Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man Of Steel (2013) Movie Thoughts

During the final hours of the planet Krypton, the illegally born son of high delegate, Jor-El, is sent hurtling towards a future life as an earthling. And in the years to follow, he will continue to face the clear as day questions that befall the superhuman being he has grown to become. Even as he travels  the world, longing for answers to his origin, fates are bound to collide as a violent remnant from the past comes to earth in his quest to rebuild this once great world - even if it means destroying ours in the process. Comic book movie darling, Zack Snyder finds himself in more solemn waters than normal with his Christoper Nolan produced take on the Superman legend. And what results is something actually resembling a piece of film that takes the notions seriously, but might go down too lightly for what it implies. As a leaner, more sober rendition of the classic mythos, Snyder (with Batman Begins' David Goyer as head writer) hunkers down, and finds what while gravitas indeed possible, the road to earning it isn't quite so simple. Nor is it easy to make the character relevant in a world rife with distrust, surveillance, and an overall lack of faith.

Speedy confession time: while I had long known that the Superman character and mythology was set to be brought back to the screen, a part of me had initially seen the choice of Snyder as something to be a little twitchy about. Even as his take on Dr. Manhattan was one of the shining lights of his WATCHMEN adaptation, I wasn't sure if the material and the director were the most harmonic match. Most of Snyder's films have largely been visual affairs, often flirting with slightly denser-than-average graphic novel fare, with only middling results. It isn't that I find him to be a poor director, but rather less interested in the affairs of people as opposed to how they will look in almost stereoscopic fashion amongst opulent backgrounds, and questionable music cues. The tale of Clark Kent/Kal-El, as he struggles to retain his goodness whilst accepting himself as both Kryptonian and human is one of greater sensitivity alongside rousing bombast. For all the romanticism the character carries with him, there is also a bevy of human characters that shape and mold him. There is a greater need for these characters to inspire him, to challenge, and to help make him the legend he will inevitably become. And to varying degrees, this has been achieved more than once on film, but it is something that has since eluded Snyder for whatever reason - mostly that the works he has served duty on have often been moodier affairs that are often strewn in viscera of one manner or another. And even if filmmakers choose to go "dark" with the character and his world, it takes a certain amount of layering to make it work.

So does it?

Yes, and no. For all intents and purposes, this is easily the one Snyder film that doesn't make me renege on the few scenes he makes that actually leave an effect on me. Man Of Steel whizzes by at such a breakneck pace, and has enough gall to make even non-superhero fans quake in their seats. There are some truly breathtaking moments and images populating major sections throughout. And Henry Cavill (Clark/Kal-El/Superman) is boosted by some impressive supporting performances. Even his performance has shades of true charm as the conflicted alien, but like so many other things here, much of it is buried in that oh-so-familiar need for summer blockbusters to just gun headlong into the action, which in this film is jaw-dropping to say the least.

Right away, this is a film eager to establish its own identity upon the world with the reinvention of Krypton, and an expansion of how its civilization condemned itself into ultimate cataclysm. In an unexpectedly drawn out prologue, we are given full view of Jor-El & his wife, Lara's wish to alter course on a home that is already far gone, even as their comrades turn on one another. And with a presentation that evokes memories of even David Lynch's DUNE, there is plenty to enjoy on the artistic and conceptual level that it almost buys itself a pass. It's a sequence that in many ways encapsulates the film as a whole; visually arresting and packed with imaginative possibility, but distant in ways that are difficult to quantify. It is as if the film knows how personal it has to go, but will not, because feelings are perhaps a little too icky? I wish there were a more eloquent way of putting it, but there it is. What the film offers up as a new sheen, is at times very close to something that could be one worthy of endless re-examination, but as it is, it's happy to go about unrestrained, and often bereft of the emotional baggage a film like this perhaps needs at its core.

Even as it goes out of its way to re-introduce the characters, there is an air about the film that screams a wish to replicate previous success. From the arrival of Kal-El on Earth, to the rapid-fire flashes back & forth that is meant to fill us in on his life as a Kansas farm boy, and his subsequent journey of self-discovery, the whole is attempting to achieve the mostly terrific non-linear structure of one Batman Begins, but lacks any of that film's thematic focus. We are also introduced to a much more knowing and aggressive reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as she is obsessed with trailing the adventures of a special man with an unerring habit of saving those in need wherever he seems to stop. It is here that the structure problems make themselves the most apparent, as we are given almost unforgivably brief glimpses into Clark's younger days. And while we do luck out, and have some of the film's best quiet moments here between teen Clark (Dylan Sprayberry), and adopted father, Jonathan Kent (played by the much missed Kevin Costner), these scenes are never give a chance to breathe. And this is the core issue, if we are to take this bold new course with such a character, then it is essential for us to understand why this character feels the way he does about a people he will learn to have a unique relationship with. This section is an opportunity for us to bond with his yen for good, and while we get a general idea, we never feel the weight of it. One of Begins' biggest strengths lies in that film's need to establish why Bruce Wayne will not kill. And Nolan & Goyer do so by illustrating the coldness of a firearm, and the seductiveness it offers. Visually, the film never lets us forget what is at stake for young Bruce Wayne should he ever seek the easy solution. No such dilemma or examination is made in MoS, and it in many ways hurts any chance we get at connecting with him beyond the fact that he is Superman. So much of the groundwork is rendered perfunctory, and assumed, and that is a troubling trend I have witnessed quite a bit lately.

So when worlds finally (and literally) find themselves on a collision course, placing Clark into a wildly unsubtle end game against the driven and vicious General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a fantastic turn), we are forced to cast aside the thematic, and are witness to the expected action barrage. Cars are smashed, bullets ricochet, buildings collapse, and entire areas are laid waste, but the emotional foundation upon which all of this depends seems lost in the cacophony once the conflict hits Smallville, and inevitably threatens the world. (because what else could be threatened?) And even as the context is top light, there is much to enjoy here as Snyder does what he had long yet tried, which is apply filming in mostly open environs. Surroundings that actually allow the action to have a sense of gravity. It's a touch that never ceases to add that little extra something to a big production like this, and for what it is, it is deeply impression making.

So how about the relationships forged between Clark, his family, and his comrades. As mentioned before, they are mostly made on the move, and largely lacking the kind of intimacy needed to make the action matter. Most notably unexpected, was the connection between Clark and Lois. While one can almost imagine Nolan balking at the classic "mild-mannered reporter" claptrap, there is something altogether strange about forcing these two together now that they are not established early on as co-workers. The dichotomy of Kent as a good-natured weenie is eschewed completely, thereby making Superman a much larger part of the story, often to the point of being patently goofy. Especially considering how many people see him without his iconic glasses. It's to the point that the world must accept him as alien, full stop. It seems to be the film's singular driving force, and what we have in return, while interesting, seems light on the potential. We do get some sweet moments here and there, even with Diane Lane as Ma Kent, but again, we are never give the kind of coverage that is necessary to counterbalance all the plot obfuscation happening throughout. Clark begins as a ghost, and pretty much ends the film as one. So when we are meant to take all of this as prelude to the Superman we all know and apparently love, it becomes a little tough to buy.

And even as the film screams to be seen on a subtle level, there are far too many themes fighting for dominance to make any significant statement. Even as Snyder's team lays out large black text messages representing varying intentions on both the human and radical Kryptonian sides, so much focus is lost as the film seems to be victim of additional re-shoots up to the last second. Where the myth has long leaned toward Superman being an ultimate immigrant, a man pitted between two worlds, the film vacillates between being concerns of national security, and an overall need for a society to seek its long forgotten pluralistic roots. It becomes kind of difficult to suss out when a film cannot decide what to focus on, so we eventually just throw up our hands and rely on the spectacle to do the talking. 

Even when one wishes to just allow the tale to weave itself, and to envelope us as participants in the trials of our modern mythological deities, it does help to know that deep down, they truly are no different than us. So why is it so difficult to do this when your lead character is as simple as they come? Man Of Steel, while truly visceral in many respects, seems unwilling to level with its own background. While it so wishes to dole out some new wrinkles about the big blue boy scout, it should have done so with a little more faith in what makes him so special; his innate humanness.

Make no mistake, Man Of Steel is a massive achievement of movie wizardry. But it is in the small that such legends truly find themselves capable of flight.

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