Sunday, June 30, 2013
The new Superman movie, “Man of Steel” (**** OUT OF ****), ranks as the best about the Last Son of Krypton. After the lackluster box office response to the flawed but entertaining “Superman Returns” back in 2006, Warner Brothers and D.C. Comics must have retreated into their own collective Fortress of Solitude to contemplate the future of the Man of Tomorrow. Clearly, since he received story credit, writer & producer Christopher Nolan played a part in shaping this Superman reboot. As the genius behind the hugely profitable Christian Bale “Dark Knight” trilogy, Nolan qualified as the ideal choice to guide the thinking behind the reboot. If you’ve seen Nolan’s “Batman” movies, you’ll spot his influence on “Man of Steel.” First, like Nolan’s “Batman” epics, “Man of Steel” deplores comic relief and holds humor to a minimum. Comparatively, “Man of Steel” is nothing like glib “Iron Man 3.” Second, Clark Kent ventures out into the world incognito like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne did in the early scenes of “Batman Begins.” Clark holds down several jobs before he dons his distinctive apparel and then plays everything straight. “Smallville” fans will appreciate this rite of passage, especially where the trucker is concerned at the truck stop. “Watchman” director Zack Snyder and “Blade” scenarist David S. Goyer rely on Nolan-like flashbacks to break up the monotony of conventional chronology. Clocking in at 143 minutes, “Man of Steel” maintains a sense of spontaneity that tweaks its formulaic plot. Third, this Superman movie boasts no more connection with the previous Superman outings than Nolan’s “Batman” movies had with the Batman adventures that toplined Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. Fourth, just as Nolan changed the way that the Caped Crusader appeared, Superman doesn’t dress up in his traditional attire. The biggest change in Superman’s costume is that he doesn’t wear drawers outside his outfit, and he flies around in the equivalent of dyed blue thermal underwear. Nevertheless, Superman hangs onto his cape. All these alterations make “Man of Steel” a better movie than if would have turned out had Warner Brothers stuck with the “Superman Returns” storyline.
Genre movies, such as westerns, crime thrillers, and horror chillers, rely on surefire narrative formulas, and “Superman” movies are no different. Not only do good genre movies strive to top each other, but they also redefine themselves so they can appeal to different generations. Superman appeared first in 1938 in Action Comics. Since his debut, the Man of Tomorrow has evolved. Other media outlets adapted him and came up with new ideas for the character. The radio show introduced kryptonite as the substance that endangered Superman. “Man of Steel” takes a traditional but at the same time a revisionist approach to its subject matter. Like “Superman” (1978), “Man of Steel” opens with Superman’s origins as the son of Jor-El on the dying planet of Krypton. Unlike “Superman” (1978), “Man of Steel” expands the action on Krypton. At the same time, the Jor-El character does get slighted as he has in virtually all Superman movies. Russell Crowe portrays Superman father Jor-El in a performance of commendable restraint. Cleverly, the filmmakers have devised an imaginative way to extend Jor-El’s presence beyond the opening battle on Krypton with the treacherous Krypton military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon of “Mud”) who hates him with a passion. The Krypton battle scenes amount to a mini-epic with homages to both “Star Wars” and “John Carter.” “Man of Steel” provides three times more spectacle here before it plunges into the “Smallville” years.
Teenage Clark struggles to conceal his identity with his father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner of “Wyatt Earp”) and his mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane of “Hollywoodland”) backing him up. The scene where he prevents the school bus from sinking into a river after it topples from a bridge is invigorating stuff. The death of Jonathan Kent—he doesn’t croak from a heart attack like he did in “Superman” (1948), the “Superman on Earth” episode of the 1952 “Superman” television series, or “Superman” (1978)—differs, and Snyder and Goyer tie it into Clark’s ability to discipline himself. Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane becomes interested in the sensational exploits of a nomadic troubleshooter after he saves her life while she is in the Arctic writing about a mysterious spaceship trapped in the ice. Eventually, she tracks him down to Smallville and entreats him to let her let his story, but he refuses. He wants nobody to know about him. Lois’ editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne of “The Matrix”) refuses to publish her story about a stranger from another world. Ironically, while no human can convince Clark Kent to divulge his identify as Superman, General Zod forces him to take credit for his heroic deeds and surrender himself to the authorities of Earth. “Man of Steel” synthesizes the first two Christopher Reeve movies by imprisoning General Zod in a Phantom Zone and then releasing him to serve as the primary villain. Basically, “Man of Steel” boils down to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” versus his own elders. Zod and his minions show up out of the blue and insist that Earth give up Kal-El. At this point, we Earthlings don’t know who to trust. When it comes down to clash, both Zod and Kal-L constitute targets that we fire on without a qualm.
British actor Henry Cavill is the sixth actor cast as an adult Superman. You’ve probably seen Cavill in “Immortals,” “Tristan + Isolde,” and “Cold Light of Day.” Ironically, he auditioned for the Clark Kent role in “Superman Returns.” Cavill looks every inch like Superman, with his muscular physique ripped and chiseled like a Michelangelo statue. Happily, he doesn’t impersonate Christopher Reeve. If he comes closest to imitating any Superman actor, he delivers a performance reminiscent of George Reeves. Cavill has his head in the right place, and his Superman takes himself seriously. Of course, if you’re yearning for something more like “Superman” (1978) or “Superman Returns” (2006), you’re going to be disenchanted.