the breeze), it was all a bit too much. I know there was always a Superman/Jesus parallel at work, but honestly, if there were any more messianic images in this picture the Pope would have to issue a statement!
            “Man of Steel” is filled with fine actors whose talents are wasted on this film’s poorly drawn characters. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White: okay, getting old, getting portly and venerable. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El: pretty okay, great voice but no great lines to deliver. Amy Adams appears as Lois Lane, she’s capable and adorable and the blandest lady reporter in history. None of the actors mentioned above are at fault for their shallow performances – the fault lies squarely with the filmmakers. In a mega-production filled with massive special effects and adrenaline-infused action set pieces, intimate character-building scenes tend to become 2nd class concepts. That said, how does one create a Superman movie and fail to create any kind of tangible chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane? Fine – there’s a kiss, and some chatty scenes including one beside John Kent’s grave. Nowhere, however, is chemistry created even close to the level generated between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in 1978!
            The most emotionally driven, interpersonal moments in this film occur between young Kal-El and John Kent. In these scenes, we watch a young boy grow up knowing he is an outsider to all those around him, a boy who must keep his amazing talents and abilities a secret. Kevin Costner brings a natural strength, a common sense, everyman appeal to John Kent. It is Costner’s performance that makes us feel what could easily have been the tired, old concerns of John Kent – that people might come, take his son away, that the boy might misuse his powers, or even use them at an inopportune time. John Kent’s simple farmer’s understanding of wrong and right gifts Kal-El a moral center forged in the American Heartland, but Kevin Costner gifts John Kent with the soul to make us believe in that moral center.
            At the end of the day, I have to admit 1978’s “Superman” can’t hold a candle to “Man of Steel” in scale, raw action or special effects. Still, I prefer the older film to the one I saw this week hands-down. Christopher Nolan, who brought Batman back to the big screen with his films starring Christian Bale, worked on this film as a creative consultant. Perhaps Warner Bros. felt Superman needed to be modernized for a 21st century audience in the same way as Batman. This was beyond a tragic mistake -- it was a betrayal.
In the climactic man on man battle royale against General Zod, Superman is forced into an action I never imagined I’d witness. I’m not disappointed in Superman for his deed; he was put into a unavoidable situation not by free choice, not even by Zod, but by this film’s creators. So what if Nolan, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer had to update Superman for the 21st century? What does it say about us that the “light we need to show us the way” is now a man who kills another with his bare hands? If that is what we as a people need to rediscover hope, then we’ve failed very idea of Superman. You don’t ask Jesus to carry brass knuckles, you don’t ask Superman to snap General Zod’s neck. The innocence is gone from this “Man of Steel”. Even the colors of Superman’s re-envisioned costume appear muddied for today’s world.

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