Friday, June 14, 2013

Almost Super: MAN OF STEEL

There are superheroes I enjoy more as characters, but none I enjoy more as resonant myth than Superman. He is an icon, a titan, a God. He’s Greek myth, Messianic, a Shakespearean conflicted hero, a piece of Americana and refutation of it. He’s not merely a superhero; he’s the superhero. And so, like the rarified company in which this character can be placed, his story is one worth retelling and one that can survive a bad telling. In Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and its first sequel, a light touch to the myth was sunny and inspiring in its classically endearing earnestness that flirts with corniness without giving over to it. By the time the blue-suited, red-caped hero flew back to the silver screen care of Bryan Singer in the retro-modern stylings of 2006’s Superman Returns, he was suffused with regret and longing in a film that’s both mature and lyrical. Now, with Man of Steel, he’s back, this time in the hands of Zack Snyder, director of 300 and Watchmen. He’s a generally talented visualist who ramps up the surface spectacle and brings admirable weight to the myth before sinking into the same lumbering traps that so many modern blockbusters settle for.

It starts, as it must, with the birth of Kal-El, last son of Krypton, born in the final days of his planet’s existence. His father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Ayelet Zurer) send him away in an escape pod that crashes on Earth. There, the yellow sun and rich atmosphere give the alien, who to all appearances looks human, powers of strength, flight, and speed, among other superhuman feats. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. From a distance you just might mistake him for a bird or a plane. Nope. He’s Superman. But not right away. The script by David S. Goyer, from a story he co-created with Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan, cuts between a lost young man searching for evidence of his identity and a little boy scared of what these strange abilities mean for his life with his adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). In the fractured chronology, we catch glimpses of important moments – discovering his powers, saving people, wrestling with his sense of purpose – building towards the crescendo that is the unveiling of the man we’ve been waiting to see.

I find the Superman origin so deeply moving and archetypically resonant that the glimmering, artful opening passages of Man of Steel are an often stirring experience. Snyder and his team emphasize the alien in the story, focusing on what isolates Clark Kent in the days before his Superman identity. As a young boy his powers are strange. He’s not sure to what use, if any, he should put them. They scare him.  As the origin story starts to fade, villains, in the form of exiled evil Kryptonians led by General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrive on Earth demanding to meet Kal-El or else. Between an identity crisis on a galactic scale and otherworldly villains, this is less a superhero movie as we’ve come to understand them, more an alien invasion space opera, dark, complicated, and endlessly explaining itself. Krypton’s a fantasy world (like something out of Star Wars or John Carter) brought into conflict with our world and Superman must choose which to save. It should be a real struggle, but the film makes it awfully clear for the man which way to go. He doesn’t have to decide to be a hero; the decision is forced upon him, no matter how heavily Snyder underlines the Gethsemane moment.

The film is expertly cast and beautifully shot – though the action is sometimes barely contained by the frame – full of the story beats one would want out of a Superman movie. It purports to tell the story of Superman, but eventually it becomes clear that it has skipped out on deeper characterization. As Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman Henry Cavill fits the suit and fills the angst, but he’s otherwise a symbol. It’s a demanding, unforgiving task and he handles it well. In the supporting cast, great actors show up in roles we recognize and the film’s attempt to flesh them out mostly stops there. Amy Adams plays Lois Lane. Cultural osmosis tells us she’s a smart, capable, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter at the Daily Planet and the movie follows suit. As expected, she takes an interest in this Superman story. Her tough-but-kind editor is Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne, so wonderful you wish he had something more substantial to contribute to the plot. There’s endless fatherly gravitas from both Crowe and Costner (his casting alone causes the farm scenes to play off of Field of Dreams echoes) and Lane is a beacon of maternal warmth. Shannon, all crazy-eyed, gargling intensity with each barked shout, makes for a good hateful villain.

And then it all goes to pieces with an extended action set piece that grows more weightless and small the bigger, more destructive and depressingly weighty it becomes. Snyder spends much time lingering on skyscrapers tumbling in cringe-worthy bouts of collateral damage. Evenly matched superpowered beings slug it out around and, more often, through buildings of all shapes and sizes for extended periods of time, zipping away while debris falls and massive structures collapse. There’s such an overpowering sense of seriousness that we can’t even luxuriate in the serious silliness of it all, the spandex, scene-chewing mythos that should be able to carry us through. Instead we have to pretend yet another sequence of violence erupting around a world-ending alien laser beam shooting into the sky in the center of a cityscape is something we haven’t seen twice a summer for half a decade.

The film is both too much and not enough. I loved seeing Superman on the big screen again, but found myself wishing it could have been in a film that did more than satisfy the basic demands of a summer blockbuster: percussive score, excessive property damage, recognizable symbols, muddled ideology, self-seriousness. Sitting through the protracted climax, it all felt so endless. But by the time the credits rolled I found myself thinking, “That’s it?” After over two-and-a-half hours, I realized I knew the characters, but I barely knew these characters. It’s a film that plays with iconography and summons all the best that Superman can offer, before leaving it thin and pushing it aside to give us a big, repetitive superpower slugfest that’s just like any other grim, grey blockbuster conclusion. Maybe they’re saving the really inspiring stuff for the sequel.

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