Friday, June 14, 2013

Power vs. Responsibility: A review of "Man of Steel"


I went into Man of Steel with only medium expectations; I expected to get my money’s worth, and perhaps even justify the purchase of popcorn and a small soda, but not the greatest superhero film of all time. Although I was correct on the latter point, Man of Steel is nevertheless the best Superman film of all time, and as a die-hard fan of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman, it feels very strange to say that. 

Sorry, Chris. You're still the best Superman actor, if it makes you feel any better.
One of the biggest flaws of the 2006 bomb Superman Returns was casting. Although Kevin Spacey was perfectly cast as Lex Luthor, capturing both the calculating cruelty of the comic book version and also the impudent charm of the Gene Hackman version, the rest of the cast was pretty poor. Brandon Routh looked like Reeve, certainly, but his Clark Kent came across more effeminate than nebbish. Kate Bosworth was simultaneously too young and too unassuming to portray the strong investigative reporter Lois Lane. Even Frank Langella was woefully miscast as Perry White, his only memorable line being a lackluster uttering of “Great Caesar’s ghost.” 

Behold! The only good thing in that awful, awful movie.

Man of Steel does not repeat that mistake in casting. First off, Henry Cavill, who I had first seen as an awkward teen in The Count of Monte Cristo, was born to play Superman. Reeve will always be my favorite, but Cavill is the first actor in more than 25 years to truly pull off the role. His Superman is regal, gallant and . . . well . . . nice, the way Superman is supposed to be. He’s a genuinely good guy, which is surprising in an era of angst and anti-heroes. And although I did and still do mourn the loss of the red overshorts, Superman is portrayed in such a dynamic fashion that his accessories are the last thing we're focusing on. He's zipping through the sky with giddy abandon when he first learns to fly, and his joy is contagious to the audience. Then, when he's racing to stop a world-threatening menace (that has apparently stolen Doctor Octopus' metal tentacles), he rockets along with purpose and power. This is the Superman that 1978's movie magic couldn't give us in practice but desperately wanted to give us in spirit. This Superman feels super. 

"My hands may be in chains, but my crotch has never felt so free . . ."

Amy Adams, too, surprisingly reinvigorates Lois Lane after years of associating her with the likes of Bosworth and Teri (blech) Hatcher. She has wit, smarts and moxie, but she is also sweet, willing to scrap the biggest story of her career because she sees good in the alien invader she has discovered. Be prepared for product placement, though, as her Nikon camera always seems to find its way into the foreground when she’s on-screen. 

"Now kiss!"

Michael Shannon’s General Zod does not demand that anyone kneel; he assumes that shoving his boot in your face will get the message across. He’s a very different kind of villain from what we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. He isn’t a sneaky plotter like Loki in The Avengers. He isn’t a brutal-yet-hammy bruiser like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He’s not even a cold, manipulative killer like Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. Devoid of the charisma that made those three memorable, Zod is just a very angry man who thinks he’s doing what he’s supposed to do to preserve his people, by any means necessary. He does not smile. He does not deliver witty one-liners. He does not relent. And that works very well. I was initially unfamiliar with Shannon's work, and frankly, I was worried when I heard the interview in which he talked about preparing for the role of Zod. He seemed rather bland and disinterested, and I didn't expect him to bring much intensity to the role. Aaaand then I saw this (don't watch if easily offended by profanity). Talk about intensity. Plus, his one-track drive to finish what he started leads Superman to cross a serious line, something no other enemy, not Luthor, Brainiac or even that danged Mr. Mxyzptlk (unless you count "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," in my opinion the greatest Superman story of all time), can boast. 

"If you're planning to break my World Engine, DON'T F***ING BOTHER SHOWING UP!"
Something that really stood out in the film is the way both of Superman’s fathers, biological and adoptive, laid down their lives to protect him. Jor-El, played superbly by Russell Crowe, is murdered by Zod after sending little Kal-El to Earth in a rocket. And Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, dies in a tornado after convincing his son not to save him, so as to protect his identity. This . . . really rubbed me the wrong way, and I’ll tell you why: Superman is supposed to be a selfless figure who uses his powers to help people. He is truly the epitome of Spider-Man’s “With great power comes great responsibility” mantra, and he displays that character many times throughout the film. But who the heck did he learn it from? Certainly not from the man who raised him, that’s for sure. After saving a bus-load of kids from drowning, Pa Kent suggests that maybe Clark should have just let them drown; after all, saving a few human lives isn’t worth blowing his secret. I know he’s just trying to protect his son, but compare that to Uncle Ben telling Peter Parker about power and responsibility; he didn’t even know his nephew had super powers, but he still wanted him to understand that doing right sometimes means putting someone else’s well-being ahead of your own. That seems like the kind of thing Pa Kent would have told Clark, too, but he kind of went the opposite direction there. Throughout the movie's flashbacks, Pa keeps telling Clark he was sent to Earth for some purpose, and he's meant for great things, but at every turn he stifles his potential, telling him the world isn't ready for him. Talk about a lack of faith in his son, which, thankfully, Clark ultimately rises above (and yes, as it turns out, the world is ready). Jor-El, on the other hand, actually has some good fatherly wisdom to impart, encouraging Clark to save people AND to test the limits of his power, which Pa seemed adamantly against, despite his insistence that Clark has a bigger purpose. 

"Well, gee, son, when I said you were sent here for a reason, I meant football scholarships and a million-dollar signing bonus with the Chiefs. I didn't expect you to, y'know, get all altruistic and stuff."

There’s also kind of a good, old-fashioned allegory for communism vs. capitalism in the film. Krypton is portrayed as a heavily bureaucratic society in which everyone’s roles are predestined before they are even birth, and to forge one’s own destiny is . . . well . . . unheard of. That’s what makes Jor-El such a revolutionary, because he wants his son to have a chance to live his own life. Indeed, Zod is portrayed as a slave to his own nature, claiming he was born and bred to be a warrior and must therefore follow a bloody path. Superman is the American archetype, fighting for individuality and personal autonomy. 

Ummm . . .

Ultimately, Man of Steel is not as good as last year’s The Avengers; indeed, it’s not even quite as good as this year’s Star Trek into Darkness. But it’s still a fantastic movie, Costner's two-facedness notwithstanding, and hopefully the start of a great franchise, just as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were, and Zack Snyder (who also directed the truly epic film adaptation of Watchmen) was the perfect choice to revitalize the character. You will believe a man can fly . . . and carry on an epic battle with another flying dude in the middle of a crumbling city. Or, for that matter, in an IHOP. 

"Welcome to IHOP . . . b!+ch!"

I give Man of Steel a well-deserved 4/5. Go see it in theaters, for sure, but maybe go out to get a popcorn refill after the bus scene. 

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