Man of Steel, welcome to the Planet

As I sat in my geek seat at a local multiplex last Friday morning waiting for the new installment of Superman, or (sorry) Man of Steel to start, it occurred to me the huge responsibility that a studio has to consider when revising a beloved franchise and character.  So I made sure my heart and mind were open to accept what was about to be served in Zack Snyder’s film.

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I feel a responsibility myself to note up front that I adore Superman.  He’s my favorite super hero and has always been.  He’s as much a part of my lore (assuming I had one) as he is a part of Americana as I’ve watched him in one form or another for as far back as I can remember.   Superman is a “good guy” with a solid upbringing and simple values who, although burdened by his extraordinary gifts, is not dark and/or conflicted to the point of needing psychological help like other super heroes.  Superman embraces his destiny.  And ours.  He offers us the hope that someone, somewhere is looking out for us.  I must note also that I am not familiar with his story as depicted in comic books or graphic novels, if such things exist for this character.  The Superman story I know is a simple one – one of heart, brawn, humility, respect, responsibility – but replete with exceptional acts of heroism.   “As American as it gets.”

All of that I was hoping to see in Man of Steel and all of that I got, I’m happy to say.  The story, told as much in the present as it is via flashbacks, is a satisfying one, which pays proper tribute to the familiar story of a young boy, and man, on a journey to self-discovery.  At least so for the lay person who, like me, simply loves the character.  Snyder’s film features plenty of action, extraordinary visuals, great effects (although I take an exception with some of it as I mention below) and enough drama to make this a super story about a super man.

Man of Steel also ends on a great note, giving many of us a reason to tune in to the next installment for more of the Superman story, setting the stage for a mild-mannered reporter who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man…  By the way, Superman is not called “Superman” in this film with the exception of a brief mention somewhere in the story.  I refuse to give away any of this since it was such fun seeing how they treated the famous moniker.  It’s also worth noting that Man of Steel is the first Superman feature film that doesn’t incorporate the word “Superman” in its title.

British actor, Henry Cavill, the first non-American actor to play the role of Clark Kent/Kal-El (as an adult) plays the Man of Steel with both aplomb and the appropriate self-doubt that accompanies one who has the world’s woes on his shoulders – literally.  Cavill is physically impressive, if I may say, and a great choice for giving hope to the franchise as Superman himself gives hope to mankind.

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Clark Kent on a journey of self-discovery
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I miss the traditional “S” logo. But it’s hard to argue with this “look”

Man of Steel also has a great lot of supporting players .  Amy Adams plays Lois Lane (happily) as much more than a damsel in distress as she’s given a much more interesting storyline to depict than have previous actors who have given life to the reporter on film.  This Lois Lane is not only involved in the action, but central to the resolution of the conflict.  Diane Lane is affecting as Martha Kent and Kevin Costner (in a smaller role) is also good as Jonathan Kent, Kal-El’s human parents.  Russell Crowe, who I am not necessarily a big fan of, makes an effective Jor-El, the Kryptonian father who is forced to send his infant son forth into the galaxy in hopes that the Els can live on – for the good of the universe – beyond the destruction of Krypton.

A Lane of substance
A Lane of substance

My favorite performance, however, is that of Michael Shannon who plays General Zod.  Shannon, who I’m used to seeing on the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire in which he plays a disturbing (and disturbed) FBI agent during the glory days of prohibition, plays the Kryptonian exiled criminal with the perfect degree of righteous anger.  It may sound strange to describe Zod as “righteous,” but I don’t think Shannon gives the General the usual dose of insanity that is inherent in so many superhero adversaries, which is refreshing.  Yes, Zod does want to destroy mankind, but it’s not for self-glory.  It’s for his people.  I don’t know – kind of heroic, if you ask me, albeit in an egoistical, ethnocentric, mass-murdering sort of way.  I found myself admiring him and his impressive powers – his is a great presence and he an admirable adversary for the Man of Steel.

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A memorable General Zod

There are several other great actors worth mentioning who play key roles in Man of Steel that I’m ignoring for the sake of time.  You can take a look at the complete cast list here.

I really enjoyed Man of Steel.  But it is not a perfect movie.  For one, although it is a great story that sets the stage quite nicely for the retelling of a saga, Steel does not have the tight script of Batman Begins (2005), which started the Nolan trilogy (a comparison I can’t help but make because Nolan’s films set a new standard as far as I’m concerned).  I do, however, give credit to the writers of Man of Steel for taking chances that turn out very effective – the telling of the story in a non-linear fashion is one of them.

My only other “complaint” probably has (I admit) a lot more to do with the fact I’m getting old than it does through any fault of the film’s, but it bothers me enough to mention it.  That is, the use of an unsteady camera throughout.  At times verite and at others downright blurry, I can only appreciate the fact I watched the film in 2D.  I prefer tried and true filming techniques, which for me means I can actually see the details of conflict – punches delivered as much as anything else.  So, I found the fight scenes in Man of Steel a bit disappointing.  I find excessive camera movements and excessive editing to simulate action distracting and, when overdone, annoying.  Some may feel it’s time I get caught up with the times, but I say simply that new does not mean better.   There is no time limit to great movie making of the enjoyment of great cinema.   It always occurs to me this style of filmmaking, which is used far too often these days in action films, is the duping of an audience that is used to being told what to enjoy in a film, as well as how to enjoy it – rather than being left to enjoy it on their own terms.  I’m always tempted to ask a filmgoer who has that “wow” look on their face after one of these sequences what they saw.  Specifically.  I just bet not one could give me details because there are few details to be had.   As for the CGI used in Steel– and it saddens me to know even Superman’s cape was CGI’d – it was done well, which again means I was not taken away from the story to either admire or admonish it.

To end on a positive note, I mention the Man of Steel score.  I loved it.   Written by Hans Zimmer who was chosen for the job following his involvement in Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy, the score meets very high expectations.  Zimmer lives up to the daunting task given that the goal was to distinguish this film from previous ones, purposefully excluding the iconic “Superman Theme” written by John Williams.  Man of Steel is the first Warner Bros. Superman film to not incorporate Williams’ score from Richard Donner’s, Superman (1978), a personal favorite of mine and the film largely credited for setting off what would later be a frenzy of superhero movies.  The Williams score was reused for the Superman sequels starring Christopher Reeve, as well as in Bryan Singer’s, Superman Returns (2006) starring Brandon Routh. (IMDB)  Zimmer himself told The Hollywood Reporter that it was quite impossible for him to imagine Superman without John’s score, “The legacy weighs you down. I grew up with the comic books; I grew up with the movies.”  For Man of Steel Zimmer creates a sweeping landscape of music on a personal scale, which solidifies the essence of the film.

There you have them for what they’re worth, my musings on a worthy, respectful treatment for MY Superman.  I welcome Man of Steel to the Planet.

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