Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

As I watched Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, I kept yelling at the screen (in my mind, of course).  Mostly, I yelled, “enough with the crumbling buildings already!”  I yelled other things as well, but let’s begin with the crumbling buildings.

The last third of the movie consists almost entirely of Kal-El fighting General Zod and his associates using Metropolis as the venue in what was meant to be an epic confrontation but turned out to be an excruciating, seemingly interminable sequence.  And yes, to see them catapult into each other  and plow through whatever is in their way causing widespread destruction was pretty cool the first time I saw it.  And maybe the second.  But the effects became repetitive and tedious, and despite the instant destruction of anything they touched, the combatants themselves seemed impervious to any damage.  Instead of being caught up in the fight, I kept thinking that at this rate the entire planet will be destroyed before the battle is over, and so what purpose will it serve to fight to save humanity if all of humanity becomes collateral damage to the fight?

Effects work well when they support the story.  In Man of Steel, the story is secondary to the excessive barrage of CGI effects, as is amply demonstrated when, in a shocking non-sequitur, Kal-El and Lois Lane choose to have their first kiss (and Superman’s only attempt at levity) at a moment when yes, Zod has been defeated, but Kal-El and Lois are literally standing in the middle of a freshly devastated city with presumably tens of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of agonizing injured.  It seemed as if the writers knew they had to cross this scene off their checklist and just shoved it in there without pausing to think of how inappropriately it would play out.  Cringeworthy.

And take the religious references.  Please.  Kal-El is first Moses, sent forth from Krypton in a futuristic version of the biblical basket.  Then, with the subtlety of a jackhammer, he becomes the sacrificial lamb Jesus Christ, suspended in mid-air with his arms extended.  Still later, he consults with a priest inside a church, with a painting of Jesus (draped in a red robe, of course) visible in the background.  He is willing to give himself up to Zod to save humanity.  But of course.  The icing on the cake: Kal-El is 33 years old.  There is nothing wrong with the religious references per se, and they are actually part of Superman’s rich history.  But to be pounded over the head with them is a bit unnerving.  Subtlety and nuance are apparently not in Snyder’s repertoire.

In another appalling non-sequitur, Kal-El, fresh from his conversation with the ghostly consciousness of his father during which he (Kal-El) finally understands that his ultimate purpose in life is to bond with and protect the people of earth, decides to... return to Kansas to spend some quality time with his mother.  Huh?  And apparently he would have stayed there indefinitely, the people of earth oblivious of his mission, but for General Zod’s appearance on the scene.

I’ll preface the following discussion by stating that while I’m comfortable with my knowledge of the Star Trek universe, my familiarity with Superman is almost entirely derived from the 1950’s series with George Reeves in the title role, and the 1970’s and 80’s Christopher Reeve movies.  That said, my impression was that this Superman origin story sorely lacked the reverence for the source material so richly exhibited in the latest Star Trek reboot.  Somehow, J.J. Abrams and company were able to bring a new cast as well as contemporary effects and techniques into Star Trek while lovingly preserving the essence of not only the  characters and their relationships, but also, and most importantly, the feel of it.  That is why 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness appeal to newcomers while delighting old Trekkers like myself as well.   Such is the respect with which Abrams treats Star Trek that in the 2009 movie he cleverly branched off a new time continuum to allow for creative freedom with the characters in the future while leaving their heretofore existing universe intact.

Man of Steel lacks such respect.  The earlier incarnations of Superman presented a title character that was consistently self-assured and even a bit cocky, but always with a self-deprecating, disarming sense of humor.  Henry Cavill’s Kal-El is bewildered, brooding, dour, dark.   Lois Lane’s sense of awe and wonder is nowhere to be seen.  Gone are the nuanced, metaphorically suggestive yet superficially innocent scenes epitomized by Lois Lane and Superman’s flight scene in 1978’s Superman.  Again, in Man of Steel there is no subtlety, no nuance, no layering.  In their place: body slamming and crumbling buildings.

In another affront, Man of Steel callously alters the franchise’s pivotal relationship by having Lois Lane determine Superman’s true identity early in the movie.  And so it is that as the movie ends, at what is in fact the beginning of the story we all know, Lois Lane knows exactly who Superman is when he begins working at the Daily Planet.  The entire Clark Kent subterfuge, so vital to the evolution of both characters, simply does not apply (at least to Lois Lane) in this reboot.  Apparently the writers plan to take their relationship, like the franchise, in a different direction.    They can count me out.