Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel

There's a sweaty, pulsating sense of pressure that permeates through every frame of Man of Steel, Zack Synder's exhausting reboot of the long in distress Superman movie franchise.  So strenuous and aggressive is the entire enterprise, the only summation that can truthfully be felt is an urgent sense of nerves.  That sounds about right, especially in the light of the difficulties that the powers that be at Warner Bros. and D.C. Comics have had in building and re-building their distinctive canon of characters to the screen, what with all the false starts, misguided behind the scenes decisions, and the general nerviness of an undertaking something so big, noisy and expensive.  After all, the superhero cinematic landscape has undergone a drastic coming of age since the 1978 Richard Donner Superman first took flight, ushering in an era of comic book extravaganzas.  The movies have gotten bigger, grander and grittier, distilling real world terrors with their iconography.  There's a quivering notion walking into Man of Steel on whether there's still a place for Superman in this landscape after all, is he, the beloved grandfather of them all still relevant in a post- 9/11 superhero climate?

Man of Steel hasn't quite successfully answered that question, but for a movie that's as utterly watchable as it frustrating, one that for every satisfying moment or performance or tiny nook to cling to fails to satisfy as a whole, it does try in earnest to alter the cinematic impression of it's iconic character, now celebrating his seventy-fifth year of preserving truth, justice and the American way.  With Christopher Nolan serving as maestro after his unqualified success at rebuilding Batman from the flamboyant throes of self-parody, and with a screenplay by David S. Goyer, the intention is that Man of Steel will, of course, rear Superman out of the dusty cob-webs of his past and flesh out the character and the broader universe that contains him-- you know, and show up all those Marvel guys and their billion dollar success stories.

The result is frantic, over-bloated and sadly, under-nourished.  That pressure culminates in a lot of movie, one of excess and such over-the-top massive-ness, that the ingredient that's forgotten is the fun, the thrilling lure and unabashed glee of popcorn entertainment exciting the senses and taking flight.  Instead it's more of a connect-the-dots action film where point A leads to nothing more than grandly executed bits of explosive point B nonsense.  It's all a bit of a shame, for the smaller moments (what few there are to begin with) of Man of Steel are capably performed that given just a bit more time to properly jell or the tiniest hint of subtlety, this Superman may have been given a chance to soar emotionally just as does through the air so adroitly.  Instead the film is distinctly mechanical, a bit cold, and ironically, while trying to distill more of a sense of a real world to surround the man and superman reverts itself into something all the more shallow and cartoonish by forgetting the most valuable thing any film needs: a beating heart.

Again it speaks to the nerves on display for the new and not quite improved rock 'em, sock 'em Superman.  He fights and he broods, a palatable blend that worked quite well for Nolan's re-imagining of Batman, and one that resolutely goes against the Superman that Bryan Singer conceived in the fan-rejected 2006 reboot/sequel/superhero-as-pacifist yarn Superman Returns.  Gone is the duality of the aw-shucks, lost boy scout affability that has been perceived for so long-- here Superman/Clark Kent is eternally conflicted and more than a little emo.  It all makes sense to Batman Begins-ese a Superman retool, especially from a business model perspective, and there's certainly nothing inherently wrong in trying to re-juice the movie franchise in a stark fashion, but while there was a thoughtfulness and swift narrative balance between the spectacle and character development in Batman's re-building, there's a seemingly careless free-for-all take on Superman.

We meet him first as Kal-El, as the first natural birth on the planet Krypton to doting parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe, regal and stately) and Lara Lor-El (played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer.)  As their planet is on the edge of destruction, they send their child into orbit, to a planet of "exceedingly high intelligence" with the guttural instinct, that he will become a symbol, a god perhaps and totem for good and all that is noble and possible.  The opening sequences are gently guided by the powerful figures of parental longing that Crowe and Zurer inhabit.  A difficult task considering the set design and sub-Avatar imagining of Krypton is more distractingly art directed than anything else.  Kal-El is sent into space, as General Zod (Michael Shannon) watches in agonizing defeat-- there's more to that story, but of course there would be.

The second stage of Man of Steel is it's most enticing on terms of character development, as we meet a lost young man, a journeyman of sorts whose navigating off the grid.  He's particularly sullen but with an exquisitely sculpted physique.  There's a curious divide where Man of Steel really wants to settle in while this long ranger with the muscular frame travails the backwoods in self discovery, while flashes of childhood innocence linger in his memories.  This alien, the creature determined to be Earth's salvation arrives in the backyard in the kindly mortal Kent family-- armed by a compassionate sense of humanity by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Kansas farm owners Jonathon and Martha.  There's a peaceful, almost Malick-ian sense of tranquility in the flintiest of flashes, but Synder and his team are too interested in dulling the senses with so much noise, none stick the way they should.  For the alien, re-christened Clark, was a hulking savior as a child, even as his humble parents sought for him to hold back for his protection.

It helps that as an adult, he is played with brooding sensitivity by British actor Henry Cavill, who imbues a humane lightness to a film that has no time for such.  Clark's struggle for identity and self-deemed misfit is perfectly suiting to the performer who's mounting frame is minimized by his nearly masterful and sympathetic reserve.  It's the script and the mounting pressure of recharging franchise eagerness that gets the better of Superman's return and nearly robs Cavill of the expressiveness that he's only partially able to convey.  For the action must keep go on, whether anyone's quite ready for it all, there's precious little time to waste on the details.  Man of Steel is in such a rush to get on with it that it nearly feels like the filmmakers are making several movies simultaneously, hesitant to hit the dismount on just one.  And so while there's stuff and grandeur to admire in Synder's update, it never compels, it never quite settles, charts along from one spectacle to the next with nary a dime nor reason.

It's in this regard that the climax, like so many chapters in superhero movies, can never quite be viewed as anything more than the latest cog to get the green light to next feature.  As with the problems of many of Marvel films which feel too much like epic advertisements for the next ultimate saga, the rush and unearned immediacy of the pyrotechnics show adds up to nothing more than yet another destructive adventure on the road to, well hopefully someone knows where it's all supposed to be heading.  Through it all, there's a heavy-handedness, one of the such that was apparent in Nolan's Dark Knights, but here without the earned audience participation that journeys alongside this darker, grittier, more real world set Superman.  Forgiven would be the obvious Christ-like parallels for which has grown into Superman's myth, but in Synder's hands, the un-subtle bombast is unsettling to point of nearly deadening.  His Man of Steel is simply not very much fun.

And the villain isn't all that enticing either.  After years of being frozen in some sort of intergalactic whatsit, General Zod, playing under the guise of the sort of modern, international terrorist sort that's become popular among popcorn, crowd-pleasing fair, seeks revenge on Kal-El for the incoherent events of the past.  Shannon is incredibly talented actor, one with an intense and intimidating stare, but there's little to his General Zod that feels fresh or capable of those niftily cathartic "ah ha" moments that the very best can deliver.  The stakes are nothing more than the endless destruction of heavily populated cities, which is these days of franchise movie making, doesn't mean much of anything any more, or seem to bring about much consequence either.

The rest of the regular gang is scattered about as well, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for Metropolis' Daily Planet who, somehow, gets herself repeatedly saved and saved again by this mysterious man in tights.  Adams and Cavill barely have time to share goggily eyes at one another in Synder's iteration; there's hardly enough time for that here, despite the lofty running time of nearly two-and-a-half-hours.  Romance isn't a part of this version of the myth.  Even so, the extravagant Man of Steel misses the easy allures of iconic touches in Superman origin in the sake of haphazard time management.  The humanity of Clark Kent, and his conflict between between Earth's godsend as well as its humble boy next door, fusing the honorable but very different parental capacities of nature and nurture is slighted because the agenda is more fully focused on lots of stuff blowing up instead.  Cavill makes a striking fit, but Superman is hardly the star of Man of Steel.  C

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