Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Man of Steel

I've attempted to write this review several times, but it always felt too soon for me. I needed more time, more distance away from my emotional highs and lows and the overwhelmingly positive and negative reviews. And now, a little more than a year later, I finally feel like I'm removed enough to give this movie a mostly objective review.

Man of Steel is a reboot to the Superman franchise, which had been absent for seven years due to the lackluster response from Superman Returns, a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite its many faults. However, I did admit that it was time to do something new with the character. And I was very excited for this movie. But, for better and worse, almost everything we see in Man of Steel is in response to Superman Returns.

Zack Snyder, who had previously directed the film adaptation of DC's beloved Watchmen, was chosen as the director. Christopher Nolan was probably DC's first choice, since he had made three practically perfect and enormously profitable Batman films. Nolan opted out of the director's chair, but he was one of the producers and did help with the story. Henry Cavill, who, despite not being American, was cast again as Superman, having previously been chosen to play the character in one of the many failed Superman projects along the way. Amy Adams, who I knew best from The Muppets, was chosen as the new Lois Lane. And Michael Shannon had the unenviable role of following Terrence Stamp as General Zod.

As you might remember, I start off every review with a score of 5 out of 10. Then I add and take away points throughout the movie. And I'll immediately grant a point for this version of Krypton. Previously, the Krypton seen in the movies was intentionally cold and dead so that the viewers wouldn't feel too sad when it exploded. This movie took the opposite approach, giving us a colorful, lively planet with animals and monsters and incredible technology. But at the same time, there was this gray, hazy mist hovering over everything, helping add to the inevitability of the planet's demise. And I also liked how this movie took a page from Superman: The Animated Series by making Jor-El (Russell Crowe) an action hero. It makes sense that the father of the world's greatest hero was something of a hero himself. I thoroughly enjoyed everything Jor-El did here, including his dragon, war suit, his attitudes and intentions.

I have to admit that I was disappointed when I heard General Zod would be the villain. I was craving Brainiac or Darkseid. But it didn't take long for Michael Shannon to win me over. He actually feels like a real general with his short haircut, militaristic mannerisms and speech, and the fact that he had more than two followers. But what really got to me was how sympathetic of a character he was. True, he was a radical, but he ultimately only wanted to save his planet. I liked how he and Jor-El were once friends, and both agreed that Krypton would die soon. They just stood on opposite views of how to save it. This movie did a good job of making me feel bad for Zod, but not to the extent that I ever stopped wanting someone to defeat him. And for Zod, I will raise the score to 7.

It was an interesting choice of the movie to skip the scene of the rocket landing. It's an essential and interesting moment of Superman's origin, but it can be tedious. Especially when most of the audience already knows the basics. Instead, this movie opted to give us Clark's childhood in a series of flashbacks, which probably allowed them to show us more than they could have otherwise. It also helped that each of the flashbacks were powerful moments, played by great child actors who looked astonishingly exactly like Henry Cavill. And I'll add a point for the first flashback, which showed a young Clark struggling with advanced hearing and vision. In the previous movies, what little we saw of a young Clark showed him depressed with his inability to openly show his strength — and we get plenty of that here, too — but we didn't have any mention of what a physical and mental toll having those powers can be for a little kid.

I'll now raise the score to a 9 for the next big flashback, in which Clark saves his school bus and is spotted doing it. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) kind of scolds Clark for this, to which Clark asks if he should have let all those people die. Jonathan says, "Maybe." Now, a lot of people took issue with comment, but I think they jumped the gun a little bit, interpreting that "maybe" to be a "yes," and not waiting for Jonathan to finish his thought. I think he thoroughly explained and justified himself, by saying that the world is not ready to accept an alien in its midst. And neither is he nor Clark. He then shows Clark the spaceship, and the poor boy immediately asks, "Can't I just keep pretending I'm your son?" What a heart-breaking moment! How could anyone call Jonathan Kent callus after that? He only wants what's best for his son and the rest of the world. He might be wrong by having Clark suppress his powers, but his intentions are pure.

Now for the first time in this movie, I have to take a point off. This is for Clark destroying a man's semi truck after he poured a pitcher of beer on him. Yeah, that guy was a big jerk, and it was a pretty funny visual (in a movie with very little humor). But the whole thing felt very against Clark's character. I thought he was living this nomadic lifestyle to help people — while also searching for his identity. I don't care how much beer that guy pours on you, that is no justification to destroy a truck that likely belongs to a company — an innocent victim in all this. I wish Clark could have gotten his revenge in a less dramatic way. Or, better yet, not get revenge at all. Just turn the other cheek and walk away. This movie doesn't shy away from the Superman-Christ parallels, so why not have Clark act just a little more Christ-like?

But I will add a point for Clark's introduction to Lois Lane. Not only is this a great version of the character, but I really enjoyed the mystery that brought them together — an ancient Kryptonian ship that sort of became Superman's new Fortress of Solitude. And the best part of this scene was Clark's simple line: "I can do things that other people can't." That has to rank as one of the all-time most perfect Superman lines of all time. It actually reminds me a bit of 1938's Action Comics #1, when Superman told Lois that needn't be afraid of him. This is essential Superman here.

The score falls back down to an 8, though, with the absence of Kal-El's mom, Lara. It was great and wonderful to see Jor-El return, but if he was able to put his consciousness in that crystal, then why couldn't Lara? I think this scene could have played just as well with both of Kal's parents telling him the history of Krypton. This movie had the opportunity to give the largely ignored Lara some love, but it sadly chose not to.

After Clark meets his dad, he gets his suit and begins to learn to fly. And it is magical. Hans Zimmer's score is intentionally different from John Williams' classic march, and it fits this movie perfectly. While not necessarily as triumphant as Williams', it is still very inspiring, as is this whole movie. It's not as happy and gleeful as the previous Superman films, but it is still an inspiring, and most of all, realistic movie. This was the first time we saw Superman creating a sonic boom with his flight, and it was incredible. I loved everything about this scene from the costume to the broad smile on Clark's face. This is one of the few moments in the movie where you can just sit back and have fun, and it is precious. We're back to a 9 now.

The film becomes a perfect 10 with the jaw-dropping scene of Jonathan Kent choosing to die rather than risk exposing Clark's powers. Now, it is highly illogical for someone to risk their life like that for a dog, and you could argue against Jonathan's logic of telling Clark to stay put. But this goes back to the school bus scene. Jonathan was so worried about creating mass hysteria with the revelation of a super-powered alien, and the possibility of Clark being taken away by the government or worse. He placed the secrecy of Clark's powers at a higher priority than even his own life, and you may disagree with his reasoning, but you can't say that was not a powerful moment in the movie. And tying it all together is Clark telling this story to Lois Lane to show how important his secrecy is. And to Lois' credit, she honors his wishes and tries to kill the story. But it's too late by then.

What drops the score back down to a 9 may seem like an odd, contradictory point by me, but hear me out. I don't like that the "S" stands for hope. Originally, it was intended to just be the letter "S" for Superman and nothing more. But later, as the "S" grew more stylized, creators began playing with the idea of it being a completely different symbol that just happened to look like an "S." This was popularized in Superman: The Movie, which made the "S" the symbol of the House of El. I don't mind that so much, but over time, it has felt like many creators are uncomfortable with the idea of Superman naming himself such. And that idea is especially apparent in this movie, which only dares to whisper the name of Superman once or twice. I would much prefer to have Superman come out and boldly proclaim himself as the savior of the world. Superman is a type of Christ and Moses, and both of them did not shy away from announcing their divine callings to the world. It's not a lack of humility to say the truth. This might seem like an odd complaint, but it really contributes to the rather dour mood this movie spends so much time in. And it really could have used some more brightness.

And I'm going to take another point off for a rather confusing bit of darkness. When Clark visits Zod's ship, Zod communicates to him through — for lack of a better word — a dream. It's unclear whether the images were projected by Zod's thoughts or Clark's, but Zod's intent was to convince Clark to help rebuild Krypton. But instead of showing him the greatness of the lost race, Zod shows him the pile of human skulls the new Krypton will be built upon. Or maybe he didn't. Maybe Clark just imagined it. Either way, it was quite confusing and melodramatic when he sank into the skulls screaming. I think we could have conveyed this information without being so over the top.

Now on to something positive. The action scenes were amazing. Superman has never moved so fast and so powerful. And very realistic, too. I also loved the militaristic precision of Zod's army. And it was so refreshing for Superman to finally have somebody to punch. That was one of the biggest complaints against Superman Returns, and Man of Steel made sure we were never wanting for action. I have heard some people complain that Superman didn't take the fights to more remote areas to protect civilians. But I think these people are forgetting that this is a Superman just beginning his career as a superhero — he just barely learned how to fly. And I never saw an opportunity for him to take the fight out of the city. And I actually liked putting civilians at risk. More so than in any other Superman movie, I truly feared for the fate of the world. Buildings were collapsing, trains were exploding, and people were dying. The score's back up to a 9 now.

And I'll bring the movie back to a 10 for being the first Superman story I've seen that gave me a good reason for Superman falling in love with Lois. She tracked him down, learned all his secrets, and respected him. She then joined on the wild adventure, and proved she can keep up with him. She's one of the only people who understands Clark, and when they kiss at the end, it is deserved. I enjoy this romance so much more than in previous stories. And I'm so happy we don't have to suffer through watching Lois try to figure out Superman's secret identity.

Sadly, I can't leave this movie at a perfect score, and that's because of the most controversial moment of the whole film — the death of General Zod. When I saw this in the theater, a couple of people sitting in front of me stood up and left immediately after Superman killed Zod. This really altered my perception of the movie, but ultimately, and now a year later, I think it was the right thing for Superman to kill Zod. Playing off the Moses analogy, let's not forget that before Moses became a prophet, he did kill a man to save another. That action forced him to retreat to the wilderness, where he met God and became the great hero of the Israelite nation. Perhaps this is the big event that Clark needed to truly become Superman. So if I like the death scene, then why am I taking a point off? Well, that's for what immediately follows. Superman screams, and is comforted by Lois, and I wish we would have dwelled on them just a bit longer. Because suddenly, we were thrown into a rather goofy scene of the Army general calling Superman "effing stupid" for destroying a $12 million drone and the female captain blushing because Superman is "kinda hot." We needed time to process the death of Zod. We also did need to end with some lightness, but not so soon. And this scene ultimately did more harm than good, leaving a rather bad taste in many people's mouths.

But all in all, this was an amazing film. And to my own surprise, I actually like it more now than I did a year ago. I think I was initially a bit disappointed because I didn't get the movie I'd expected to see. But with some time and distance, I've grown to appreciate this movie for what it is, and not criticize it for what it is not. Yes, this is a darker, drearier Superman than we're accustomed to. But it's also a more realistic and exciting Superman than we've ever seen before. And hopefully, if Warner Bros. play their cards right, this will be the beginning of new movie franchise more spectacular than anything the Avengers could have ever hoped for.

Final score: 9 out of 10

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