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Friday, June 14, 2013

DAMN Good Movies -- MAN OF STEEL



Time once again for another of my movie takes, this one on the film Man of Steel, based on the iconic DC Comics character Superman.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...look, up in the sky...

It's been a long, hard road for the Last Son of Krypton to appear on the big screen.  After the last two disappointing Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, there were a number of failed attempts to resurrect the movie franchise.  The most notable was Superman Lives, a Kevin Smith project that became a Tim Burton project starring Nicolas Cage of all people, and almost became an Oliver Stone project starring Will Smith.  Another was Superman: Flyby, a J.J. Abrams treatment that was almost directed by Brett Ratner starring Josh Hartnett or Jude Law, then became a McG project starring Brendan Fraser.  With those speeding bullets successfully dodged, the Bryan Singer movie Superman Returns starring newcomer Brandon Routh was finally released in 2006, nineteen years after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Superman Returns actually did pretty well, bringing in over $391 million worldwide in box office, but was burdened with a reported production budget of $270 million, plus the hidden financial damage from all the other mercifully aborted attempts.  Also, there was the creative problem of where to take Superman next, after the character had been painted into a corner as essentially a deadbeat dad prone to stalking Lois Lane on a regular basis.  In 2008, Warner Bros. decided another reboot was needed and even took pitches from comic book writers Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer on how to relaunch the film series.  A couple of years later, things finally got moving when Dark Knight screenwriter David S. Goyer told director Christopher Nolan his approach.  Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder was brought in to helm the film, with Nolan serving as producer and creative mentor to Snyder.

In addition to the first two Christopher Reeve films, Goyer's script borrows story elements and dialogue from the comics All-Star Superman by Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, Superman: Birthright by Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, and even the controversial Superman (vol.2) #22 by John Byrne. We open on Krypton, with the birth of our hero Kal-El (something rarely seen in comics, let alone on screen) and are quickly introduced to the necessary backstory required in telling the legend of Superman.  This version adds the extra dimension of showing the revolt led by General Zod, depicted as an epic widescreen battle as Jor-El looks out at the chaos engulfing his world.  As you watch Zod and Jor-El actually fighting with one another with an unexpected result, you realize Snyder, Nolan and Goyer aren't playing it entirely by the (comic) book, which makes the uncertainty a good thing.

Don't panic though, the key elements to the Superman mythos remain intact -- They're just viewed through the camera lens of 2013 instead of 1978.  The setting naturally shifts to Smallville, Kansas on Earth, as we see Kal-El growing up as Clark Kent and coping with his powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men while feeling isolated and different.  Try as he might to keep to himself, the adult Clark just can't stop himself from rescuing those in need, which draws the attention of one Lois Lane.  Clark soon discovers his Kryptonian heritage, meeting Lois in the process, and even picks up a spiffy mesh costume in the process.

All this self-discovery becomes a big Zod Signal, bringing the General and his minions including Faora and Jax-Ur to Earth.  Taking over Earth transmissions in a multilingual broadcast, Zod demands that Kal-El be turned over with the usual threats of consequences, forcing Clark to reveal himself to the United States military.  The Phantom Zone criminals arrive at last, setting off the film's absolutely insane third act.  Since, well, forever, comics fans have been dying to see a truly destructive Superbrawl that they first got a small taste of in 1981's Superman II and later saw the potential with 2003's The Matrix Revolutions.  To his credit, Snyder gives them exactly what they want...and then some.  Clark first throws down with Zod and Faora in Smallville, devastating the town worse than two TV series meteor showers, all the way up to the Kryptonians' vessel above Earth and then back down to destroy as many Metropolis skyscrapers as humanly (or alienly) possible.

In the midst of all this pure, unbridled chaos, composer Hans Zimmer thunders along with every blow, every kick, every truck used as a Whack-A-Mole mallet.  When it was first understood that Snyder and Nolan wouldn't be using the definitive Superman music by John Williams, there was an understandable amount of concern from fans.  Thankfully though, Zimmer manages to solve the unsolvable by going a completely unexpected route, bringing heavy drums and gritty sounds similar to Bear McCreary's superb dogfight sequences in the Battlestar Galactica remake.  What Zimmer does here is probably the best superhero movie soundtrack since...John Williams.

The final showdown between Superman and General Zod echoes the issue of Superman #22 I mentioned above, in a very controversial scene where Superman is forced to kill Zod to prevent him from murdering an innocent family nearby.  It's a bold move, not taken lightly as Superman anguishes over the act and reinforces the notion that yes, this is a different take on the Man of Steel.  There are going to be a lot of people who hate what Superman did, probably ruining the movie forever in their eyes, and others that will respect him more than ever because of it.

As the movie winds down, we see Clark Kent finally stepping into the role we know and love as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.  He finally dons the glasses that define his disguise and grins an endearing smile, setting Henry Cavill firmly in place as a welcome addition to the long line of actors who have portrayed the world's greatest superhero on screen.  With the sequel already in motion, will Superman face Brainiac next?  Or perhaps Doomsday, Mongul, Metallo, Bizarro, or even yes, Lex Luthor again.  All I know is, after the events in Man of Steel, insurance premiums in Metropolis are going to be ridiculous.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

SUPERMAN/CLARK KENT -- Thank Rao for Henry Cavill.  Yes, it feels all kinds of awkward to have another British actor playing another major American superhero, but Cavill has the looks, the charm and the build while most importantly, being a decent actor.  For someone best known as "that guy who was friends with Henry VIII on The Tudors," Cavill carries the role exactly as you hoped he would and you can't wait to see him as a more traditional Clark Kent in the sequel.

LOIS LANE -- Amy Adams was an interesting choice for Lois, especially since her previous Superman experience was portraying fat-sucking vampire Jodi Melville in the first season of Smallville.  Her introduction into the film is strong, with a great line about "comparing dicks" when she's confronted by self-important military officers.  It's a shame we don't get to see much of Lois being a reporter in the movie's second half, but there's an interesting dynamic to explore with her already being aware of Clark's dual identity.

GENERAL ZOD -- I'm guessing most people have never heard of Michael Shannon before now, but those of us who watch HBO's Boardwalk Empire knew all too well what an effective villain he could be.  Shannon has a completely different take on Zod than Terence Stamp did in Superman II, coming off a bit too standard supervillain at first until he gets the opportunity to portray Zod as somewhat sympathetic because of his devotion to restoring Krypton.

JONATHAN AND MARTHA KENT -- Kevin Costner and Diane Lane wouldn't have been my choices for the crucial roles of Clark's adoptive parents, but they work well enough.  Lane seems a tad miscast, but Costner surprises with an effective depiction.  His Jonathan is more fearful than even John Schneider's version was, with an unsettling statement that "maybe" young Clark should've allowed a busful of children to drown in order to preserve Clark's secret. 

PERRY WHITE -- Laurence Fishburne has been killing it of late, first on NBC's superb Hannibal and now here.  His casting may have been a deliberate attempt to diversify Superman's whitebread supporting cast, but there's no denying the man's talent and ability to be authoritative.  Perry doesn't get to do much apart from scold Lois about wanting to run a story about aliens and help Jenny (Olsen?) after she becomes trapped under skyscraper rubble, but he makes you want to see more of him.

JOR-EL -- Attempting to establish himself as the heir to Marlon Brando, Russell Crowe gives us far more of Superman's birth father than we ever expected to see.  In addition to being a scientist, he's physical in his mission to retrieve a codex and subsequent brawl with Zod.  Later on, Crowe gets even more screen time as the holographic recreation of Jor-El, interacting with his adult "son" the way the real Jor-El can never do.  Another bit of terrific casting.

FAORA -- If Antje Traue isn't somehow related to Superman II's Ursa (played by Sarah Douglas), she damn well should be.  Although the character names are different, it's essentially the exact same role gloriously played the exact same way, right down to the wicked smile.

LARA LOR-VAN -- Another casting surprise is Ayelet Zurer as Superman's birth mother Lara.  The character receives a significant upgrade from the days of Susannah York, with Lara being the one who discovers Earth as a hospitable place for her son to be sent.  And with Jor-El's premature death, it's sad to see her watch Krypton die without him by her side.

COLONEL HARDY -- Christopher Meloni may have voiced Hal Jordan in the DC Comics animated movie Green Lantern: First Flight, but he's more effective here as a United States military officer.  His role is basically to show an acceptance of Superman, starting off with not caring if Superman is in the way of gunfire aimed at the Phantom Zone criminals until he turns around later and respects Superman for battling his fellow Kryptonians on behalf of Earth.

DR. EMIL HAMILTON -- Richard Schiff serves as Scientific Exposition Guy whose only memorable act is to insert the key into a Kryptonian device, but I found it pretty damn amusing to see Schiff sharing scenes with Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Hamilton on Smallville.  How's that for an Easter egg?

All in all, Man of Steel is the solid franchise reboot Superman fans and Warner Bros. wanted it to be.  It's not a perfect movie and Zack Snyder annoys the crap out of me with his excessive shakycam, but it certainly doesn't deserve the coordinated hatred from movie critics.  After watching this movie, I'm convinced the aging guard of movie reviewers are either far too trapped in 1978 to appreciate a 2013 take on the Superman legend, or they're just sick and tired of all these superhero movies and staged a conference call to deliberately tear down a high-profile film.  The bottom line?  Forget the critics, forget Rotten Tomatoes, and go enjoy yourselves, especially if you're a Superman fan.  You deserve it.

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Man of Steel (2013)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)

8. Watchmen (2009)
9. Iron Man (2008)

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
11. X-Men: First Class (2011)
12. X2: X-Men United (2003)

13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
14. X-Men (2000)
15. Thor (2011)
16. Iron Man 3 (2013)
17. Batman (1989)
18. Superman II (1981)

19. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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