Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel Review

(This review is going to contain spoilers, so this is your warning.)

I am - for those of you who may not know already - a huge Superman fan. One of the biggest you're likely to find, actually, and I have been since I was a kid. I've lost track of how many capes and Superman shirts I've owned through the years. I'm telling you this so that you'll know that I went into Man of Steel really, really wanting to like it.

I didn't.

I'm not quite sure where to begin, so I'll begin with the most obvious thing to me as I was watching it: the movie just didn't have whole lot of heart to it. I was very encouraged by the trailers. They made it seem as though we were going to finally get the Superman movie many of us have always wanted: one that focused on Clark's character, his influences and upbringing, his wanderings post-college and what makes him relatable - his humanity. We thought we were going to be seeing something akin to Batman Begins and see the process and the journey that Clark takes that makes him the man in Superman.

Unfortunately, what little there was of that was played out in a series of short, incomplete and muddled vignettes that made Clark look more like a clueless wanderer than a man searching for his place in the world. And it turns out that the movie is about the least relatable part of Superman - the Kryptonian part of him. He's not Clark. He's Kal. And that focus, I think, is where the disconnect begins.

The plot is a convoluted, confusing mess. The movie jumps around so much that it's often difficult to follow who we're supposed to be focused on and where we are in the world and who is there and whom we should be caring about. And there are no truly inspirational moments where you just want to stand up and clap or cheer or feel a huge sense or relief that Superman is there. Think of the moment in Superman: the Motion Picture where Superman is freed from the kryptonite chains in Luthor's underground lair. Or the moment in Superman II when Superman regains his powers and shows back up on the scene to fight Zod. Those kind of moments are wholly missing in Man of Steel.

And that's another thing that makes this movie a failure in my eyes - we just don't care about Clark or Lois or anyone, really, to be affected by their imminent danger.

The characters in Man of Steel are paper-thin. There's just no depth there. I found Lois's personality inconsistent throughout the film. Perry White was there, but Jimmy Olsen wasn't. But Steve freaking Lombard was there. I can't comprehend that decision at all. Clark Kent - the reporter - doesn't even make an appearance until the last minute or so of the film. Zod's motives are confusing from the beginning and Jol-El's appearance throughout the film is just weird. It's almost as if they said, "well, we've got Amy Adams and Russell Crowe in this movie, so we might as well write them into some scenes." And what's troubling is that the main character , Clark Kent (I don't say Superman because he clearly isn't that character), is an unknown to both himself and to the audience. We're not really given any reason to care about the characters other than that we know we should because we recognize their names.

And then there's the cursing. Why the cursing? I winced almost every time (with the exception of when Clark gets called dumbass on the fishing boat, which felt natural in the context) because it was  unnecessary. Three a-bombs, one a-hole and two d-words... in a Superman movie? In fact, it's the one thing (other than Zod's death scene at the end - more on that in a moment) that will keep me from taking my kids to see this film.  I'm just glad they bucked the trend of slipping at least one f-bomb into a PG-13 movie. Yes, this was supposed to be a darker telling of Superman, but let's not forget that at the very core that he's known for being clean and wholesome, and his movie should at least make an attempt to come close.

This movie was clearly written and made with the intention of trying to capitalize on The Dark Knight films, right down to the music. But that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Makes Superman Superman. He's the light to Batman's dark. He's the hope to Batman's fear. We only get a couple of brief glimpses of anything remotely approaching Superman or Clark Kent, most notably at the end of the film when Superman/Kal-el tells the army general that he was grew up in Kansas. And then there's the fact that Man of Steel breaks one of the cardinal rules of Superman: he doesn't kill. He kills Zod and he causes so much destruction in the form of falling buildings that literally thousands of people had to have been killed in the movie's hour-long fight sequence. And even worse, it doesn't seem to bother Clark/Kal-el.

The music was good, but it sounded a little more Dark Knight-ish (both were composed by Hans Zimmer)with it's heavy staccato and loud drones. And it troubled me that there was no real hook line to grab onto. There was nothing to hum. Batman had a hook. Star Trek had a hook. Heck, even Iron Man had a hook. The music was good, but I just didn't find it very memorable or heroic.
[edit: after a re-listen to some of the music from Man of Steel, I'd like to amend this statement slightly. The music does have a bit of a hook to it (at least in the main overture), but I just don't think it's as strong as it could be. It's no Star Wars theme or Terminator 2 or even, well, Superman. But I do like it.]

I did like the dynamic between Lois and Clark, however, or at least that Lois figures out that the mystery man is Clark Kent before there is ever even a Superman or a secret identity. It's an interesting twist that pays off at the end of the film when reporter Clark finally makes an appearance. But their relationship never felt like a romance to me. The filmmakers seemed to disagree, however. To me Lois and Clark/Kal seemed more two people who weren't really friends, but shared a secret. It was a bit awkward.

I thought the more sic-fi aspects of Krypton were interesting, as well. Not awesome, but interesting. I couldn't figure out why Krypton's top scientist - on a world where tech is everywhere, including ships that are capable of interplanetary flight - would ride around on a dragon-like creature. It was interesting. It just didn't seem to fit.

There are several things I don't understand about the film:

• Kal-el gets his super powers from Earth's yellow sun (as referenced many times throughout the film.) His cells act like solar batteries. Being on a Kryptonian ship in Earth's orbit would NOT strip him of his powers, regardless of whether the atmosphere aboard was set for Kryptonian physiology.

• Why would Zod need to kill Kal to get the codex of the Kryptonian people? Didn't we see Kal getting blood drawn on Zod's ship?

• Why was there a Kryptonian under suit that just happened to be outfitted with the crest of the House of El on a ship that crash-landed on Earth and had been there for 18,000 years?

• Why was Kal-el's Kryptonian suit colored red, blue and yellow when there was no color to any of the other Kryptonian suits in the movie, even on Krypton?

I started writing what man of Steel should have been, but I think I'll save that for another time. If the movie had lived up to the feel and the ideals of the teaser trailers, it would have been a good movie. It should have been a character piece exploring Clark's search for his identity and clues to where he came from. Lois Lane didn't even have to be in this movie, much less Perry White or any of the other Metropolis part of Clark that would come later. This should've been the search for Clark and the realization that despite the fact that he was raised as a normal child with loving parents, that he can do things that no mere mortal can do. The climax of the film could've been the eventual revelation of his Kryptonian heritage and his denial of the implications of that - that he's not a normal human, that he's all alone, that he's completely different, that's he's the answer to "are we alone in the Universe." We needed to see why, not just how he decided to become a hero and champion for justice (and actually, Man of Steel never really explains how, either). It needed to be more relatable. More human. More tender. It was headed that way, but it all fell apart pretty quickly on.

As a young boy, Superman captured my imagination. I was about my son's age when I went to go see Superman: The Movie in the theater. I remember seeing Superman II with my grandma one afternoon, and it was awesome. But Man of Steel won't be that movie for a new generation. There's not much here that separates him from any other random superhero in any other movie. And that's a shame.

It looks like we'll have to wait another generation to see if Hollywood can create a Superman origin story that really captures just what a great, human hero Superman is - not because he's from another planet, but in spite of it.

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