2013-06-15

Movie Review: Man Of Steel

For my money, Superman has always been one of the least interesting of all super-heroes. The basic conflict simply isn't interesting. This is a man who can pretty much do anything, and who is basically invincible. So, for the most part, he must simply spend his time rounding up bad guys and plopping them in jail. Ho-hum.

Then we have the matter of his one weakness: Kryptonite. Exposed to this mineral, he becomes weak and, I guess, potentially dies. So the basic plot of any episodic installment of the Superman franchise is going to come down to some variation of an evil criminal somehow acquiring Kryptonite and discovering its effect on Superman, and then using it to attempt to kill Superman and walk away with piles of money or something. Lucky for Superman, one of the few people who manages to figure out his secret identity somehow defies the odds and takes Superman away from the Kryptonite and its ill effects. Having thus been rehabilitated, Superman returns to capture and conquer the villain.

If you've seen one such episode, you've seen them all.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the plot of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, was a welcome departure from this over-worked storyline. Instead, Man of Steel tells the story of the final days of the planet Krypton, the motives of its long-dead inhabitants, the story of that race of people, and how it was that Superman ended up on Earth. For those of us more accustomed to beginning any Superman story with his mysterious crash-landing on a mid-western farm, this was a delicious slice of back-story that had the power to breath new life into the Superman legend.

Also surprising is that the chief antagonist of the story not Lex Luther, but rather General Zod. Of course, this would come as no real surprise to Superman aficionados, since Zod has long since been a mainstay of the actual comic books. But a Zod with no direct relationship to Lex Luther provides a new kind of Superman story to be told to the general movie-going public, and this under-utilized variation of the Superman oeuvre offers up yet another refreshing change for the franchise.

Man of Steel likewise provides some excellent script elements that add depth to Superman's character. Rather than painting him as bumbling idiot Clark Kent on the one hand, and stern-faced invincible god Superman on the other, Man of Steel tells the story of a young man who has grown comfortable in his own skin through years of patient study and ethical discipline. At one point in the movie, we see Superman as a boy, completely engrossed in a book about Plato. His sometimes torturous youth, rather than spawning the barely controlled temper that we usually find beneath the surface of superficial superheroes, spawns a serene and philosophical wisdom, a profound sense of morality that governs his every decision once he reaches adulthood.

Well, that kind of story-telling is rare for Hollywood these days, and in Man of Steel, it pays off in spades. This, we learn (although it is never stated outright, only subtly implied), is how Superman becomes the archon of "truth, justice, and the American way." The point is driven home throughout the movie as we see peripheral characters interacting with Superman and suddenly becoming inspired to rise to the trying circumstances that they face without Superman, and prevail. This was Jor-El's hope for Superman, and this is what the script writers give us. Bravo!

Speaking of peripheral characters, the supporting cast of this movie must surely be one of the most star-studded list of great performers to grace the non-starring roles on a single movie in recent memory. Russell Crowe stars as Jor-El, and performs wonderfully, lending the role a level of intelligence not typically associated with Crowe. That casting decision is further juxtaposed by the ordinarily-intelligent-role-playing Kevin Costner as Superman's adopted father on Earth. Costner's acting chops, too, are on great display as he delivers his lines with a genuineness and ease that we wouldn't expect from the man who played more wooden characters like The Postman. Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Amy Adams all play their roles perfectly, along with a long list of less-known but recognizeable actors like Christopher Meloni (of Law & Order: SVU fame), Harry Lennix (perhaps best remembered for his role on TV's E.R.), and the surprisingly awesome Michael Shannon, whose portrayal of General Zod is a real show-stealer.

Unfortunately, Man of Steel was not all good. There are a number of flaws in the movie that, for me, greatly compromised how good a film it could have been.

For one thing, starting a franchise re-boot by pitting Superman against his most powerful enemy creates a real dilemma for any future installment. Having now breathed new life into a very tired franchise that has major plot problems, the filmmakers are left with few new places to take the story. A plot involving Lex Luther would be the next logical step, but how do you tell that story without resorting to all the tired cliches of Superman stories in general? If this team reassembles to produce another Superman movie, we already know how that sequel will pan out: Lex Luther will appear; he will initially be popular and well-respected, and then we will discover that he has sinister motives and also a small but significant quantity of Kryptonite. He will lure Superman into a trap and then expose him to Kryptonite. Lois Lane or perhaps Jimmy will show up to save Superman from the Kyrptonite, and then Superman will save the world from Luther. Again. Boring!

A more reasonable way to approach the franchise would have been to introduce Lex Luther first, or perhaps both arch-villains at the same time, but unrelated. To gradually build a story of multiple worthy foes who each, for their own reasons, want to rid the world of Superman, but who each individually lack the means to do so could supply the movie franchise with enough parallel plot lines to generate a dozen Superman movies, and a stunning grand finale. But this was not the way the filmmakers chose to go.

Another problem with Man of Steel was its depiction of the Kryptonians. As is usually the case, Hollywood has once again proven itself to be incapable of depicting a logical, scientifically advanced society that is not somehow also a society of religious nuts. This is a common complaint I have about Hollywood in general: Genius can never be genius, it can only be the flip-side of insanity; reason can never be reason, it can only be the more stoic version of religious devotion. Hollywood is unable to conceive of intelligence except to call it lunacy, unable to conceive of logic except to say that it looks to them a lot like religion. So again and again we are bombarded by theocratic Kryptonians, mystical Klingons, drug-addled and psychotic Sherlock Holmeses, papal Jedis, and so on. Invincible aliens are not too much for Hollywood; a person who is both super-intelligent and perfectly sane is beyond the pale.

Finally, I found that the action sequences in Man of Steel were excessive to the point of caricature. I am all for violence and destruction in movies, but when one begins to wonder whether there is a single skyscraper left standing in New York City, a single satellite left in the sky, a single drop of water left in the ocean, then we have surely pushed the apocalyptic scenarios to their limit.

In summary, there is a great deal to love about this movie, but also a great deal to hate. If I had to guess, I'd say that Christopher Nolan fans will call it amazing, while those who are not Nolan fans will ultimately find it as anti-climactic as I did. A running criticism I have of Nolan is that his stories are "all wind-up, no follow-through," and that criticism applies equally to Man of Steel. The wind-up was good enough, however, to make the movie basically worthwhile.