Friday, June 14, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: MAN OF STEEL Is the Greatest Achievement in All of Superhero Film

For the time being, I'm afraid I won't be able to look at Man of Steel from a point of complete objectivity, because what it accomplishes in the arena of "superhero film" is so monumental that any criticisms I have about it (and I do have a few) get washed away by the spectacular grandiosity on display. While I'll do my best to pick things apart later on, I am unable to avoid talking about the one perfectly executed aspect of Man of Steel that makes it the most important and influential superhero movie ever made: the idea of the superhero as a mythic figure.

Superheroes are the American equivalent to the Greek pantheon of gods. Everyone in our culture knows enough about the origins of popular superheroes that they've achieved a deity-like status in our society. While this idea has been successfully realized in various other storytelling mediums, film has always struggled to completely capture the godlike element of a superhero tale. There have been bits and pieces scattered throughout some movies (even previous Superman efforts), but never an entire piece devoted to fully realizing the legendary component inherent in all superhero fiction. Until Man of Steel, which is beyond appropriate considering the status Superman holds as the progenitor of all superheroes, making him the most reverential figure in the entire genre.

Some may argue that this idea was already explored in Christopher Nolan's series of Batman films, with Bruce Wayne's creation of a crime-fighter symbolized by a bat. While that is somewhat true, Batman's nature as a non-superpowered being means that his mythic qualities have to be built over the course of time (in Nolan's case, it takes three films for the myth of Batman to become cemented in the eyes of the world). Superman is a mythical figure from the moment he is born, and this is given even more weight in Man of Steel by making him the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries (in this iteration of the story, Kryptonians are genetically engineered and produced to fulfill specific roles in society). This sort of divine nature, coupled together with his myriad superpowers, puts Superman in the realm of a religious figure, which is something the filmmakers are keenly aware of. It's no coincidence that Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name) is thirty-three years old (the age when Christ was crucified) when the majority of the film takes place. There's also plenty of imagery (some of it painfully overt) reinforcing these theological overtones, my favorite being an illustrated history of Krypton told through a series of tableaus that look like marble etchings from the Roman era. All these elements combine together to create a film that treats the superhero genre with sacrosanct admiration, like a worshiper preaching his gospel to the masses. This factor alone makes Man of Steel stand out from its peers in such an important way that it's impossible to dismiss it.

But, that's not the only thing the film has going for it. Another incredibly strong factor is director Zack Snyder, who may have constructed his visual masterpiece with this movie. Yes, I'm saying this film is more of a visual success than 300 or Watchmen (both films I highly enjoy) and the reason for that is because Snyder finds a way to reel in the more outlandish aspects of his style without sacrificing his unique eye. It's a level of perfect compromise that makes the movie look far more streamlined than his other garish efforts. He also proves that he is one of the greatest high-concept action directors working today, with every fight scene and set-piece doing its best to top the last. The level of inventiveness on display during these moments is incredible, with brilliant camera moves that somehow manage to capture the weightlessness of a being that is free from the shackles of Earth's gravity. The action in Man of Steel is stellar and certainly a selling point for the film. Zack Snyder's direction easily claims second place next to the mythic quality of the film.

Coming in at a strong third place is Hans Zimmer's score. While it has his trademark drums, there is a choral bit to some of the tracks that helps to strengthen the church-like aura that surrounds the entire picture. Although I am a tried-and-true Batman fan, I have to argue that Zimmer's music for Man of Steel far outshines his work on the Dark Knight trilogy, if for the simple reason that it feels so much larger. His Batman scores did their job well, but never quite imbued the character with the kind of ostentation necessary for a superhero. Man of Steel's score is overflowing with splendor and majesty, and does what all good pieces of film music aspire to.

Now we come to the honorable mentions, which is where the casting ends up. Henry Cavill does a wonderful job playing Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman as one inseparable persona. I also really enjoyed his more understated performance, giving Superman a kind of forced relaxness, which seems perfect for a character who has to constantly keep himself in check. He's certainly a worthy successor to the line of prestigious actors who have worn the 'S' shield. Russell Crowe has an unfortunate lackadaisical quality to his acting style which doesn't quite gel right with the character of Jor-El, Superman's birth father. He's not bad but certainly not noteworthy. The villainous General Zod, played by Michael Shannon, is much more suited to a low-key performance, and Shannon does gangbusters with it. He exudes authoritative menace in every scene he's in, and like all good villains, there's an element of his character that you can't help but sympathize with. His right hand officer, Faora (Antje Traue), is also a delight and gets almost as much action time as Zod. She isn't just relegated to sidekick status, and gets some of my favorite little bits from the movie. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Johnathan and Martha Kent both adequately fulfill their necessary roles, but do nothing to make them standout. Diane Lane does get one pretty badass and fun line though. Although he doesn't get quite enough screen-time to make a solid impact, Laurence Fishburne infuses his natural likability into his gruff interpretation of Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet. I'm really hoping we get some more face-time with him when the sequel comes around, because it'd be a shame to waste him. The last member of the cast that deserves mention is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. I don't really have a complaint about her performance, but I don't have anything to extol either. She has charm and tenacity, but the real issues with her stem not from her acting but from how her character is written.

And now we reach those few complaints, and the primary one is the script. David Goyer is not as great as his reputation makes him out to be, and Man of Steel more than proves that. Some of the dialogue in this film is either groan-inducing or laughable. To be fair, it's not a lot of it, but it crops up in enough key moments to leave a souring impact on the whole experience. The biggest script issue is Lois, who doesn't have the kind of strength that is a benchmark of the character. She also just gets shuttled around for the entire running time, not really feeling as important as the film makes her out to be. The third act also feels like typical Goyer, with a ticking time bomb scenario in effect yet again (just like every one of his Bat-flicks). There's also a huge moment at the end that feels like a very important and distinct departure from the character of Superman that gets seemingly forgotten once the scene cuts away. This moment seems like it would be the emotional setup for Superman's character in the sequel, but as quickly as it happens, it is dismissed. That is the worst kind of storytelling there is, and while it's an admittedly powerful moment, its power is robbed away by its immediate dismissal. I'm sure Goyer won't be getting a co-writer for the next film, but I really wish for nothing else. He needs someone to help whittle away some of his bad dialogue and cliche plotting.

This may seem like a strange complaint, but Man of Steel's pacing feels relentless. While the first act has the requisite "getting to know you" stuff, the rest of the movie is so unyielding that it borders on exhausting. When the film finally finished, I almost felt out of breath. For some, that may actually be a plus, and I can't really argue that, but for me, I like it when the pacing follows more a wave-like pattern than a steep and unstoppable incline. For a summer blockbuster though, it seems appropriate, so that's a much more personal gripe.

Man of Steel is in no way a perfect film, but it is a profoundly great one. More than that though, its tone is what elevates it above its slight missteps and above all other superhero films. The magnificent awe that is stamped on every frame of this film is undeniable, and even if there are legitimate issues with the film, what it succeeds at more than makes up for them. If this film really is the foundation for a DC shared universe, they couldn't have built it better. In this world, superheroes aren't just pulpy action heroes, but beings possessing a godhood making them just as influential as any religious figure. The struggle between humanity and divinity is the basis for some of the greatest stories ever told, and if it's handled like it is in Man of Steel, we could be in store from some equally great stories.

1 comment:

  1. Looking at this film made me realize that superman would kick the shit out of ironmans ass