Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel (mild spoilers)

Superman has been away for a long time. When we last saw him on screen he was in the middle of a self-conscious attempt to evoke the tone of the 1980’s Christopher Reeve films, an attempt that rang false in age when superheroes need a dark side. While most people would prefer to pretend that Superman Returns never happened, it was an honorable effort. Now comes Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, an intermittently successful resetting of the franchise that moves to give Kal-El a shot of the duality and conflict that imbues the most successful superheroes of recent years. Unfortunately for Snyder, the fact that the film also required a third act proved to be too big an obstacle to overcome.

There’s a healthy dose of Kryptonian politics at the top of Man of Steel. As the planet crumbles, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) argues for an effort to send children of the doomed civilization into the stars. He and his wife (underused Ayelet Zurer) plan to launch their son Kal-El towards Earth with a (shakily explained) repository of Kryptonian genetic material. There’s a soldier named General Zod (Michael Shannon) who holds out hope for carrying on the planet’s society somewhere else but who needs the material that Jor-El has blasted into space. Even as Krypton collapses Zod and his allies are incarcerated (Krypton seems to take its legal procedures very seriously.), but the destruction of the planet sets them free to roam the universe looking for Kal-El. It’s when Kal-El and the movie arrive on Earth that writer David S. Goyer engages with the central questions of Man of Steel. What kind of man will Kal-El, of course now known as Clark Kent, turn out to be? Will human society accept that man, for better or for worse? For Clark’s acceptance of the good to have meaning he must be tempted by something else, and in the movie’s construction that something else is an ordinary life. Clark can live on Earth among humans if he doesn’t reveal his powers, and we see numerous scenes of Clark struggling to control his abilities and wrestling with his future. As Jonathan Kent, Kevin Costner is a fine, weathered presence and serves as a symbol of a planet in need of something more. (Costner’s death is a pure Spielbergian tear-jerker.) Earlier Superman films gave short shrift to the Kents, but Man of Steel ives Jonathan and Martha (Diane Lane) their place as the source of Superman’s humanity. 

Man of Steel suffers from a need to explain itself. Michael Shannon is a strong Zod, but is saddled with numerous speeches explaining his duty to the people of Krypton. (We’re told Kryptonians are bred for certain roles; Kal-El is the first naturally born child in years.) The adult Clark (Henry Cavill) gets a speech from Jor-El (Crowe pops up as a sort of plot-moving hologram.) about his background and even Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets a much needed conversation with Jor-El at a critical moment. Cavill is physically ideal for the role of Kal-El and he brings a welcome intelligence, but he possesses almost none of the wit Christopher Reeve brought to the role. The conception that Lane discovers Clark's identity early on will take a good deal of the fun from future installments. When Zod and his soldiers (Antje Traue is good as the obligatory cold and sexy sidekick.) arrive on Earth then Man on Steel devolves into a series of fights. Clark is now in command of his powers, and he and Zod roll and tumble through a succession of  Kansas cornfields and small businesses before eventually hitting Metropolis for the movie’s climax. A subplot involving an Army Colonel (Christopher Meloni), a scientist (Richard Schiff) and a bomb that could destroy Zod’s ship is woven into the final battle but the details are given short shrift.

The strongest moments in Man of Steel are the quiet ones, from the apprehension with which  Clark explores a ship from his home planet to the reserved dignity that Costner brings to all his scenes. It’s never a real issue whether or not Clark will decide to help humanity, so to overcome the limitations of the character Zack Snyder overstuffs the movie with fights and includes a final moment between Superman and Zod that I’m pretty sure is not in the canon. We’ll inevitably get a sequel to Man of Steel, and I hope that Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan are willing to let their hero find his place in the world that they have remade.

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