Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cinema Fancy - Man of Steel


The first time I saw a teaser for Man of Steel was during the previews for seeing Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises in the theater.  I knew the teaser was coming, because I'd heard rumblings about it and had seen something on the Internet prior to going to see it, but otherwise I had little to go on, other than Nolan was involved.  For those that saw the teaser, you know that it wasn't very enlightening, and indeed, had barely any information in it that gave the viewer any real clue as to what the movie was going to be about, or be like, other than hinting via imagery that it would be a re-imagining of the Superman character in a sense.  This would not tie into the previous Superman movie franchise, but would be a new take on the property, and would likely be an origin story.  That much fans were relatively certain of.

This short teaser sparked quite the conversation between myself and my friend Aaron, who I went with to see The Dark Knight Rises that day.  He had previously gone with me to see The Avengers, and we had both loved that, after all the build-up of the characters via several previous Marvel movies featuring the cast of characters.  Being that Aaron has been somewhat of a DC aficionado over the years, his interest in this forthcoming Man of Steel movie was palpable, even then.  We talked about how we felt Nolan and Snyder should do things, given the dark tone of all 3 Nolan-directed Batman films, and how Superman as a character is a much more balanced, and emotionally "even keel" type of guy.  We also discussed the possibility of how great it would be for Nolan and/or other directors involved in recent DC properties to collaborate on a future Justice League type of project.  Regardless of whether that's a real possibility or not, at least they have a good place to start with this Man of Steel.

Now I must first come clean and say that I'm not a Superman fanboy.  I've always loved the Christopher Reeve films, and felt like Superman Returns was better than most give it credit for.  But as I've stated elsewhere on this blog, I've only become a comic book person in the last few years, never truly having the money as a child to spend on comics, and concentrating more on video games and then music.  Be that as it may, I have some familiarity with the character of Superman, including the meat and potatoes of Superman's origin on Earth.  I'm not sure what level of liberties Nolan and Snyder took with this particular origin story, but I suspect the reason some have labeled the film "meh" or have been unhappy with it is the way in which Superman's origins were handled.  Personally, I don't find this to be a problem, and actually appreciate the increase in back story and how it was fleshed out to give viewers a real sense of where Kal-El came from.  I also like how Krypton was shown as an incredibly advanced society, despite being a society fully in collapse.

One thing I felt about the film as a whole is that it was well cast.  Henry Cavill was a good fit as Superman and Clark Kent because he has that chiseled look that echoes the many years of comic book interpretations, as well as recalling Christopher Reeve qualities like the cleft chin, muscular appearance, and generally unassuming good looks.  With only a brief appearance of Cavill in the "Clark Kent, news reporter" capacity, only time will tell whether or not he is as convincing in that role as Reeve was, but the dynamic set forth between him and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) takes the narrative a different direction than previous efforts - namely, that Lois knows Clark is Superman this time around.  I thought Lawrence Fishburne was an interesting choice for Perry White, and as good an actor as he is, I hope we get to see more of him in future Man of Steel movies.  I enjoyed Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and I felt as though Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent was appropriate and didn't feel like he had been "shoehorned" into that part.  His performance was understated, but fit the scope of his character in relation to the origin story being told.

Russel Crowe brought his usual quality to the role of Jor-El, and look forward to the possibility of seeing more of him in future Man of Steel films, assuming that some Kryptonian technology survived for Kal to use.  If not, at least we saw more of him in this one film than we did of Marlon Brando during the entire run of Reeve films.  I also felt like Michael Shannon was well cast as General Zod, a stark contrast against Terrence Stamp's 1980 version.  Shannon's Zod was not bent on revenge, but was fulfilling his destiny as the savior of Krypton by attempting to seize Earth and rebuild Krypton in his image.  This is much different than Stamp's Zod, who was primarily bent on conquest and destruction, as well as revenge against Kal-El for the imprisonment that was inflicted upon he and his cohorts.  And unlike Ursa in Superman II, Antje Traue as female counterpart (and Zod's wife) Faora-Ul is the same kind of single-minded, purpose-driven warrior that husband Zod is in the film.  I suspect that, despite her few lines in the movie, her stoic performance and iconic "A good death is its own reward" line will become iconic over time.

The big topic that I've seen a lot of chatter about is all the mindless destruction, and I guess the way I address that is to examine the film against other superhero action films in context.  Superman is all about saving people, right?  So when a lady is falling out of a 30-story window, he's the guy who flies up and catches her, gently bringing her back to earth.  So why is Kal busting up half of Metropolis to defeat Zod and company?  Don't forget Nolan's Batman films, willing to flip a few police cars and cause general mayhem and destruction from time to time when it meant a cleaner getaway.  And while The Avengers made an effort to reduce the amount of collateral damage during the Chitauri attack, there was certainly some mayhem caused, particularly by the Hulk.  And let's not forget that some damage occurred during the Reeve-era Superman films as well, including during the fight with Zod.  I agree that perhaps a "less is more" approach might have made the film breathe a bit more, I still think it works and the amount of property destruction is commensurate with what one might expect in a situation involving beings wielding super-human strength and superior weaponry.

The film does have a few flaws, which are worth noting.  The scene(s) involving Perry, Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen, perhaps?) trying to escape the impending doom of the destruction caused by the "World Engine" were somewhat unnecessary, other than to set up the characters for future films.  They didn't add much to the movie, and with its extended length of two and a half hours, those few minutes could probably have been left on the cutting room floor.  Again, though I explained the mass destruction away before, I do agree that perhaps it could have been tempered just a bit.  A friend described it to me after seeing it as, "once it gets going, you don't breathe until the end", and that's a good way to put it.  Pacing is perhaps a bit too frenzied at times, and you just go from one action sequence to another with no time to ruminate on any of it.  Granted, this is probably the first time anyone has done a Superman movie with the kind of major action in it that the comic books have only been able to show in still images, and animated depictions have only been able to hint at.  That doesn't mean we need to have so much non-stop action in this film that it either sets up the sequel for failure if it can't match it, or feels like a letdown because it has to focus more on story, since Lex Luthor (who nearly all Superman fans would presume to be in the works as the next major villain focus) is a far more studied foe than the destructive Zod.  I think everyone needs to prepare for a more cerebral sequel, because I can't think of any way to to the amount of wanton destruction as is present in this film.

Something I also want to touch on is all the messianic imagery and references in Man of Steel.  With the success of recent Christian-themed films like "Courageous", "Fireproof", and the intense "Passion of the Christ", it's no secret that people want that kind of content, despite what the liberal media might have us believe.  As such, it's interesting the parallels that exist in Man of Steel that echo many Christian and messianic touchstones.  Clark was 33 years old when he came forward to protect humanity from the impending threat of General Zod, in the same way Jesus was 33 when He began His ministry.  Up to that point, Clark mostly laid low, keeping a low profile, much like Jesus working with his father doing carpentry.  Jor-El specifically says to his wife in reference to Kal that "He will be a god to them."  Kal-El was sent to Earth by his father, much like Jesus was born a human to a human family at the behest of God the Father.  Indeed, Jor-El also acts in some ways as a reference to the Holy Spirit, a non-corporeal entity offering guidance in situations when hope is seemingly lost.  The US government and military distrusts Kal, and don't understand him, trying to shackle and control him, much like the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to reign in Jesus during his ministry, and arresting him for no real crime.  Superman's role in stopping the Kryptonian invasion was to become the savior of the human race, if in a far lesser capacity than Jesus' being the savior of humanity from an eternity separated from God.

These references are not lost on the populace, as much ado has been made of these similarities.  I wasn't aware of this until researching this after the fact, but apparently Warner Bros has been marketing the film to Christians in particular.  I no longer have cable or satellite TV, so other than the teaser trailer and one or two trailers on YouTube, I didn't see the kind of aggressive marketing that was done for the film.  They even employed a company called Grace Hill Media in these efforts, and have even set up a website for Pastors to go and get info on the film so they can preach on the subject.  It's an interesting approach, that I think will ultimately split the evangelical community, drawing ire from those suspicious of any kind of pop culture involvement in spirituality, and uplifting those that embrace modern culture and wish to communicate messages of Christian spiritual truth via modern methods.  I'm not sure if the messianic parallels were an integral part of the original script, or if they were added later to garner the Christian audience, but both times I saw the film I didn't think these references were a contrivance, and felt that they made sense in context of the character of Superman, as well as in the context of this particular reboot.

There has been some resistance to the reboot from the fan community, specifically in the way the introduction of the character was handled, and in some of the choices made as to how things progressed.  Liberties were taken from the usual Superman origin story, such as the death of Johnathan Kent in the tornado as opposed to him having a heart attack.  Some disagree with how Krypton was depicted, and all the time spent there and with General Zod's handling.  Some people probably disagree with the messianic references, though one could say those elements were present in some form in the original Superman mythos.  Some people feel like the rampant destruction in the film goes against what the character of Superman is about, and while I see that point of view, I think there is room for multiple interpretations of a character.  Ultimately, fans will have to decide if this iteration of Superman is worthy of their time and energy, and I think the response to the film has been strong enough that we will be seeing more of Cavill as the Man of Steel.  Indeed, there is already talk of a sequel to include the character of Batman.  I'm not sure how that will shake out, given Christopher Nolan's strong Dark Knight trilogy, or who they might tap to play the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it will be interesting to see how that develops, and if it's successful enough a pairing to continue to develop toward a Justice League type of scenario.  Whatever the case is, I thoroughly enjoyed this film for what it is and what it accomplishes with the character, but would caution the filmmakers to perhaps tone down the wanton destruction aspect a bit in the sequel so we can have a slightly more cerebral Superman film next time.  As it stands, though, this is a solid first outing.

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