Sunday, June 16, 2013

MAN OF STEEL Is The Super Epic We've Been Waiting For


- I'm a Superman guy. People say Superman is cheesy. They say he's too powerful, too perfect. Those people are missing the point. Superman is an icon, an ideal. The best Superman stories are big-picture morality plays. The best Superman stories inspire and give us hope. Superman, to me, is about the idea that humanity has in them the capacity for good - to use great power for good. Superman fights a neverending battle that serves his ideals. With his power of alien origin, he could kill us, oppress us. He could view humans as an "other" as we view ants. But Superman is the ultimate immigrant story - the ultimate American story. Created in post-depression America by two young Jewish kids, Superman was the messianic figure who, in an unfair world, a world creeping into darkness, brought light and hope - who fought for the little guy and who served as a symbol for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Superman as a hero and as an ideal has always inspired me. The core idea - that we should strive to do good - is such a simple yet powerful one. It's the basis for the superhero myth. Without Superman, none of the other costumed heroes currently flooding the theaters would exist. Superman to me has always been the best hero because of the ideals he represents, but also because his story is one that's both grounded and cosmic. Superman's origins are both the stuff of epic science fiction and of Rockwellian Americana. Superman / Clark Kent's feelings of alienation are ones we all can relate to, and his All-American values are ones that we all know. But Superman is also a character that lends himself to epic adventure - time and world spanning journeys, world-conquering villains, imagination-expanding ideas. Superman is our modern Epic Hero - an Odysseus for the Science Age.

But time and again in recent decades, there have been those who've sought to make Superman less Super. While the Richard Donner movies featured a classic, timeless performance from the great Christopher Reeve, they were also cheesy as hell. Despite some dramatic moments, there were also numerous tonal shifts towards campy comedy and eye-rolling superheroics that undermined the great work of Reeve. Later, Lois & Clark turned Superman into prime-time romance, and Smallville upped the teen angst and soap operatics, with a "no tights, no flights" policy that made Superman less icon and more teen idol. That's not to say that those shows didn't have their moments, but as a Superman fan, they rarely left me fully satisfied. Meanwhile, Superman Returns left me flat-out disappointed. The movie paid slavish homage to the Donner films, keeping some of the worst aspects like used-car-salesman Lex Luthor. That movie was so wrapped-up in the symbolic aspects of Superman that it forgot the imagination and sci-fi. For a hero that starred in Action Comics for decades, Superman Returns somehow neglected to show Supes throwing a punch.

For me, my earliest memories of Superman were colored by what I had seen from the Donner films. I didn't get why Superman was cool. That all changed when circa 1992 I began reading The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen storylines in the comics. Suddenly, I was obsessed. I began reading weekly Superman comics from then on. I went back and read the best Superman stories by the greats like John Byrne, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Elliot S! Maggin. I read new classics by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns, and more. I realized that the best Superman stories - from All-Star Superman to Kingdom Come - gave Superman a humanity and relatability, but also played off the iconography - they were big, they were epic, they were larger than life. They were, in a word, super.

MAN OF STEEL is the first live-action Superman that truly fits that description. For that reason, people who only like Superman when he's written more like the street-level, wise-cracking, down to earth Marvel heroes ... well, they may reject this film. This film is huge, epic, full of weird sci-fi and mega-sized super-powered smackdowns. And it also takes all of that stuff seriously. There's not a lot of winking at the audience. And you know what? I say that's okay. Sure, Superman has a history of stories that are whimsical and even comical. But there are also plenty of stories (especially in the modern day), that have a darker, more intense tone. Biblical would be a good descriptor. And MAN OF STEEL fits that bill. It's biblical-level epicness - superhero sci-fi on a grand stage.

It all starts with a rip-roaring prologue set during the final days of Krypton. There is no doubt: this section of the film is flat-out awesome, and it plays 100% to director Zack Snyder's strengths. I love visual imagination, I love great world design, and damn, I loved seeing the "World of Krypton" come to life like NEVER before. Everything about this section is pitch-perfect, from Russell Crowe bringing the GRAVITAS as Jor-El to Ayelet Zurer as Lara. There are elements of this Krypton that I recognized from various comics - the servant robots, the society ruled by genetic manipulation, the crazy dragon-like creatures that Jor-El rides into battle. But this is also a Krypton that looks like nothing I've seen before. I got that old feeling from it. That Superman feeling. The feeling that I was seeing something new and different and awesome. FINALLY ... a Superman movie with IMAGINATION, that dared to be crazy, cosmic, and weird!

Russell Crowe is also just so good as Jor-El. He carries that prologue in grand fashion, turning in his most memorable and iconic performance in years. What a pleasure to see him square off with the equally awesome Michael Shannon as General Zod. It almost makes you want a World of Krypton prequel with badass Jor-El in the lead. But even amidst all of the crazy cosmic action in the prologue, the movie sets up a very important idea - Kal-El is special even as a baby. He's the first natural birth on Krypton in generations. On a world where all people are bred to fulfill a specific role, Kal-El is the first in ages who is free to forge his own path. His nature is, as it were, free to be nurtured - and it will come to be nurtured by the Kents and their heartland morality. Diametrically opposite of that is Zod. He exists for one purpose - to protect and ensure the survival of Krypton at all costs. And so, when he eventually makes his way to earth, he sees no reason not to exterminate humanity and resurrect Krypton in its place, via a codex that contains the genetics of all of Krypton's various bloodlines.

Michael Shannon's Zod is one of the best-ever villains in a superhero movie. His motivations are simple yet potent. His hatred of Jor-El and by extension Kal-El is palpable. He looks like a psycho badass, whether in his normal Krypton military gear, on in the creepy-as-hell space suit he wears over it. And this is Michael Shannon we're talking about - one of the very best actors working today, and perhaps *the* best at playing unhinged villains. Shannon brings a scary intensity to the role that is unrivaled. Forget used-car-salesman Lex Luthor, THIS is a villain worthy of Superman. Now, there is the legacy of Terrence Stamp in Superman II - certainly, an iconic performance. Shannon as Zod is completely different, and equally if not more memorable. Maybe he doesn't have a line as good as "Kneel before Zod." But he has an evil factor that renders catch-phrases unnecessary.

But let's talk Superman. Henry Cavill. I thought he nailed it. Cavill looks the part more than anyone since Christopher Reeve. He's got the sort of home-spun heartland humanity that you want in Superman, but he's also the most kick-ass Superman ever in film or TV. Unlike gawky Brandon Routh or baby-faced Tom Welling, this is a Superman who, finally, feels larger-than-life and superheroic. At the same time, Cavill deftly gives his Clark moments of real non-humanity, where he does feel otherworldly and alien. I've never seen that before outside of the comics, and it emphasizes the movie's theme of alienation. Clark knows he can't trust Zod, but Cavill also does a great job of showing Clark's weariness with humans.

Still, my favorite character in the movie might just be Lois Lane. I was a little worried when Amy Adams seemed not to figure much into the movie's marketing. But fear not - this is one of the best, coolest versions of Lois ever. Trust me, I'm a true-blue Superman fan and know the comics inside and out. But I was nonetheless incredibly pleased with the changes to the cannon that were made here with regards to Lois - it was different, but it felt like a great evolution. Basically, the movie does away with the whole idea (which can often seem silly and grating) of a sort of love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. Especially given that Lois is a world-class reporter, her obliviousness when it came to Clark and Superman always seemed contrived. That's why my favorite version of the Lois and Clark relationship has always been the two of them as a couple with no secrets - a true team. And that's exactly what we get here - a Lois who is two steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to investigating this strange visitor from another world. A Lois who very quickly becomes Superman's ally and confidant, and who also kicks plenty of ass in her own right. There's an awesome sequence in the film - maybe it's best - where Lois, trapped on Zod's ship, has to make a daring escape. I'll confess that I was sort of smiling ear to ear during the sequence, because it just felt like man, Lois Lane being 100% "super" and not just a damsel in distress - about damn time! Maybe some will want more rom-com shenanigans and Donner-esque screwball comedy between her and Clark. But like I said, this is an epic, biblical-scale movie, and to me it seems fitting that Lois and Clark have a sort of star-crossed romance and partnership. Lois Lane in this movie boldly stands by Clark rather than betray his secret - even though doing so costs her the scoop of the century. If that's not enough to light the spark of an iconic romance, I don't know what is. Lois and Clark aren't even a couple, per se, by the movie's end. But the spark is there, as are the makings of Lois and Clark as (forgive me, Batman) the World's Finest team. There's almost an Office-esque Jim and Pam-style chemistry, I dug it. Amy Adams does so much with a glance, a nod, a smile. It's a knockout performance.

Kevin Costner was basically born to play Jonathan Kent. A great piece of casting. His scenes in flashback with a young Clark have a real resonance, because we feel the weight of a father who struggles to parent a son who is innately different, inevitably meant for some higher purpose. This is where the movie's humanity lies - the conflict in Clark between his adopted parents, who want to keep him safe and protected, and the desire to discover his origins and his destiny, which surely lies somewhere beyond Smallville. Diane Lane is also excellent as Martha Kent. There's a blue-collar aspect to these Kents that I like. There is some of the classic Rockwellian tone to the movie's Smallville segments. But there's also a little more grit, and Costner and Lane embody that. Other standouts include Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Christopher Meloni as an army colonel who becomes an ally to Superman, and Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton. I'll also give a special shout-out to Antje Traue as Zod's right-hand woman Faora, who kicks ass and takes names with style. She's just totally ruthless, seething evil. A great, memorably villainous turn.

On Zack Snyder ... look, I'm a fan. I think he gets a bad rap for no real reason. And MAN OF STEEL is likely his best directorial effort yet. He keeps things grounded when needed - we've never really seen Snyder do the more salt-of-the-earth stuff before that he does here with his Smallville flashback scenes. And yet, he also delivers epic superhero action in spades, the likes of which we have never seen before on the big screen. Yes, over the last decade or so, movies like The Avengers have delivered the kind of comic book action spectacle that fanboys and fangirls long dreamed of seeing realized in live action. Movies like The Matrix sequels and the more recent Chronicle have delivered Superman-esque action in such a way that made you think "man, this is what a Superman movie should look like." But I don't think it should be understated that *this* is, finally, the first time we're seeing Superman-worthy action in a SUPERMAN movie. On a visceral, primal level, and as a lifelong Superman fan, it's just damn satisfying. Some may not care about the scope of the action, and I get it, sort of. But Superman's neverending battle plays out in superpowered bare-knuckled fights to the finish. That's just how it is, people. That's the superhero bread and butter, and rarely if ever has it been so dynamically realized in a film. Snyder whips out cinematic tricks that left me breathless, from a knock-down, drag-out brawl in Smallville to a roller-coaster-ride airborne battle in Metropolis. From the prologue filled with chases atop flying alien dragons, to Superman powering through a tentacled warship in a last-ditch effort to save the world ... this is just great stuff. Some will dismiss it, say it's empty and hallow. To those people, I say - this is Superman! From Kirby's galactic, page-popping brawls to the classic art-deco Fleisher cartoons that had a mostly wordless Superman punching  away at giant robots, Superman has ALWAYS been about epic, visually-dazzling action that captivates the imagination. Some may have forgotten that over the years, but Snyder and co. didn't.

On that note, I'll address the biggest and most passionate criticism against the movie that is makin' the rounds: the notion that the movie features too much reckless destruction in its action. The critique is that we don't get enough sense that, in the midst of his epic battles, Superman is going out of his way to save innocent people and prevent damage. As Superman and Zod go at it in Metropolis, buildings crumble, trucks explode, and seemingly, many innocent people become casualties of their collision. I can see where these critics (notably acclaimed Superman writer Mark Waid) are coming from ... to an extent. I think a quick scene of Superman pausing his attack to save a kid, or to free someone trapped in rubble, or prevent a building from collapsing, would have gone a long way to make these battle scenes feel more Superman-like. In truth, the collateral damage from the movie's big battles is such that it does almost make you feel a bit uneasy. Even some quick codas of Superman helping to free trapped people or rebuild the city in the battle's aftermath would have helped. At the same time, I have a hard time seeing this criticism as any sort of deal-breaker for the movie as a whole. For one thing, we *do* see several scenes throughout the movie of Superman doing all he can to save individual people when they are in need. He saves Christopher Meloni's character, Lois, and several others in the heat of battle. And, many of the film's flashback scenes are explicitly *about* a young Clark going out of his way to save people, while remaining largely anonymous and in the shadows. For another thing, the movie clearly shows that the battles with Zod are not only Clark's first as Superman - but his first battles of ANY kind. He's never even tested the limits of his powers before. He literally has not fought anyone in a direct manner, ever, before this - let alone adversaries who have his same abilities. Point being, this is a Superman who is a complete novice in many ways, and suddenly he is being confronted by a superpowered being who is murdering thousands, who fully intends to destroy ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET. It's understandable that Clark might be so hellbent on stopping him at all costs that he can't fully absorb the mass-destruction that results from their conflict. And yet ... the aftermath of the Zod battle is handled in such a way that it's clearly a turning point for Clark - and he is devastated by it. I expect that future movies would address his quest to become a "better" Superman.

Still, I think some of the criticisms about that aspect of the movie tie in to what may be some recurring flaws in the scripts of writer David Goyer. Overall, I am a fan of Goyer's - after all, he's had a hand in some of the best comic book adaptations of recent years, including The Dark Knight. But Goyer, I don't think, is a details guy. His scripts seem to always have a looseness to them in some aspects. Goyer loves to set up intricately laid-out, puzzle-like plot drivers. And MAN OF STEEL has its own sci-fi spin on that, with Zod's quest for the codex that will re-ignite Kryptonian civilization on earth, and the World Engines that will terraform earth to further allow for the creation of a New Krypton. Goyer will give you every detail about how the World Engines are reverse-engineered from the Phantom Zone projectors or what have you, but he won't throw in a line that clarifies whether Metropolis was evacuated before or during the giant battle that eviscerates a chunk of the city. I think that's partly where some of the issues with those battles come from. The other thing though is that Goyer can occasionally seem a little tone-deaf when it comes to big, emotional moments. The same way in which Batman's "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" line to Ra's Al Ghul just felt off, MAN OF STEEL has a couple of moments that, as hard as the movie (and Han Zimmer's majestic score) tries to sell them, just don't seem earned. The biggest one for me is a flashback to a key moment where Clark finds himself helpless to save Pa Kent in Smallville. Cavill and Costner both play the moment as well as one could hope for, but it still just doesn't ring true. Even putting my preconceptions about Clark Kent and Superman aside, there was just *no way* that Clark - as we know him from other scenes in this movie - would act the way he did here. To sum up: I think Goyer has a real talent for writing epic, thunderously-paced stories that sweep you up with relentless pacing and nonstop intensity. But sometimes, in the need to make everything big and huge and melodramatic, he tends to misread or omit the small moments that would make all the difference in selling the story and filling in logic gaps.

That said, I think that MAN OF STEEL hugely benefits from having the same sort of forget-to-breathe pacing and intensity as Nolan's Batman films. I don't know how much influence Nolan had on the look, pacing, and overall arc of the movie, but there is a very Nolan-esque structure here. With films like the Dark Knight, you could overlook the occasional tonally-off moment or annoying plot hole because, man, the movie was just so impactful, so hypnotic in its intensity that in the moment, it totally swept you away. Same goes for The Man of Steel. Very deliberately, I think, the movie just thunders along. No opening titles or credits. Few breaks in the intensity. It just keeps hitting the high notes like a rock opera that won't let up. This was one of those movies where I barely blinked. I sat upright in my seat, transfixed. That incredible Hans Zimmer score - soaring, inspiring, classic - made it all the more immersive an experience. This is a movie that gave me chills on multiple occasions - Clark putting on the super-suit for the first time, Russell Crowe's impassioned speech to his son about his destiny, the military's moment of realization that the flying guy in the red-and-blue was one of the good guys. Yes, I love the quips and comedy and ironic coolness of the Marvel movies. But sometimes, I want to dispense with the irony and just be inspired, moved, and swept away. That's what MAN OF STEEL will do, if you let it.

I could go on with other little thoughts and asides and nerdy nitpicks. I wish the movie's color palette had been brighter - I'm not sure why everything had to be shown in Nolan's preferred palette of muted greys. Give me Kirby-esque bright colors in my Superman stories, thank you very much. I wish that, given the story's cosmic, comic-book nature, we got some additional hints that this took place within a larger DC Universe. I wish Jimmy Olsen was in it. And yeah, the fanboy in me wishes that at some point, Michael Shannon would have gotten the opportunity to bellow "kneel before Zod!" But man, I also think we're living in an age where some people make nitpicks into blow-up-the-internet level take-downs. I'm already seeing the strongly-worded essays popping up online that go in depth about various issues in the movie, examining small moments with a microscopic level of analysis that makes me wonder: what would these same critics have said if they were writing about the Donner films when those were first released? The same movies that many regard with nostalgic love contain two or three WTF moments for every one in MAN OF STEEL. Not only that, but even though, yes, I had some criticisms of the script, I also recognize that a movie script has creative freedom to do things like jump around in time, leave things open for interpretation, and not explain every single detail of how every single moment in the movie came to be. I'm already seeing people ask questions about Man of Steel that to me are clear "use your imagination, duh" sorts of situations.

In the end, I am happy. In many ways, this is the Superman movie I've been waiting for my whole life. Superman is many things to many people - romantic leading man, religious allegory, man of action, sci-fi adventurer, American symbol ... and the list goes on. But after so many Superman adaptations that seem hellbent on making Superman "relatable" to the average person - i.e., make him something other than Superman - and after so many Superman adaptations that pay homage to other eras and other times ... it is nice to have a Superman movie that is unabashedly SUPERMAN, and yet, a Superman that feels updated for 2013 in ways that make sense and feel true to what has often worked best about the character. I still think, of course, that there is room for improvement. I think a sequel could be even better, and show a Superman grappling with the mistakes he may have made in this movie, even as he is determined to keep fighting the good fight and striving to live up to an even higher ideal. But man, this is a good start. A great Superman movie that could kick-off something truly special and truly, well ... super. Bring it on.

My Grade: A-