Thursday, May 22, 2014
Man of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe
Running Time: 143 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
Well, better late than never. The fact that I waited nearly a year before finally seeing Zack Snyder's Man of Steel should give you a pretty good idea how high on my priority list it was. Not because I dreaded it in the slightest or was at all protective of the character, which is easily the most challenging of all superheroes to adapt to the screen. But because I'm just so burnt out from superhero movies and franchises to the point that it's almost impossible to distinguish them from each other. You can blame Marvel for that. So now it's good to know every day I avoided seeing this wasn't time spent in vain because in attempting to "reimagine" Superman and make him relevant to contemporary audiences, Snyder's stripped away the character's essence, succeeding only in making an overblown Marvel movie out of a DC property.
About 10 minutes into the film I completely checked out, realizing we've seen this all before when it was titled Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers. But this is actually much worse than all those, and perhaps even worse (or at least barely even with) Bryan Singer's much-maligned Superman Returns, which made the supposedly crucial error of being too slavishly devoted to Richard Donner's original vision. Snyder is slavishly devoted to blowing things up, as his vision features some of the most mind-numbing, soul-crushing CGI I've ever seen in a film and a third act that literally had me tapping out and reaching for the Advil.
Remember when the teaser trailer came out and everyone actually compared it to The Tree of Life, thinking we'd be in for a deeper, more contemplative treatment? With few exceptions, this project is actually more of a disaster than it's been credited for, with the only hope being that this darker, more other worldly incarnation of the character is eventually seen for the embarassing misstep it is. But now that Snyder has temporarily been entrusted with Batman as well, that seems unlikely. If this Superman really is a reflection of our times, that's not a compliment.
This almost two and a half hour movie can essentially be broken down into four sections:
1. Thor Redux
2. "The Deadliest Catch"
3. "Field of Dreams"
4. Avengers Redux
Of these, the first section is by far the weakest and most pointless, not to mention the most troublesome aspect of the mythology to depict on screen. We spend nearly 30 minutes on the depleting Krypton learning how scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) come under attack from evil commander General Zod (Michael Shannon) and are forced to launch their newborn son Kal-El to Earth, his cells infused with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race. It's a sequence that could have easily been depicted in two minutes, but Snyder drags it out, calling attention to some spectacularly bad visual effects in the process. The opening resembles Thor's in terms of how much boring mythology is unloaded as a mere excuse to pummel our senses. That said, when Kal and the movie land on Earth, I really appreciated what it was trying to do and for a while it actually looked like Snyder could pull this off.
Our first glimpses of an adult Superman (Henry Cavill) are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood in Smallville, Kansas, where he's raised as Clark, the adopted son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent. These scenes of the young Clark being picked on at school and the advice he receives from his father about the importance of accepting, yet also concealing his identity, comprise the strongest moments in the film. By far. Why everything didn't just begin here is a mystery, but perhaps the filmmakers worried this ground was already covered in the Smallville TV series and fanboys would throw a hissy fit if the god awful Krypton scenes weren't included.
The idea of an adult Clark Kent as a bearded, brooding fisherman is a novel one that earns points for originality. Snyder is nothing if not a visualist and it clearly comes across in these scenes and especially the ones in Smallville, which are beautifully filmed. It's his commitment to actual storytelling that's a weak spot. Hans Zimmer's elegiac score is a plus, making it unlikely anyone will miss John Williams, whose incredible orchestrations just wouldn't fit here. I refer to the Kansas section as "Field of Dreams" not out of sarcasm, but as a compliment to Costner, who delivers the film's finest performance with limited screen time. It's also perfect casting, not only playing up the actor's famously down home persona, but giving us a fresh but comfortable entry point into what could have been tired territory. Instead, watching this father trying to protect his unusually gifted son provides the only humanity in the story, as it all flies off the rails from there.
As Superman, Cavill is okay. With all the speculation about who would play the "Man of Steel," who would have thought that the choice ultimately wouldn't matter? Most of the time he takes a back seat to the distractingly bad effects and confusing set pieces. The British actor definitely offers a more brooding take on Clark Kent that won't soon be confused with anything done by Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh. In fact, it's so far removed it won't be confused with anything related to Superman or Clark Kent at all, as even David Goyer's script goes out of its way to avoid mentioning him by name (see title). Some may appreciate these attempts to supposedly go "darker" or more "realistic" with the character but it's hard to even apply those adjectives when so many of the action sequences undermine it. But at least this is the best the costume they've had and if Cavill really was hired because he didn't look ridiculous in it, that's as good a reason as any to pick him for what's always been an impossibly thankless role.
The Lois Lane situation is bizarre in the sense that she's almost TOO involved, as if the filmmakers felt a need to justify the big name (and admittedly lazy) casting of Amy Adams by having the character wear as many hats in the story as possible. She's still the Daily Planet reporter. but there are almost as many points where you'd confuse her for a geologist, a military commander or maybe even a superhero herself in the last act. While Adams going out there and simply delivering lines still surpasses the miscast Kate Bosworth in Returns, it's worth noting that's all she does. Giving Lois a more prominent role and having her played by an older, more experienced actress than the male lead was an excellent idea on paper, but Adams seems completely bored with it, as if she can't get to the bank soon enough to cash her royalty check. And forget about any chemistry between the two. There's none.
Poor Russell Crowe is given what's easily the silliest expository dialogue of the entire cast as Jor-El. That he can deliver it with a straight face even long after his character's initial demise is more deserving of an honorary medal for screen survival than an acting award. He does great under terrible circumstances, working with material that's the polar opposite of Costner's. As Zod, Michael Shannon didn't need to be Terrence Stamp. He just needed to be Michael Shannon. But what's strange is how this movie doesn't even allow him to do that. Ironically, when playing a superhero villain, our creepiest, scariest actor is somehow not very creepy at all. Snyder just has him yell and and yell some more in a terrible CGI suit.
German actress Anteje Traue as his Krytonian sidekick Faora is a different story, as she basically steals every scene she's in, giving a seductively badass performance that recalls the best of Sarah Douglas as Ursa in Superman II. In his few scenes, I liked what Laurence Fishburne did with Daily Planet editor Perry White, but the part is so miniscule it barely warrants a mention. Metropolis itself is similarly shafted as a setting, functioning only as a CGI battleground for the tortuously long final act during which it's often difficult to make out what's happening. Those crying heresy at Superman (SPOILER AHEAD) killing Zod should probably consider the context in which it happened, not to mention the fact that this movie would still be continuing right now if he didn't. So for that, I'm eternally grateful.
Superman just isn't the type of superhero that lends itself to various interpretations or reimaginings. It can't be a campy 60's TV series or an 80's Gothic styled blockbuster or the first part of a dark, reality grounded Christopher Nolan trilogy. The character just doesn't have that flexibility, and despite the marketing trying to convince us we were getting the latter, they were really just trying to deliver a Marvel entry. Nolan may have a producing and story credit, but does anyone believes his involvement extended beyond giving a couple of notes and getting his name on the picture as a show of goodwill to him and a sign of reassurance to audiences? You can tell this was made by a committee looking to cash in on the Marvel craze, while poorly sprinkling traces of Nolan's tone to silence doubters.
That the writer is Batman trilogy scribe David Goyer is a surprise, but most of the problems lay in the execution more than the conception. It's obvious all the big creative decisions resulted from Warner Bros. guiding Snyder to create a DC "universe" or franchise for future tie-in installments. He did exactly as asked, with the irony being that Man of Steel ends at the exact point it really should have started, negating this film, yet putting them in a decent position for the follow-up. Unfortunately, all that was originally special about the Superman character was sacrificed in the process, resurrected in a way we never thought possible: As just another superhero.