REVIEW: MAN OF STEEL. A REALLY, REALLY SERIOUS SUPERMAN

 

As I sat in the theater watching Man Of Steel, witnessing all of the all too real looking devastation taking place in the wake of the battle between Superman and General Zod, all I could think about was how it was going to take decades for that city to recover and rebuild. I guess that comes from living in a post 911 world. The destruction was so thorough and complete and so effectively portrayed with terrific effects that all I could think of was how these people were ever going to recover from this. I think to best sum up my feelings about Man Of Steel, I’d have to quote from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s film Team America: World Police. There’s a scene when the puppet version of Kim Jong Il tells one of the Team America agents “It will be 911 times a thousand.” The point being that Man of Steel is serious. Really, really serious.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman

The problem is that it maintains that tone throughout the film, never letting up once to give us a quiet moment of humor or to let us take a breath long enough to get to know the characters in this newest film version of the Superman mythos. Even when we get to the Smallville moments, it’s still so, so earnest! One good example of that is when we see how Clark Kent loses his father. Remember in the original film when the brilliant Glenn Ford gave us that terrific death scene when he quietly clutches his arm and has his heart attack? It was a tragic, touching and incredibly poignant moment. In Man Of Steel however, Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent doesn’t go out so quietly (nor with as much emotional impact). No, he is killed by a monstrously gargantuan and deafeningly loud tornado. And on it goes.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Jor-El and Lara

Superman is the last survivor of Krypton, a planet whose core is about to implode. Jor-El warns them all of course but everyone is too busy fending off General Zod who is trying to take over the planet. Jor-El, in an attempt to save his species and his newborn son, imbues the child with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race by zapping the genetic information stored in an old broken skull into Kal-El’s tummy before the child is sent off into space. Ok. Zod is eventually stopped and, along with his fellow traitors, frozen and shipped off to the Phantom Zone.

Michael Shannon as a very angry General Zod

Meanwhile, on Earth, we are given a muddled series of flashbacks showing a young Clark Kent trying to cope with his powers and occasionally saving people, much to Pa Kent’s dismay. He fears that if his adopted son’s powers are exposed that Clark will be feared and hunted. He’s even willing to needlessly sacrifice himself to a gigantic tornado and force Clark not to save him in order to keep Clark’s secret (although one supposes that there might have been any number of easier ways to make his point). Oddly, the film borrows more than a little from Peter Parker and Uncle Ben with regards to Clark’s growth as a hero.



Of course it wouldn’t be a Superman movie without Lois Lane. I have been on record as saying that Amy Adams was miscast as Lois and after seeing the film I stand by that. I have nothing against Adams. I think she’s a talented actor. However, as Adam’s plays her, she’s subdued, subtle and has the annoying habit of over enunciating her words. I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady reciting “The Rain In Spain” for Rex Harrison. Adams has none of the moxy of Kidder or Hatcher or Noel Neill or even cartoon Lois Dana Delany. There’s no real explanation for why Lois makes her first appearance in the Arctic. She seems at first to be some sort of military or scientific consultant rather than a reporter trying to get a story. All we know is that she had to get a court order to get there and makes a “dick measuring“ comment to the officer in charge but does it with all the forcefulness and wit of a librarian on Xanax. She is fascinated by Superman (as a good Lois Lane should be) and he by her even though the film doesn’t‘ give them much choice as they are thrown together in a harrowing series of events almost from the moment the two meet until the films end. But, in the immortal words of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” There isn’t much of a relationship between Superman and Lois because there’s no time for one. Too much death and destruction and desperate battles going on. The film makers seem to realize this so even though there’s no time to actually develop their relationship in any way what so ever, they still have the two look dreamily into each others eyes when they get a breather. Fair enough.

Ayelet Zurer as Superman’s mother Lara

It’s an interesting experiment to recall the Superman vs. Zod scenes from Superman 2 and then watch this new film. There are a lot of similarities, even down to Zod’s two sidekicks, both knock offs of Superman 2’s Ursa and Non and both doing basically the same thing, only this time it’s less comic booky and much more serious. For example, we don’t get any interesting character quirks like Superman 2’s Ursa collecting buttons and patches from the men she had killed. Faora just kills people–with earnest. We don’t really get much of anything with regards to scenes at the Daily Planet even though Laurence Fishburne does what he can to make his limited screen time as Perry White count. There are nods to The Matrix, why I don’t know. There are scenes on Krypton that remind me of Avatar, what with all the flying creatures and things. Russell Crowe is watchable as Jor-El. Costner and Diane Lane are, well, earnest. For my money, the most quietly intriguing and interesting performance of the film was given by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as baby Superman’s mother Lara. In fact, I want to put her name up now as a possible contender for the role of Princess Diana if and when DC/Warner Bros ever make a Wonder Woman film. When it was all over, I found myself thinking of Ayelet’s performance the most. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod is great(even though I kept having flashbacks of him as Kim Fowley from The Runaways). But he overshadows everything and everyone much like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Batman film.

Lois and Clark: Not Fun

During the occasional 15 to 30 seconds when the action briefly lets up, Hans Zimmer’s score keeps the relentlessly serious and desperate tone of the film consistent. There is no doubt that director Zack Snyder has a flair for the visual if not the coherent. He proved that in Watchmen and 300. But both of those films had a sense of humor in spite of their bleak stories where Man of Steel does not. There is literally no sense of humor or a single ounce of wit to be found in this film. Anywhere. At all. Zip. After the film ended, I watched as the audience filed out of the theater, looking dazed and exhausted and expressionless. There was no “How about that scene when Superman did X or Y.”

Lois and Clark: Fun

  There was no laughter or cheering. I thought of how stark a difference this reaction was to when I saw the first Superman film where the audience virtually leapt to their feet and cheered or laughed. I was also reminded of Marvel/Disney’s The Avengers where the audience was much more invested and the audience experience seemed much more interactive. Here the audience seemed dumfounded. And with good cause. The collapsing buildings and death and destruction that takes place in Metropolis as General Zod terraforms the planet and fights with Superman is wholesale and complete and might make some feel kind of raw when it’s all over.

The winner and undefeated champ since 1978.  Christopher Reeve is Superman

I wouldn’t’ take a young child to see this film and that speaks to the main problem of Man Of Steel. It’s Superman. You know? Superman! Superman is the one comic book character where I can forgive a certain amount of sappiness and copious amounts of idealism and even a little bit of camp. You need a little bit of each in order to sell an audience on a flying alien in blue long johns and a cape. If Man Of Steel accomplishes anything it is to remind us how amazing Christopher Reeve was in the role. Christopher Reeve once said that, when it came to his portrayal of Superman, he let the costume, that silly, iconic costume, do all the talking while he just played it straight, just played a nice guy. That was the genius of his performance and that‘s why, in spite of all the silly things about that first movie, it continues to be the gold standard of Superhero films because it had heart, a sense of humor and a hero we cared about. Henry Cavill definitely looks the part and, with a script that lets him do more than brood and frown and simmer, he could potentially be a pretty good Superman. He’s no worse or better than Brandon Routh. But he’s no Christopher Reeve and Man Of Steel is no Superman The Movie. Superman the Movie made me smile, made me laugh, made me cheer. I left Superman The Movie feeling happy. As I did with Avengers and some of the other Marvel films. There was absolutely no joy in Man Of Steel and that’s a real problem when you’re doing a Superman movie. And I think that is DC’s problem when it comes to their Superhero films. A lack of humor, too much of an investment in shoehorning a comic book character into the real world. Or, at the very least, a really, really serious world.

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