You Will Believe a Man Can Fly
Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer have teamed up to give Superman the Batman Begins treatment, reintroducing the character in a realistic, plausible setting. The character finds himself torn between his Kryptonian blood and his American upbringing, represented by his two fathers; one from Earth, and one from the great beyond, so to speak. Despite being occasionally joyless and lacking in character in favor of VFX overload, Man of Steel stands as a mostly triumphant return for Superman.
You know the story by now: baby is born on dying planet, parents send him to Earth where he is adopted by farmers, boy grows into awesome superhero, uses powers to save the day and kiss Lois Lane. Zack Snyder’s version of the oft-retold tale benefits from kinetic pacing, a variety of settings, and frequent flashbacks, telling of Clark’s growth from an outcast boy into the titular Man of Steel. All the while, Snyder is noticeably holding back his own frequently-mocked excesses. There’s only one extended music video sequence, early on in the film, and there’s nary a gratuitous slow-motion sequence in sight, much to the audience’s relief; showing the incredible action in real time truly shows off the jaw-dropping visual effects and brutal punishment a man stronger than a locomotive can really dish out.
That being said, we get to see Superman punch. A lot. We’ve been waiting to see Superman take on a fellow Kryptonian in hand-to-hand combat in the modern era of high-tech special effects, and now that it’s finally happened, it all just seems to be a little much. One can tell that most of the prolonged fight scenes did not begin that way; rather, they were re-shot or otherwise added upon after the movie was done, as some of these scenes are simply endless and overly audacious, not that they aren’t compelling; a fight on the streets of a small mid-western town is so amazing it can only be topped by the climactic battle in Metropolis. Throughout all of these, the hits are so hard, the score so rousing, the tension and brutality so palpable, it brings tears to the eyes of those who remember the then-impressive fights in Superman II. And then the fight continues. It goes on and on, people throwing trucks at each other, shoving each other, not through walls, but through entire buildings, causing billions in property damage, causing untold (presumed) civilian deaths, and otherwise making 9/11 look like Benghazi. However, unlike the aftermath of similar scenes in Star Trek Into Darkness, The Avengers, and Armageddon, there is never a post-mortem acknowledgement of the destruction and eventual rebuilding efforts. This glaring omission causes the fights, despite their content being absolutely unrivaled, to be painfully devoid of context. There’s no emotional connection; it’s just fighting. To contrast, an earlier scene in Smallville, in which the villains threaten a person close to Superman and destroy their house, spurring him into action in such a primal fashion that each of his punches carry a righteous and emotional, and not just a physical, impact. Speaking of physical impact, the violence is pretty strong, so some of the more sensitive kids (or children with parents who hate them) might have to sit this one out, or at least have their parents or guardians see the movie beforehand, just to be safe.
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
The script, by Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer, tries its best to suck all of the fun, wonder, and adventure out of the story, but the actors and Zack Snyder’s direction keep it from being as monotonous and boring as Goyer would have it. Goyer promised a “realistic” take on the story, asking what people would think if they saw a super-powered space alien kick butt among us. He doesn’t answer that question, at all. Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White asks the question, saying, “Can you imagine how the people on this planet would react if they knew there was someone like this out there?” but the only people Superman gets to interact with are army men, who are paid to aim their guns at anything dangerous or foreign, and Superman, despite his white skin, is both. Despite his proximity to civilians during his fights with the enemy Kryptonians, we are never given humanity’s impression of their adopted son, leaving much of the promise of the early script unfulfilled. Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, is Superman’s adopted father, and wants him to hide his identity and powers from humanity, but we never find out if his fears were justified, since, instead of exploring those possibilities, we need to see Superman and General Zod throw each other through buildings for twenty more minutes.
As I said, though, the heart of the character is able to come through in the performances. Despite surely being told not to, Henry Cavill appears to be enjoying himself, and really gives the impression that he is caught between two worlds, one as a man, and one as a Superman. When he takes flight for the first time, we get a sense of adventure and youthful abandon which is sorely lacking from too much of the film. We also get traces of it from Amy Adams’s under-developed Lois Lane. She appears in the early stages of the film as an adventurous, impetuous, risk-taking reporter, more Phyllis Coates than Margot Kidder. She is wide-eyed, as sure of herself as a strong female character should be, and effective as an audience surrogate, but she ultimately falls by the wayside in favor of (you guessed it) prolonged punching sequences. The romance between her and her alien crush is sorely lacking, and kind of just pops up in an effort to make her less tough and more feminine.
Michael Shannon’s General Zod, is a ruthless and slightly tragic villain, and when he speaks, one can tell that he is the kind of man who would much rather punch faces than speak to them. He’s dangerous, twitchy, and motivated by the most extreme form of patriotism. Rounding out the cast are Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s birth father and otherworldly voice of guidance, and Diane Lane, as his Earth Mother. She and Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White don’t get to do much other than acknowledge the mythology, and Jimmy Olsen is nowhere to be found, but keeping the focus on Superman and his fathers is worth the price of side-lining some of the supporting cast. Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix are also thrown in there to be the faces of the US Military, but don’t really get to do much other than shoot at Superman (as well as Zod’s forces) until he gains their trust.
“Just because you can’t control me doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.”
The production design is impressive, opening with a massive battle on Superman’s doomed homeworld, Krypton. It is huge, and, frankly, a little much, though the unique architecture, modes of transportation, and alien technology on display appears fantastic-yet-practical. Things calm down for a bit on Earth, with desaturated colors and earth-toned costumes really grounding this Man of Steel in the twenty-first century. As for the score by Hans Zimmer, let’s just say he gets a ton of mileage out of that drum orchestra and their booming triplets. Regarding the redesign to Superman’s iconic outfit… The less said about the lack of red trunks, the better. For a drinking game, take a swig every time the camera does one of those rapid zooms on a distant special effect. Seriously, it happens a lot, sometimes two or three times in a single shot.
Superman is back, in fighting form, though not better than ever. Zack Snyder does the character and his world justice in some ways, and fails in others. The mammoth production values are on full display, and anyone gearing up to see Superman kicking butt will not be disappointed. The story is told in a fresh way with enough twists on the classic tale to keep our interest, and the pacing is spot-on, with the admittedly bloated battles escalating naturally to one hell of a fever pitch, so it’s not until they are over that you realize how much of what you just saw was just completely superfluous. Call it a solid hit, if not a home run. It’s a strong start with room for improvement.
“Welcome to the planet”
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