Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Movie Review – Man of Steel

  As part of my Father’s Day present, the whole family went to see the new Superman movie 'Man of Steel' on Friday night. When I was a kid, reruns of The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves from the 1950’s was a staple of my television viewing. Given the technological limitations of the time the most super Superman could get 60 years ago was to stand in front of some low level thugs while they shot at him or take ‘flight’ in front of the same cloud formation week after week. It made for a fairly tame Superman in comparison to the fantastic adventures he could have in the comics not only battling super-villains like Lex Luthor and Brainiac but traveling to outer space and fighting entire worlds or even galaxies.

  Superman made it to the movies in the 1970’s and 80’s with Christopher Reeve in the title role. The special effects were significantly upgraded and the first two movies were box office hits but production company infighting and reduced budgets crippled the last two movies of the series. The Superman brand remained visible and showed the characters popularity with the successful television series ‘Lois and Clark : The New Adventures of Superman’ and ‘Smallville’. Superman made it to back to film in 2006’s ‘Superman Returns’, which showed Superman returning to earth after a 5 year absence only to discover Lois has a fiancée and a five year old super son. The villain was Lex Luthor and Kryptonite and while the movie did good box office, it was not enough to make Warner Brothers insist on a speedy sequel and ended up being a one shot movie. I thought the movie was engaging and the ‘Marvel’ type of angst-ridden Superman was interesting but without a true super-villain there wasn’t enough action to restore the franchise to an iconic status like Batman.

  Superheroes sell movie tickets, but normally the super-villain is what lifts a movie to iconic status (Iron Man being a notable exception) and that is where Superman has struggled as a movie property: he is so super there is no earthly force that can counter him. Since Batman has no super powers he can have terrific battles with the Joker and other villains, but Superman is so super that the only way for earthlings to combat him is to take away his powers and then Superman is just a poor man's Batman and not a super man. The best of the Superman movies in my opinion was the second one (1980’s Superman II) with Kryptonian villains General Zod, Ursa, and the bumbling Non and I was very encouraged when I heard that General Zod was going to be the featured villain in the new version.

  My encouragement was tempered when I found out the Russell Crowe signed on to be Jor-El, Superman’s father who sends him on a ship to earth as an infant to escape Krypton’s destruction and that Kevin Costner was to Superman’s earthly father Pa Kent. I thought paying the big bucks required to lure big names like Crowe and Costner meant that there was going to be a long drawn out origin story and little time for super action.

  The movie predictably starts on the doomed planet Krypton, but this Krypton was not doomed because of happenstance; it is doomed because the planet ran out of natural resources and while harvesting energy from the core of the planet, the core was corrupted (a commentary against hydraulic fracking?). The Kryptonian elders aren’t very concerned about the destruction of their planet because all the Kryptonians’ genetic material is coded into a device called a Codex and can be recreated at any time. In a 1984 sort of twist, every Kryptonian’s role is predestined from conception by assigning their genetic blueprint from the Codex and they are all birthed from a sort of genetic hatchery. While Krypton is exploding from within, there is the first live birth of a Kryptonian in centuries (Kal-El aka Superman), a failed military coup, the theft of the Codex, the launch of the infant Superman to Earth, and the death of Jor-El at the hands of General Zod. The otherworldly Krypton and fight scenes would have been worthy of a climactic battle scene of lesser movies and didn’t seem like an obligatory ‘origin’ scene at all.

  After Krypton explodes, the action shifts to a post-teenager Clark Kent trying to find a place in the world without revealing his super powers. His rationale for is actions is shown in flashbacks to his youth in Smallville as he struggles to control his x-ray and heat vision and is treated as a freak the one time he uses his powers to save his classmates from a watery grave when their school bus plunges into the river. Eventually Superman discovers a Kryptonian scout ship and learns his true origin from the digitized consciousness of his father. Then General Zod and his army makes their way to Earth and after some twists and turns, has an epic battle with Superman in which the town of Smallville is all but leveled and at least a dozen skyscrapers fall over in the middle of the city. In the end, truth, justice, and the American Way prevail and the earth is saved from being taken over by Zod and populated by Kryptonians genetically created from the Codex.

  The movie was hyped as a ‘darker’ Superman since it was written by Christoper Nolan of ‘Dark Knight’ fame and directed by Zack Snyder (‘300’ and ‘Watchmen’) and while he certainly wasn’t the same All-American good guy he has always been portrayed as, Superman is still a moral superhero and didn’t come close to the psychopathic heights of Nolan’s Batman . As a young man Clark Kent doesn’t pulverize the drunk trucker that pours a beer on his head, but he does impale his truck on a pile of logs. The adult Superman doesn’t think twice about destroying millions of dollars of surveillance systems when he is the target of the surveillance and his final fight with General Zod was especially grisly, but in the end he just wants to help the people of Earth. The main difference I can see is that this Superman thinks of himself as an alien and knows the people of Earth also think of him that way and that many people will inherently distrust him because of that.

  I liked this movie after I saw it and almost a week later I like it even more. The Kryptonian technology and homeworld was incredible and while the final battle in Metropolis with all the falling buildings reminded me a little too much of 9-11 for my taste there was more than enough action. The acting was stellar. Henry Cavill was a properly serious Superman with a wariness of the human world taking the place of the ‘Gee Whiz’ quality of Christopher Reeve. Since Clark Kent the reporter only showed up for the last scene it remains to be seen how Cavill will handle that part of the role although the movie hinted that the reporter job is just a means to be informed of super opportunities. Russell Crowe was an epic Jor-El and the character as played was an action hero worthy of his own movie. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane played the couple who adopted the infant Superman after his spaceship crashes on their farm in the down home manner I would expect. I thought they were a bit too much the stoic Midwestern types. Costner doesn’t want Clark to save him from a tornado because it will reveal his identity and Lane seems nonplussed about the destruction of her home at the hands of General Zod (‘it’s only stuff’). Amy Adams as Lois Lane had an obligatory scene in the beginning to show what a tough reporter she is and she implausibly is able to fight off the Kryptonian soldiers to save Superman, but other than that she plays her character well as the ace reporter who wants to get her story while trying to protect the alien in her midst. About the only thing I didn’t like in the movie was Perry White (played expertly by Laurence Fishburne) wearing a diamond earring. Great Caesar’s Ghost! But even that small quibble was more than offset by seeing SVU favorite Christopher Meloni (Elliot Stabler) with a featured role as the initially distrusting Colonel Nathan Hardy.

  ‘Man of Steel’ was easily the #1 movie of the weekend and grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide so I think it can be safely assumed that a sequel is coming and likely a Justice League Movie as the never ending battle between DC and Marvel Comics continues on the big screen. I think the idea of Superman as a semi-distrustful and semi-distrusting super-alien is well suited for today’s movie goers. While 50 and even 30 years ago people wanted their heroes to be heroic, modern times call for heroes that not only have special abilities and special effects; they also have to have an air of menace. I assume Lex Luthor will be the villain in the sequel, but I’m personally rooting for Brainiac (the super computer that shrinks entire cities to collect them) or Darkseid, evil ruler of the planet Apokolips. While Luthor is enigmatic enough for the comics, he can’t be a match for Superman. The only way he can compete with him is to either bring in super powered help (in which case who needs Lex Luthor?) or take away Superman’s powers (in which case he isn’t Superman anymore). If Superman gets all wrapped up with anything less than planetary threats, he becomes the same Boy Scout hero of the past and DC may as well make a movie of the Man of Steel helping little old ladies crossing the street.