Sunday, June 23, 2013

Man of Steel - Good Idea, Bad Idea: The Movie

Greetings and welcome back to the now somewhat irregularly paced adventures in The Third Row.  The first entry for Summer Reading is still in the works (again, it IS a five hour movie,) so in the meantime, here's to another entry from the current releases.

This is one where I have to admit, I went in with a good sized dose of skepticism.  Man of Steel was a movie that's been in a rather shaky spot from its inception.  For one, it's directed by Zack Snyder, the man whose style-over-substance approach of directing propelled him to fame with his remake of Dawn of the Dead and 300, and then promptly knifed him in the back with his rather Shallow-to-mixed bag adaptation of Watchmen and the total bombout of Sucker Punch.  It isn't exactly exaggeration to say this was his shot at redemption.  Further, the fact he was paired with a post-Batman Christopher Nolan made it tough to really predict where this was going to go.  On top of all this, the trailers ranged anywhere from promising to...inadvertent comedy. Truth be told, the first teaser set to Gandalf's death theme from the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack nearly buried the film for me before it even came out. So I went in to this movie with my expectations kept somewhat low.  A task made even easier thanks to the mixed initial reception from other critics.

"Come on, guys.  I know it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't that bad, was it?"

To my surprise, the film actually wasn't as bad as I was braced for.  In fact, this may be one of Snyder's more watchable films, and more importantly may be a sign he's not completely out of steam as a director.  Of course, for all the good in the film, it also has a LOT of problems going for it- Not the least of which is the script by David S. Goyer that is ultimately a pile of good ideas that don't add up to much of anything.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Probably best to start from the beginning.

In particular, I'm going to stress that 'from the beginning' factor here. I know several people have criticized this film for revisiting Superman's origin story, which is one of the few superhero origin stories that's actually common knowledge and arguably not needed. However, I can actually kind of accept it in this case.  One of the one things I will give this film right here and now is the fact that they made it clear from the beginning this was going to distance itself from the Richard Donner movies of the 70s and 80s.  While I happen to really like the first two of the classic Christopher Reeve movies, I can honestly say this is one of the best ideas this movie had.  One of the biggest problems that wound up plaguing Bryan Singer's Superman Returns before this was the fact that its attempt to channel the Donner films to a modern audience felt, ultimately, rather out of place (though I must admit Kevin Spacey made it at least worth a single watch.)  So I took their revisiting the origin story in this case as something of a necessary evil - making it clear to audiences beyond any doubt that this was no longer the Christopher Reeve Superman that has been the staple for so long.  Unfortunately, the only thing I think I can really give the prologue is that, for my initial misgivings over his casting, I really wound up liking Russell Crowe's new take on Jor-El. As Superman's doomed father and a character who spends most of the movie dead, he actually still gives us a strong sense of benevolent father figure and actually still manages to exert a decent level of paternal warmth for a son he never truly got to know.

"With the destruction our world, so too ends my days of foightin' round the world.
That is a legacy you must carry on, my son."

Otherwise, however, the Krypton prologue is a lot of set-up that sadly doesn't go anywhere near as far as it could or should.  The idea of showing us a Krypton that had essentially reverted and become a dead end society lends itself to some interesting fodder, both as general sci-fi in its own right and with regards to what makes Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill, who we'll go more into later) different from his people, and comparing Earth and Krypton.  Even the nature of Krypton's demise, while a bit ham-fisted as a social commentary on our own energy crisis, could have been made into something more in the overarcing story than it was.  As it is, however, most of the prologue is just a simple action piece that takes far longer establishing Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) than we really need.  It's not even like I can say it's a particularly strong set piece, either.  The faux-Heavy Metal sets look decent, but aren't really anything jaw dropping.

That said, with the ideas they had set up, a full Krypton prequel piece MIGHT be interesting done right.  Just saying...

Wow...that took more to go into than I thought.  Though, to be fair, that prologue DOES go on for a while.

From there, we finally move into Superman's part of the story.  Which, again, has some potential to it, but is kind of a mixed bag in its execution.  Rather than embrace the classic all-American do-gooder image the character is known for, this movie instead spends much of its first half with Clark Kent as the classic 'man without a country', wandering the US, doing good deeds for people as we intercut to flashbacks of his childhood, where we see his powers treated as a drawback.  The flashbacks are another one of those cases of good idea-bad idea that this movie keeps coming back to, so best to just get used to the 'but...' moments, guys...
Some of the ideas the flashbacks bring to the film are actually not bad - the idea that Clark would have to learn to control his powers when he was younger is a nice touch.  Unfortunately, there is also the somewhat problematic theme the flashbacks bring of the parents encouraging Clark to suppress his powers constantly for fear of what people might think of him.  Further, the pacing in these flashbacks is rather erratic, both in terms of how long they run and where they're placed within the film.  It's an element that might have fared better had they just covered Clark's life in chronological order rather than shuffling the events.  That said, the casting on the Kent parents is, likewise, split down the middle - Diane Lane as Martha Kent, for what she has to work with in the film, actually carries herself better than I was expecting; Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent...let's put it this way, despite the fact that most of his interactions with his son are done via an old hologram, Crowe still actually shows more moral guidance and paternal warmth of the two father figures in this movie. (Editor's note: My mother almost went to see this movie. Then saw that Costner was in it and declined.)

To that end, I just want to quickly say that, even as mixed as the main cast of this movie is, the supporting cast are actually pretty strong all around on this.  For all of his problems, I have to concede, Snyder is actually capable of some pretty good casting more often than not. 

The film doesn't add it on its own, but there's no reason you can't choose to hum the 'sad walking away music' here yourself if you want.

Anyway, the flashbacks are all there to frame the idea of Superman as a latter day Incredible Hulk - traveling the country, helping people, and then going on his way (albeit without the piano theme.)  This mystery, tied in with a story about a downed alien spaceship, is how the film ropes in Lois Lane (Amy Adams.)  Once again, the good-bad dynamic is in play here: on the one hand, they try to give Lois a stronger standalone character in this version, making her an acclaimed reporter with a strong sense of journalistic integrity that Adams plays well.  On the other side, with her personality and her limited interactions with Superman, the two have a rather painful lack of chemistry.

"I don't care WHAT our dynamic is like in the comics.  I'm NOT going to be the one who get stuck making the joke about your new costume's crotch bulge!"
[Yeah, we knew SOME joke was coming here.  So I at least tried to meet it halfway while still trying to defuse it.]

Speaking of, NOW is a good time to discuss Cavill's take on the boy in blue. To start with, I do commend the filmmakers with going with a relative unknown rather than relying on big star. Still, like so much of this movie, Cavill's performance is a mixed bag.  He plays the outsider well, and even the idea of Superman as a larger than life role model. Yet in trade, this makes his interactions with people, when we're supposed to be reminded of his down-to-Earth upbringing, strangely absent.  It's got the potential to be an interesting reinvention of the character, but, like so much of this film, its execution becomes rather muddled, and the result is a performance that doesn't feel like a mistake, but leaves you with the feeling that it could have been something more with a stronger sense of direction.

Anyway, despite Lois's attempts to bring Superman to light, his big reveal comes with the return of our film's antagonist General Zod.  The missed opportunities with Zod are particularly painful for two reasons.  For one, Michael Shannon is a better actor than this performance would suggest.  For another, the basic idea they suggest behind Zod, a warrior from a genetic caste system who's been hardwired to act for the betterment of Krypton no matter the cost, instead turns him into a two-dimensional thug.  For a few brief moments, Shannon does manage to tap into the challenge that comes from devoting himself to a world that no longer exists, but more often, he spends his screentime snarling and scowling- probably most embodied in the inadvertently comic vow of "I will find him!" he repeats several times in the film's prologue.  A 'Kneel before Zod!' joke felt all but inevitable. you can see, as Zod, Shannon's angry face is the stuff of comedy gold on its own.  Seriously, this doesn't even need a zinger.

Unfortunately, once Zod re-enters the film, most of the potential ideas that have been building up in the first half of the film go flying out the window screaming.  Instead, we get treated to several set-pieces (to Snyder's credit, these sequences are surprisingly absent of his much mocked slow-motion spam,) that, while impressive, don't really feel like they come together for a finished film.  Things like the film's running theme of the question of if the military can trust Superman, and their own rather mixed results in dealing with Zod's forces (though this DOES lead to a pretty likable side character in the form of an air force colonel played by Christopher Meloni.)  Again, it's an interesting idea that the film could do more with, but it mainly only really seems to pay off in the final act, otherwise being a case of "the military is actually pretty useless here, so it's up to Superman to handle everything."

The one thing I will give the above mentioned action pieces - some of them are actually the kind of combat that a Superman movie has been waiting for.  In particular, when Superman throws down against Zod and his fellow Kryptonians, the sequences are fast moving, hard hitting, city wrecking show pieces.  While the destruction at points feels a bit overkill for what's supposed to be a starter movie, it does still actually give the feeling of a fight between two borderline titans in terms of power.  This is actually part of where I'm surprised we didn't get the Snyder slow-motion.  It could have been used and abused at many points here.  The fact it isn't actually caused me to think a little better of Snyder - in particular since letting these scenes move at their particular speeds really helps give the blows the sense of impact the destruction is also trying to convey.

I think by now you can probably get a pretty clear sense of the general consensus of this movie.  There's a lot about it that could be good.  Hell, in other hands, it could have been a great comeback.  Even Snyder seems like he's finally learning how to be a better director here.  He's not there yet, but at least here he seems to be avoiding some of his older mistakes.  Unfortunately, Snyder's the kind of director who's only as good as the script he gets to work with, and David S. Goyer's screenplay is doing him no favors here.  Which is a shame because, again, the story Goyer and Nolan cooked up could have actually knocked this one out of the park as the big comeback Superman has been overdue for.  As it is, however, it feels like an idea that needed more work and focus to really bring out its strengths, and it just didn't get that.  The one thing I will at least give this film as it is would be the fact that, for all of its failings, it did still accomplish one of the things it was trying to prove - that Superman isn't completely dead as a viable film character.  Unfortunately, this wasn't the film to really necessitate his comeback.  It at least showed there's still some ground to explore and grow from, but it never really managed to do the ideas it brought to the table justice on its own.  In that regard, it's actually something of an interesting parallel with its director - like Superman, this shows Snyder may still have a future yet, if he can only get a better sense of his strengths and get a better grip on himself.

All in all, it's a pretty interesting experience as a film.  I wouldn't say it's necessarily a must-see, and even one that would be an automatic big screen experience.  If you have any curiosity, it can't hurt to at least give a look, since it's not without its merits.  At the same time, don't hurt yourself going out of the way for it, cause I can't honestly say it's going to be remembered as one of the year's finest...but hopefully this may at least lay some groundwork for something better in the future.  Apparently they already got the greenlight to make a sequel, so who knows?  Maybe now that they've laid the foundations, they can be able to make something stronger for a follow-up.  Tough to say at this point, but certainly not impossible.

That much thought was probably more than this movie really needed.  But what can I say?  It really is a very hit-and-miss movie.

Anyway, keep an eye out over the next few days.  The first Summer Reading entry will be going up soon.

Till then!

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