Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

Just realized I never cross-posted this one from my other location. Mea culpa.
 
IntroductionOne of the most anticipated movies of the past two or three years has been Man of Steel, the reboot of the Superman film franchise under the guidance of Zack Snyder at the director's helm, written by David S. Goyer, and with Christopher Nolan producing. The latter two are currently known for being the duo in charge of the recent blockbuster Batman trilogy reboot.
With whispers of a Justice League film in the works by DC, following in the footsteps of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, it was vital for Man of Steel not only to have legs, but to somehow thematically and tonally fit with Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, while still feeling like Superman. Did the film succeed? In short, the answer is yes and no. Let's take a look.

Before I go on, I should mention that this review will contain spoilers for the film, so if spoilers aren't your thing, you might want to skip to the summary section at the end.

Now, without further ado, let's look at Man of Steel. 

The GoodIf superhero action films are your thing, you'll dig this movie. There's enough action in it to satisfy even the most jaded lover of explosions and destroyed cityscapes. The film begins with a massive sci-fi action and battle sequence in the waning days of Krypton, and aside from a bit of exposition, doesn't let up all that much. In fact, it's so much action from start to finish that the action itself starts to feel slow, but we'll get to that in the next section.

The biggest plus I can give to this film is the casting. The casting was brilliant all around. Henry Cavill needed to be able to pull off the face of Superman, his morality, his dual nature as a child of two worlds, his noble bearing, and his place as a being who walks among, but always separate from, humanity. He does this in spades. Some folks may feel that the brooding nature given the character in this film doesn't fit Superman in general, but as a re-told origin story, I think it carries well. The way he says Lois's name and delivers a half-smile as he says it tugged at my heart strings a bit, because to me he really sounded like and emulated the mannerisms of Christopher Reeve, so that was a very nice tribute.

There is a scene near the end where Superman takes an action that has enraged many fans of the character, who feel that it was something he would never in a million years do. Without getting too spoiler-y, I'll just say that he kills someone. While it's true that Superman is a hero who doesn't kill as a rule, there have been situations in the comic where he has been forced into situations where he had no other choice, and I feel that this was also presented in the movie. What he does, he does because there is no other option, and his reaction to what he's just done is 100% in keeping with the character's nature and morality.

Amy Adams is excellent as Lois Lane. That's a major compliment from me because I have a really hard time imagining Lois as anything but a brunette, but Adams made me forget that fact because she has the perfect bearing, determination, and attitude to carry the character over. Likewise, Lawrence Fishbourne is a fantastic Perry White. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do a solid and stand-up job as Clark's human parents, John and Martha Kent.

As Jor-El, Russell Crowe is brilliant and brilliantly bad-ass, which I appreciated, though some fans did not. The general feeling has been that since Jor-El was a scientist, he shouldn't have been so good at, well, being a warrior, but to me Superman has to get it from somewhere, and let's not forget that in the comics it was Jor-El who banished Zod to the Phantom Zone to begin with.

Which brings us to Zod. I never would've chosen Michael Shannon to play this role. To me he's not the type of actor I envision as an epic villain, but man, did he pull it off.

So overall, the casting was excellent.

The back story was also covered very well--rather than make us sit through a slogging hour of "Clark grows up" in sequence, the back story is told in flashbacks during the main storyline. This works out very well as a narrative device.

Some folks didn't like the sheer level of carnage and devastation that results from the conflicts in this movie (they essentially level both Smallville and Metropolis), but my thoughts on this were twofold. First, what would you expect when a whole bunch of Kryptonians throw down right here on Earth, and secondly, it rang to me as borrowed from the Death of Superman arc in the comics, wherein Superman's battle with Doomsday results in pretty much the same thing. I was okay with it, though I'd love to see the sequel begin with some information about Superman rebuilding or helping to rebuild both battlegrounds.

The film is well-written in the sense that the characters are engaging and interesting, the story moves along, and keeps you invested. There are some issues with the writing, however, which we'll now discuss in the next section.

The Bad
As much as is good about the film, there's a lot to not like as well. I think the producers, writer, and director tried far too hard to make this fit with Nolan's Dark Knight films in tone, and in that sense it fails, because while Batman can afford to be dark, brooding, and sinister, Superman loses something when it takes itself too seriously. That's not to say there can't be high stakes and drama in a Superman movie, but this film went so far in the other direction that it is in many ways even darker than Batman, which is a problem.

In some ways, the writers and director went so far in presenting Clark as an outsider that it ended up making him look like a mash-up of the Hulk and Spider Man rather than Superman. Every time Clark had to falsify his work history, get a new job in some fringe area of society, then disappear when his gifts manifested, I kept expecting to hear that sad walking away music from the 1970's Increcible Hulk TV series. Some of the fight scenes were very much of the "Hulk SMASH!" variety, and the speeches Jonathan gives to Clark echo just a little too closely to Uncle Ben's "With great power comes great responsibility" monologues to Peter Parker. It's understandable that DC would look at everything that Marvel has done right to try and emulate that success, but in the end it's kind of like looking at The Two Towers and deciding that all you need to be successful in a fantasy film is gigantic battle scenes.

Which brings me to the story. While I said the film was well-written, there are some problems with the story. Clark comes across as possibly the single most incompetent superhero in history insofar as hiding his identity goes, and this creates a lot of issues. It's really hard to swallow that as many times as he's screwed up, Lois was the first one to ever track him down. Hell, it's pretty much established that everyone in Smallville knows all about Clark Kent and his god powers. Someone in that town is going to sell him out sooner or later. I'm not sure what the writers were trying to do with this, but it almost feels like a big, "oops!"

The action sequences, as I mentioned earlier, are relentless and nearly constant. It does get to a point where the building smashing becomes a bit gratuitous, and without very many breaks in the action, it can get a little tired. Also, Zod is rather incompetent for a brilliant general, since he spends far too little time exploiting Superman's weakness for loving humans--that is to say, he doesn't deliberately put people in danger to force Superman to save them instead of focusing on the battle, nearly enough.

The writers also took a great deal of liberty with the mythology, having Lois discover who Clark is so early on, with the back story of Krypton, etc. While every superhero movie I've seen over the past ten or fifteen years has done this sort of thing, somehow it seems harder to swallow when it's Superman. There's something a bit more sacrosanct about that character than any other character, even if you're not a fan of him overall.   And while the characters are well-written, I think in some cases they were written wrong. I was disappointed to see certain characters die who in the comics are still alive and well to this day. And I felt that far too much time was spent repeating ad nauseum that Zod was only doing what he thought was best for Krypton because he was genetically engineered to be that way. I don't necessarily want to understand Zod's motives. I want to know that he has motives, but I think he plays far better as a megalomaniac than as someone who cares so much about his people that he'll take things to extremes to protect them. I don't want a shred of sympathy for that character, and the film took too much time to try and give him a sympathetic air on some level.

So, there's too much dark and brooding, too much of the wrong stuff borrowed from the Hulk and Spider-Man, and a questionable approach to the mythology. 

The Ugly
As far as the visuals and aesthetics go in the film, it's really a mixed bag. There's a lot to like: the special effects are top notch. I didn't see it in 3D so I can't speak to that but I have been told the 3D was very impressive. I liked the design work: the Kryptonian technology, though far from the crystal-based tech to which we've become accustomed, is very neat and alien looking. Superman's costume design--indeed, all the Kryptonian costume design--was really well done and I'm glad, even though it doesn't match the comics, that they got rid of the red panties.

Unfortunately, the overall look of the film, in terms of the muted colors used and the blue-gray wash over the whole movie, really fails as a Superman story, which needs to use a brighter color palette. As I said, it feels darker than Nolan's Batman films, which just doesn't work. It looks like the sun never comes out on Superman's world, even though the guy is powered by, you know, the sun. Even in scenes where they're in the desert or he's using the sun to "power up," the light and palette is muted instead of clear and colorful. The film overall looks deliberately grainy or washed.

There's also lot of use of shaky-cam and quick cuts, which I always dislike. I think the intent was to give the idea of "guerrilla" filming techniques, as though this was being captured by an amateur journalist, but again, for Superman it doesn't really work, despite the fact that the mythology is full of reporters. It just ends up waffling between depressing and chaotic/hard to follow. So the aesthetics of the film are really a mix of good and bad. I find myself hoping that now that they've got the "I'm trying to figure out who I am in the world," part down, they'll look to a brighter and cleaner approach in future installments. Zach Snyder is known for both 300 and Watchmen; in the end, the visuals in this film look more like 300, where a Watchmen approach would've been preferable.

SummaryWhile Man of Steel certainly is not the best superhero movie I've ever seen (The Avengers fills that slot and sets a very high bar), Neither is it anywhere near the worst I've seen. It succeeds very well in some levels (casting, pacing, action sequences, characters) and fails in others (overall visuals, borrowing the wrong elements from other genre films, changes in mythology, poor story choices). In the end, however, it does succeed well enough that I'll be eager to see what they do with future installments of the series, and I think, at least, that the character is in very good hands with Henry Cavill's performance.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Kernels.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Moving!

Due to some interest from the editor over there, I'm going to be re-starting and moving this blog over to the Dormont-Brookline, PA Patch website at http://dormont-brookline.patch.com/.
 
The direct address to the blog itself will be http://dormont-brookline.patch.com/blogs/overpriced-popcorn .

As I think about it I'll try to cross-post any articles here, but that will be the home of this blog from here on out.

I'll likely re-post most of the entries from here, over there, to get things going and I will also be adjusting the format to cover older films, both classic and cult, and films on DVD and Blu Ray. I'll also post articles about the film industry as I see it.

So, feel free to check it out over there and feel free to comment!