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Up, up and away? Or down for the count again? – Man of Steel

June 14, 2013


  1. Henry Cavill was last seen by most in the turgid Immortals, which I watched recently just to see how good he could be in a bad movie. (Immortals is a “film” in the same sense that scum on a pond is “film.” Though it does feature a man cutting out his own tongue and another fellow getting his balls crushed by a giant croquet mallet, both in the span of about a minute. EXCELSIOR.) In a plot that was relentlessly shallow, his was one of the few characters with any depth, mostly due to his undeniable screen presence. And now he IS Superman. No one will ever replace Christopher Reeve, who wore the suit (the suit didn’t wear him, as it doesn’t Cavill) without the benefit of modern whiz-bang CGI, and made it soar. But Cavill is more than worthy to stand side by side with him. One of the great achievements of this film is to make you salivate for what might be in store. As I sat watching the movie, I kept thinking how unbelievably great it would be to see this guy talking to Bale’s Batman (a barely glimpsed corporate symbol gives us some hope for that). Or (a new) Hal. Or Diana. It’s hard to believe that one man could by himself found a new universe of heroes, but with this Superman, anything is possible. Even when he does things outside of our normal Super-parameters — including a jarring, tragic, but understandable choice in the climax — Cavill is eminently believable in the role. He radiates the good in all of us.
  2. Michael Shannon’s bug-eyed acting intensity has almost become a pop meme in recent years — he can bore into you as either Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, attacking a mocking douche with an iron, or as his plain old self, helping ensure a deranged sorority girl’s “cunt punt” letter will forever be part of the Urban Dictionary lexicon. The legend continues. His Zod is a man born and bred to fight, and this leads him down dark paths because those are the only places he knows to tread. His ends might be noble in his head, but his means are cloaked in violence — and he’s still almost a good guy in a way. (Between his big eyes and his serrated battle armor, he looks like what would have happened if H.R. Giger had designed Buzz Lightyear.) Terence Stamp once brought icy detachment to the role of Zod, all the while wrapped up in an outfit that made it look as if he was a wrestler trying to make weight. This General is much more  fiery, much more jagged, much more sympathetic, and much more dangerous.
  3. Russell Crowe has entered that awkward DeNiro territory, where he’s an established Oscar-winning star with classic roles under his belt, but who’s also made a whole hell of a lot of crap in recent times. It’s easy to forget that 10-15 years ago he was knocking it out of the park in movie after movie, whether in The Insider, L.A. Confidential, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander — what have you. And yet more recently we’ve had the forgettable Robin Hood and the dreadful Body of Lies, examples of what can happen when he’s disinterested, working just to work, not to sink his teeth into meaty material. When he was cast as Jor-El, I wasn’t sure which Crowe we were going to get — and set photos of him taking a smoke break, looking bored and bloated (it appeared that, having heard that Brando had once played Jor-El, he decided to partake of Marlon’s Apocalypse Now diet and workout regimen), didn’t instill much confidence. Thankfully, he’s energized in this, and it’s a good thing, since his role is different that what people might expect. Suffice it to say, Kal isn’t the first man of Action from the House of El. And Kevin Costner is equally superb in his all too brief turn as Jonathan Kent, the other half of Clark’s My Two Dads. (One scene is particularly searing, taking a cue from the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man flick.) So Superman gets his genes from Maximus and his life lessons from the Field of Dreams dreamer-farmer. Not a bad mixture. It even makes a bit of sense on a sub-conscious, meta level.
  4. One of the great flaws that infects this film — and many others in this money-oriented artistic realm — is that the people making it think they’re a whole lot smarter than they actually are. Not to say they’re dumb (or that I’m a genius — DEAR GOD NO I AM NOT), but once again there are a number of beats here that seem off. A few poor editing choices here, a few inexplicable decisions there, a few shortcuts now and again. At times characters drop bromides on each other like napalm. They aren’t enough to ruin things by any stretch, but they’re present, and it’s vexing. The exposition can get a bit heavy, no matter how stylized it is. (Apparently Kryptonians have a thing for bas-relief done in malleable pewter. Huh.) I watched a behind the scenes featurette last week, and Snyder and Goyer were talking about how the Superman symbol in this movie is a glyph symbol for the House of El — like they were the first people to come up with this. Tom Mankiewicz would beg to differ. You took away his underpants, boys. That’s your biggest innovation. Carry on. (More on the briefs in a moment.)
  5. Remember all the product placement in the 1978 film? This one is emblazoned all over like a NASCAR driver. It’s not that it’s jarring, since this is present day America we’re talking about. But it’s omnipresent. Pete Ross: Agent from I.H.O.P.
  6. Amy Adams is a magnificent Lois Lane, both believable as an ace reporter (one who can actually figure out things that are right in front of her) and someone more proactive than we’ve come to expect. Her relationship with our hero has more than a few hints of romance, but a deeper bond of friendship seems to win out. This is a good thing, I think. And really, the entire cast, from Diane Lane as Martha Kent, to Christopher Meloni as a skeptical but honorable Air Force Colonel, to Laurence Fishburne as a hard-ass Perry White, all perform admirably. (Including the child Clarks.) There are no embarrassments here. (Ian Tracey, who was in Da Vinci’s Inquest, the best cop show ever to come out of Canada, has a bit role as a surly trucker. What the hell is it with movie Superman and surly truckers?)
  7. Clark Kent is a Royals fan. Of course he is. Hal McRae is pleased.
  8. There was much gnashing of teeth about the changes to the costume, and I was one of the pitchfork-wielding, torch-carrying villagers. I’m fine with Superman’s new attire, but — if I can put on my Project Runway hat here — he really needs something to break up all that blue. It doesn’t have to be BVDs, but maybe some red stripes or something. As it is, it looks a little like long underwear you’d see a cowboy wear in the bunkhouse. But it’s fine onscreen, and you never notice the difference. Because the action…
  9. The action truly is spectacular, and the two battles versus fellow Kryptonians in Smallville and Metropolis are something to see. I didn’t watch this in IMAX, and I might have to to fully appreciate them. Superman’s battle with Faora (Antje Traue, another member of the fine cast), is especially interesting, in that it’s the first time he’s really put to a test. She’s born to kill, he’s not — this is a disadvantage. That and he also has to fight the Kryptonian Wilt Chamberlain at the same time. (Faora is terrifying yet achingly hot — imagine being a deeply conservative Republican, if you’re not already, and someone really sexed up Rachel Maddow into a total babe. That kind of thing.) Girders are used as cudgels, train cars as ordnance, and no skyscraper is safe. Metropolis ends up looking like Hiroshima, 1946. There’s none of Snyder’s old slo-mo to tone things down. This is a roller-coaster. Be prepared.
  10. Hans Zimmer’s music is nothing like the classic John Williams score that we all know and love (which may be Williams’ finest when you get right down to it), and perhaps that’s for the best. It’s filled with Wagnerian bombast, with enough drums to rattle your sternum. Gene Krupa is smiling down from heaven, put it that way. It has much the same surging intensity of the Dark Knight scores, but it’s better suited to this material. Instead of playing over, say, Commissioner Gordon walking down an alley, it does so over people punching each other through buildings. Though it lacks clearly defined themes that you’ll be humming for years to come (Williams’ had four, count ’em four), it more than makes up for this as accompaniment to massive destruction.

Superman is dear to me, whether in his comic book iterations or onscreen. Centuries ago, in my high school yearbook, in listing the people I most respected (a list that went next to my god-awful senior portrait), he was there right alongside my parents — and this wasn’t an ironic adolescent thumbing of the nose. Superman matters. He always has, and he always will. He’s a god who can do almost anything, and what is it that he does? He protects those who need it most. That’s something that speaks to people across whatever artificial boundary you place between them, within whatever political climate you choose. Superman is the very definition of “hero,” and that’s why I’ve always loathed the way people dismiss him in favor of more human, more “dark and gritty” characters. Take your emo BS and shove it, because when Superman fails, it’s because of his nigh-omnipotence that the failure stings all the more. Think back to Pa Kent’s death in the first Donner film: All those things I can do, all those powers. And I couldn’t even save him. Though he doesn’t wear his angst on his blue sleeve — well, he kind of does here — it’s still there beneath the kind, cheerful surface. A god who is fallible is more human than any of us, and more instantly relatable. And a richer trove of drama.

Superman is what all costumed protectors hope they’ll be when they grow up. Again: he matters. There’s a reason why his S is the second most recognized symbol on Earth, just behind the Christian cross, and that reason is something beyond good old-fashioned salesmanship. Man of Steel certainly isn’t the best Superman movie we could possibly get, but it’s the first time we’ve ever seen Superman be truly — yes — super. At times it’s like your daydreams and many of the comics you knew as a child have come to life.

It was an uneven start to the genre summer movie season, between the uncomfortable flippancy of Iron Man 3 and the cloying recycling that went on in the slick Star Trek Into Darkness. Man of Steel leaves both in the dust, despite its flaws. Last year’s Avengers had me floating on air, and this film, ironically enough, isn’t quite at that level. But it puts things on the right track. The legs are pumping.

Four new Super-batches out of five.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. m.l. post permalink
    June 14, 2013 1:14 pm

    Hah! I knew it! Underneath that cold, cynical front there was a comicbook loving kid somewhere. After the disappointment I felt with that cardboard tank, which was of no use in punishing enemies or picking up chicks, I finally have something to believe in again.

  2. permalink
    June 14, 2013 1:29 pm

    Excellent writing.
    I didn’t think I wanted to see this film. Now?
    One Of The Best Comic Book Blogs Ever.
    My Women LOVE My Cardboard Tank

  3. June 15, 2013 5:29 pm

    Jared —

    I just saw Man of Steel earlier this afternoon, and while not quite as enthusiastic as you, I really did appreciate reading today’s post. It’s refreshing to read comic book movie reviews written by people who are knowledgeable and passionate as comic book fans.



    • June 18, 2013 4:29 pm

      Thanks. And I understand people’s quibbles with the movie, because I have some of them myself.

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