Monday, June 17, 2013

"Man of Steel": review

How apropos to review "Man of Steel" on Father's Day (and a Happy Father's Day to all good dads out there!), for this newest tale of the adventures of Superman is a movie about fathers.

I can see why critics have been so polarized by this film. A quick scan of the Rotten Tomatoes website shows that professional reviewers generally either love the movie or hate it, and in many cases, the love and the hate are rooted in the same reasons: the movie is brooding, it's darker than previous Superman films, it's focused on action, etc. Would I recommend the film? Yes, but only cautiously. Like those critics, I find myself torn, and the rip passes right between my heart and my head.

On the heart level, as an emotional experience, I found "Man of Steel" quite watchable. At no point did the movie drag. The pace wasn't as breathless or relentless as it can be in, say, a JJ Abrams effort (with Abrams and his Star Trek films, I always think of people running desperately through corridors as if caught in nightmares about futility), and the special effects, though magnificent, indicated to me that director Zack Snyder was showing remarkable stylistic restraint compared to the time-bending cinematic woo-hoo he gave us in films like "300." Was this because of the spooky, spectral, sobering influence of cerebral producer Christoper Nolan (director of the Dark Knight films, "Memento," and "Inception")? It's hard to say, but Nolan did have a hand in the scriptwriting, and probably had a creative voice in other aspects of the film as well. As I had guessed might happen, "Man of Steel" does show a bit of strain from the clash of two very different approaches to the story, and this strain manifests itself in terms of stylistic and tonal unevenness, but the unevenness isn't so pronounced as to detract from the overall entertainment.

Also on the heart level was my enjoyment of the fact that "Man of Steel" is much more explicitly a science-fiction movie than its predecessors were. The opening scene, for example, takes place on the planet Krypton, a world in collapse that stands as a metaphor for our own abuse of the Earth's natural resources. Krypton's core is imploding from over-mining, it seems (a reference to the fate of the Klingon moon Praxis in "Star Trek VI"?), and scientist Jor-El is doing what he can to save the Kryptonian race while attending and assisting in the birth of his son, Kal-El, who is beginning his life on a dying world. Also on Krypton is General Zod, a man bred from birth to be a warrior. Zod, who has his own interest in preserving the race, attempts a coup against Krypton's high council, and Jor-El, racing against both Zod's coup and the planet's imminent demise, figures out a way to preserve the Kryptonian race's genetic legacy and send his son to a safe world: Earth. All of this is very science-fiction-y, and to a sci-fi lover's further delight, "Man of Steel" features crustacean spacecraft that will remind many of the humped, beetle-shaped ships from "Dune" or the massive, fire-farting scarabs from "Starship Troopers." A few of the more claw-shaped craft will look familiar to people who have seen a similar image in "The Incredibles": the detached pincer of the second Omnibot, which Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl manage to fire straight into the Omnibot's hull. Jor-El's winged-dragon steed, meanwhile, will remind people of Obi-Wan Kenobi's frilled-lizard steed from "Revenge of the Sith."

I was happy to see at least two cast members from "Battlestar Galactica" in the film, even though they had only minor roles: Tahmoh Penikett, who played BSG's Helo, and Alessandro Juliani, who played the ill-fated Gaeta. These two appear in such rapid succession that I had to think Zack Snyder was making a deliberate nod in Galactica's direction. Harry Lennix from "The Matrix Reloaded" was also in attendance as an army general, and Christopher Meloni (whose TV and film credits range far and wide) played a good-hearted colonel who eventually comes to support Superman.

The movie's action sequences are generally among its positives although, as my buddy Mike's wife pointed out after the film, some of those scenes are so long and over-the-top that they become a bit tedious. I was especially interested to see Kryptonian martial arts. We first see examples of this fighting technique when scientist-warrior Jor-El duels hand-to-hand against the younger, stronger General Zod. Later on, when the untrained Superman faces off against evil, combat-trained henchman Faora (pronounced "fey-YOH-ruh," and not the Italian way—"FAH-oh-ruh"), we see Superman get out-techniqued. Some reviewers have complained about the amount of collateral damage Superman must have incurred in his final fight with General Zod—a fight that punches holes in an untold number of tall buildings in Metropolis. My assumption is that those buildings are mostly empty by the time Superman and Zod fight.

The acting in "Man of Steel" is well done; everyone hits the proper beats. Henry Cavill is stolid and sturdy, but he has the chance to show extremes of emotion (such as when his adoptive mother is threatened). Amy Adams is a cute-as-a-button Lois Lane; her relationship with the Big Guy is handled more intelligently, and less sappily, in this movie than in all the previous ones. Lois's only problem is that she has a bad habit of falling from great heights. Michael Shannon's Zod is smoldering and purpose-driven; I almost felt that Shannon could have played Khan in the recent Star Trek film. German actress Antje Traue's performance as the ruthless minion Faora is solid and confident, and Christopher Meloni manages to make an impression in a fairly minor role. Diane Lane, whom I normally consider unbelievably sexy in a young-Kathleen-Turner sort of way, does a convincing job of toning the sexiness down and playing Martha Kent as a woman of the soil.

Overall, the plot of "Man of Steel" is engaging and not too hard to understand, although I did have trouble keeping track of which villains were on which spaceships. But as I noted, my heart was saying one thing while my head was saying another. On an intellectual level, "Man of Steel" isn't a thinking person's film: once you start puzzling over some of the plot holes and other lapses in story logic, you may find yourself frowning in confusion.

"Man of Steel," perhaps more than any previous Superman film, emphasizes the fact that Superman is an alien, that he is not one of us. The film is more explicitly sci-fi in emphasis than its predecessors, and while this may be a treat for sci-fi fans, it presents problems for the truly hardcore fans, the ones who demand scientific rigor from their SF films. One problem is the physics of Kryptonian bodily movement on Earth. Faora, in particular, is portrayed as a vicious and merciless fighter, but if she were truly as powerful as her movements make her seem, she wouldn't merely be throwing human soldiers around like rag dolls: she'd be cutting through them as if they were bags of jelly. There should have been a lot more blood and gore, especially where Faora was concerned. Another problem is that Kryptonians on Krypton move like Earthlings on Earth, so when the Kryptonians initially arrive on Earth, they should have had far more trouble adapting to their newfound powers. We see this with Superman himself: one scene shows Superman testing his ability to fly; it takes him a while to figure this power out, and a mountaintop or two is sacrificed for these experiments.

General Zod's evil plan for the Earth is based on his desire to re-create Krypton. To this end, he deploys a two-part gravity weapon, positioned on opposite sides of our planet, that beams energy into the ground and sends convulsive pulses through the Earth. In the area immediately surrounding the beams' impact with the ground, gravity flips and flops: objects like cars and concrete debris are temporarily flung into the air, then thrown violently back to the Earth's surface, again and again. What's strange about this, though, it that the gravity pulses have no effect on human beings: we see cars and concrete chunks in Metropolis rise and fall while people run among them, completely unaffected by the weapon. We can chalk this up to Hollywood's sloppy notion of physics, and it has the unfortunate effect of making suspension of disbelief harder.

While watching "Man of Steel," with its razzle-dazzle special effects, I also had the impression that I had seen all of this before—especially in the Matrix films. The so-called "genesis chamber" on Krypton, for example, looks like a seaweed field from which hang thousands of Kryptonian babies, each baby sealed in its own protective, nutritive bubble. This image forcefully reminded me of similar imagery in 1999's "The Matrix," wherein we see the fields where the machines are growing and harvesting human beings for their bioelectric power. Kryptonian monitor displays and weapons also seem to rely on a silvery "nanoswarm" technology—metallic bubbles that constantly swirl into recognizable (and rather Art Deco-looking) shapes: star maps, faces, and aggressive tentacles. Superman, in trying to knock out the gravity weapon, has to contend with a truly massive version of this technology, and I was again reminded of the ravening machines in the Matrix movies. The nanoswarm did leave me wondering why, instead of forming into tentacles, the nanoparticles didn't simply try to invade Superman's lungs, like the malevolent bots in Michael Crichton's nanotech-nightmare novel Prey. Not even Superman can fight a cloud. And yet another Matrix moment hit me as Zod and Superman battled in Metropolis: every time Superman slammed into a building, a circular puff of dust erupted, reminiscent of the reality-ripples that formed from similar impacts in all three of the Matrix movies. Zack Snyder owes a large creative debt to the Wachowskis, and another debt to JJ Abrams: at one point in the film, an attempt is made to "create a singularity," i.e., a black hole. All of this has happened before.

Since we're on the topic of scientific failings, we should talk about that great unanswered question: how is it that Kryptonians speak English? I admit that this bothered me more than it should have, but I had been hoping, before seeing the film, that the movie might provide an answer to that question. Instead, "Man of Steel" takes a Star Wars-style tack and gives us a race of people who speak English but write in their own script. (Much is made of Superman's "S," which is not an "S" but a family-seal glyph signifying hope.) When General Zod comes to Earth, he somehow blanks out all of our electronics, then uses our TVs and computers to send out a global simulcast in all of Earth's languages. How he accomplishes this, I don't know, but it was the same tactic used in the pilot episode of the recent (and defunct) TV reboot "V."

"Man of Steel" also fails to satisfy in its treatment of major themes, the most central of which is the formative power of fatherhood. The good points first: Kevin Costner does a fine job in the role of Jonathan Kent, Superman's adoptive father on Earth. Jonathan's character is simultaneously fascinating, tantalizing, and touching. It's no spoiler to say that he dies partway through the film: anyone who remembers the 1978 "Superman" knows that Pa Kent has to go, that the tragic loss of the wisdom-figure is part of the heroic path. The manner of his passing, in the new movie, left my buddy Mike thoroughly dissatisfied, but I was touched by Jonathan's final gesture to his son before he perishes: it was a gesture that said, "Don't reveal your powers for my sake. Not even to save me." That scene was probably the most human moment in the film, and Clark Kent's expression as he watches his father be taken away from him is heart-wrenching. In that moment, Superman is powerless to do anything because he's bound by an idea—specifically, the idea that revealing himself to the world will produce only chaos. But Jonathan Kent is something of a mixed bag: while he is cautious about keeping his adopted son's powers a secret, he also encourages his son to find out who he is. This message overlaps with what a holographic representation of Jor-El tells Clark later on: keep testing your own limits. The ghostly Jor-El reveals to his son his purpose in sending his baby boy to Earth: Kal-El/Clark is to be a light unto the people, a bridge between Earthling and Kryptonian cultures, and Kal-El's mission will be to bring humanity to some sort of greater fulfillment. We don't see much of this as the film goes on, alas; Superman seems to view his role as more of a guardian than as a leader. There is, however, one explicitly Christic moment in the film, when Superman floats into space, his body in a cruciform posture, just before he throws himself into one of his several rescues of poor Lois Lane.

What's unsatisfying about the movie's treatment of the fatherhood theme is that Clark is presented with two distinct visions of his role on Earth, but those visions aren't given enough screen time to truly clash. Jonathan Kent recognizes that his son cannot stop himself from doing good, but the older Kent fears that the revelation of Clark's powers will cause such a backlash that the reaction will obscure or devalue any good that Clark manages to do. To that extent, Jonathan Kent's fears mirror those of Lara, Kal-El's mother, who is also worried that her son will be seen merely as a freak among the Earthlings. Jor-El's vision for his son, meanwhile, is much more aggressive and ambitious: he has sent Kal-El to Earth for a reason—to be nourished by its young yellow sun, to gain powers, and to lead humanity to a greater fulfillment. With this sort of conflict in place, with these extremely contrasting notions of what Kal-El/Clark should be doing with himself, it would have been interesting for Jonathan Kent to have met and spoken with the ghostly hologram of Jor-El. Instead, Clark ends up with two dead fathers.

So if I could sum up the movie's negatives, they would be: (1) too many tropes cobbled from other films, and (2) not enough time spent dwelling on central themes. Of course, the blazing action kept us all from being bored, but ultimately, "Man of Steel" is cotton candy for the mind: fluffy and tasty, but not especially nourishing. And that, folks, is why I recommend the film to you, but only cautiously. Don't go expecting to see something deep. Enjoy the fascinating glimpse of Krypton and high Kryptonian civilization (which seems to include plenty of ridiculous hats and "Thor"-style armor); enjoy the titanic fight scenes as gods battle each other on Earth; enjoy the nod both to Plato's noble lie and to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (Kryptonians are genetically engineered to enter Kryptonian society according to caste, a fact against which Jor-El rebels); and enjoy the ridiculous notion that Superman may very well be pregnant (you'll know what I mean when you hear the appropriate dialogue).

ADDENDUM: I realize that I failed to say anything about Hans Zimmer's score. First, I should confess that I'm not the biggest fan of Zimmer's musical notions, but I'll grudgingly admit that he's improved with age. His score for the 1990s-era "The Rock" was embarrassingly bad—callow and superficial. These days, his music is more thoughtful, with stronger, deeper bass lines and more measured rhythms that evoke subtle thoughts and feelings. His thunder-rumble score for the recent Dark Knight films reflected Bruce Wayne's underlying fury at all criminals, and Zimmer's creative stylings for "Inception" added a layer of intelligence and intrigue to that film. His work in "Man of Steel" is, once again, fairly understated, and I found that I didn't miss John Williams's iconic score at all.



John said...

And Superman finally figured out that the underwear go inside the suit...

Charles said...

I will see this at some point, I suspect, so I did not read this too carefully. I will come back to it later.

I did see ST:ID last night, though. Have you seen that one yet? If not, you will not be disappointed: there are plenty of people running down corridors. In fact, JJ upped the ante this time, making the running down corridors even more exciting and nail-biting (I'm being partially facetious, but you'll see what I mean). I enjoyed the film, though.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, I saw "Into Darkness" not long after coming back from Korea. Glad you enjoyed it. I think you'll be entertained by "Man of Steel," but to be fully entertained, you'll have to switch off your critical faculties.

Charles said...

Ah, I must have skipped right over that, not wanting to read any spoilers. Now that you mention it, I do vaguely remember that--I'll have to go back and give it a read.

As far as turning off my critical faculties while watching a film, I'm pretty good at that. Unless a film actively tries to piss me off or offends my sensibilities in some way, I am generally entertained.

Charles said...

Saw this last night. I enjoyed it, but, as HJ pointed out, the original is "more romantic." Whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, but there's no question we do not have a Golden Age Superman on our hands. Still, I was expecting the standard "dark and gritty reboot" going in, so I wasn't too surprised. The action sequences, though over the top, were done very well, I thought.

Some negatives (in addition to the ones that you pointed out):

1) I could have done with less shaky cam. Maybe I'm just getting old, but it is really starting to get on my nerves.

2) Superman had the opportunity to get Zod in a proper rear naked choke at the end but failed, most likely because he never studied jiujitsu. The funny thing is that I just learned this technique yesterday morning, and then I went out in the evening and saw Superman do it improperly. It may seem like a minor nitpick, but if you do the rear naked choke properly you can render someone unconscious in roughly five seconds (I was in one for two seconds before I tapped out, and already I could feel things going fuzzy). Instead, Supes technique is off and he is forced to kill the last Kryptonian and instead of simply subdue him.

Kevin Kim said...

I had meant to write something snarky, in my review, about how Superman doesn't care about Batman's "one rule."

And why the hell didn't that family just run out of the way of Zod's heat vision while Superman was holding Zod back? Too paralyzed with fear, I guess.

I do have to give "Man of Steel" credit for one thing: it avoided the cliché of running straight ahead when a large object is falling toward you. "Prometheus" contained just such a scene—Charlize Theron's character gets crushed by a thin "leg" of an alien spacecraft because she fails to dodge sideways when the thing comes tumbling down. Late in "Man of Steel," there's a scene in which a building is collapsing, and Perry White is running straight ahead after having freed Jimmy Olsen's sister from the concrete, but the camera pulls back and it's obvious why he's running straight ahead: he has no choice, because the building is as wide as the boulevard he's on. But as soon as a side street appears, he dodges onto it. Good way to beat that cliché.

Kevin Kim said...


You got me curious about Golden Age Superman, so I did a bit of Googling and found this:

Golden Age Superman Was No Boy Scout!

Charles said...

Yeah, I was wondering why the family didn't move out of the way--it's not like they were trapped there. And I was also pleased to see White & Co. actually dodge sideways.

And yes, it is well known that Golden Age Superman could be quite a prick at times. I was thinking more of the "feel" of the GA comics, if that makes any sense. True, Supes had no problem with criminals dying, but the universe as a whole didn't feel as dark and gritty, and Supes himself felt quite different. But that is to be expected.