Sunday, June 16, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Man of Steel

It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's a predictable opening to a Superman review. If you're a Superman superfan, that line is about as intrinsic to the hero and his saga as the Kryptonite that ails him and the Fortress of Solitude that guides him. Both of which are not in this film. This latest reboot isn't a die-hard's version. It's not a throwback to earlier film adaptations. And while some critics and fans might argue that that's a good thing, that doesn't mean it's perfect.

In this reboot, we are first introduced to Kal-El's home planet, Krypton, and his birth parents, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Angels and Demons' Ayelet Zurer). We witness its destruction and his father's tireless attempts to save him and their people. And, ultimately, we witness his father's demise at the hands of Superman's most famous alien archnemisis, General Zod (the fear-inducing Michael Shannon of "Boardwalk Empire"). From there, we are thrust into Earth right along with Kal-El (the dashing Henry Cavill of Immortals ). While he wanders the sparsely populated areas of America, we're shown flashbacks of his struggle to blend in and control his volatile powers. It's refreshing to see a less celebratory reaction when he discovers his x-ray vision, ability to burn through things with his eyes, and heightened hearing. Each flashback is juxtaposed to a present day act of heroism. And with each one, we grow closer to the hero he will become. 

That storytelling technique was one of my favorite components of the film. Every time they showed a former bully all grown up, tamed, and in awe of him, it preyed on our inner underdog, which naturally dreams of a day when we will get to rub our worth and popularity in the faces of our own childhood bullies. It also served to make a comparison between his biological parents and his adoptive parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who were essentially mirrors of one another. Both mothers doting and protective. Both fathers heroic and selfless. That scene when Costner raises his hand, stopping Clark from saving him from the approaching tornado and revealing his powers to all the people huddled under the overpass was haunting. As the sound dropped out, like the calm before the storm, your heart dropped with it, but you couldn't look away. Born of a hero and raised by a hero, there seemed to be no other path he could've ever considered.
The lore that we are told of Kal-El's birth, having been the first natural one on his planet for centuries, was simply the beginning of the Messiah comparisons. During his last conversation with Jor-El, his father tells him that he sent him to Earth hoping that being raised by humans would make him feel like half of one, so he would be the bridge that unified the two species, and the Kryptonians could one day flourish again. He thought that Kal-El could show the humans the Kryptonian way of life, to live justly and to always have hope for a better tomorrow. In the Catholic religion, Jesus was sent to Earth, born naturally (although not conceived naturally), for the very same reason. God, his father, wanted him to be the bridge between Earth and the heavens, to deliver his message of hope. And much like Kal-El, Jesus's birth was questioned, his powers feared, and his existence rejected. They would first cast him down before raising him up. And the clincher of that comparison was when Superman floats out of Zod's ship into space's atmosphere with his arms outstretched and his legs pressed together as if crucified on a cross. He is our messiah, our savior, the bringer of hope.

The voiceovers, when we could hear Jor-El but not see him, also helped to solidify the God comparison. Crowe was a good choice—his voice sounds both commanding and wise. He's no James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman, but not everybody can be black. One aspect I'm glad they brought back from previous incarnations was the flying perspective. I think watching Superman fly without any mechanical or scientific assistance is one of the main things that separates him from other superheroes and, therefore, vital, but I also think that watching his face as he flies is a clever way to bond the audience to him. Watching him smile and laugh as he finds his soaring rhythm brings him down to our level, because if we could fly, that's exactly how we would look. It showed his human side. 

Although, different isn't always bad. I thought the choice to model the Kryptonian space ships, creatures, and gadgets after the structure of several types of bugs, including beetles, was not only aerodynamically logical, but also a smart way of differentiating their technology from ours, since we model our planes after birds. General Zod's initial contact with the human race was also inspired. It's not often that an alien movie includes the entire world. And when they do, they don't always remember that regardless of how universal the English language might seem to be, not everybody chooses to learn it. So the translation of his worldwide transmission was quite warranted. I also appreciated the implied origin story of Superman's costume. It wasn't just something he thought up or that was made specifically for him, but a warrior's uniform on his planet. And the S on his chest wasn't to inspire a moniker that would deem him superior to the inhabitants of his adoptive planet, but a symbol that all of his people wore.
Of course, there are still plenty of things I either didn't get, found annoying, or thought were illogical. For example, the cape. I still don't get the cape. I know it's part of the iconic costume, but I will never get the cape. What is it for? He flies either way. And while we're on the topic of the hero's appearance, what was up with his teeth? Do British people not have dentists? Do Germans? General Zod's second in command, Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), also had quite the set of chompers. Gorgeous woman. Fucked up teeth. And, lastly, I realize we want to stress Superman's humanity, but did he have to have the hairiest chest of any of his predecessors. It was like he was competing with Wolverine, who is...a fucking wolverine. I'm not saying don't have a hairy chest. I'm just saying tufts of it shouldn't peek out at the top of your costume. The third most obvious visual eye sore was the product placement. I get it. This movie was expensive—$225 million to be exact. But I don't think we needed to know that Lois Lane uses a Nikon, that bullies end up serving mouthwatering pancakes at IHOP, or that Clark Kent's mom works at Sears. And, while sure, the American flag isn't a product, it sure as hell seemed like one given how many times it was on screen. It reminded me of the Facebook sidebar that suggests people you might want to be friends with. I imagine other countries viewing this movie are declining just the same.

I'm not complaining just to be a killjoy. If I really wanted to get nit-picky, I'd mention the fact that Clark's dad is supposed to be 46 when he dies, according to his tombstone. Pfft. Costner, who is 58, looks maybe 65—maybe, on a good airbrushing day. And the studio's decision to make General Swanwick (Harry Lennix from "Dollhouse") fake swear at the end with "F-ing" to keep their PG-13 rating was ridiculous. Realistically, he would've cursed during that tense moment. But if he's not going to actually curse, then don't bother. That's like serving gluten-free cake. Why? Just eat anything else. But I'm not being nit-picky. I was simply easing you into the preposterousness of a few other elements. 
For example, why in God's name would you freeze criminals and send them to a black hole for a few life cycles, 1) knowing that when your planet inevitably explodes, they will be freed and 2) in the end, you die and they live? What?! Leave them on the planet that's dying. You go somewhere else. You had so much time to evacuate. You have got to be kidding me. In the same vein of stupidity, Zod, if your plan was to rebuild the Kryptonian community with the fetuses that survived for thousands of years in a well-hidden space ship, why the F (see how annoying that is?) would you take that ship to battle? If the ship is destroyed, the babies die. In the wise words of Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, Really? My biggest gripe though is with the CGI movements of the Kryptonians. They moved like The Hulk. The Hulk is a giant ogre. He's clunky and massive. Superman should be graceful. He and his fellow Kryptonians shouldn't land like hammers and fight like wrestlers. I mean, they don't need to know karate, but I felt like I was watching "The Flinstones" and Bamm-Bamm was throwing a fit. And last, but not least, I will let the lack of a Fortress of Solitude or Kryptonite slide, since I'm sure we'll eventually encounter these things in sequels, but I'm a little bummed we weren't introduced to Jimmy Olsen.

Now, there was internet speculation that the intern Jenny (newcomer Rebecca Buller), who got trapped mid-attack and was vigilantly saved by her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and reporter Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly of "House of Cards" and "People of Interest"), was Jimmy's replacement. But luckily, after someone obsessively enhanced her ID and read that her last name was Jurwich, that theory was debunked. Look, as much as I love girl power, the brotherly bond between Clark and Jimmy is far more important. He has to feel like he has a family in Metropolis, now that all of his people are dead and he's so far from both his homes.
Speaking of vital bonds, after the second viewing of this film, I decided that in spite of a serious lack of courting, I will accept the love story between Clark and Lois (the bravado-bearing Amy Adams). At first, I only understood why she liked him. Who wouldn't she? He's handsome, heroic, selfless, and he treats her with the respect that most men don't. What I struggled with was why he would fall for her. Flashbacks to his childhood give glimpses of his crush on Lana Lang, but he's met plenty of women since then in his travels. Why would he fall for this one? Then I realized it was because she's the only one who ever publicly accepted him without fear of judgement, and publicly stood up for him without fear of consequence. She embodies the reason the human race deserves to be saved. She is both the acceptance he has craved all his life and the hope he was destined to deliver. So fine. Fall. Fall hard. But the next movie better be chocked full of Clark and Lois moments now that they work together at The Daily Planet, while he rocks those extremely "covert" spectacles, because otherwise it'll become a superficial romance.

I also look forward to the possibility that they will introduce Lex Luthor next time, because, let's be honest, some tycoon is going to swoop in and rebuild Metropolis after that insane demolition scene that was passed off as an aerial duel. I'm also interested in finding out if the government were so bold as to search the wreckage for fetuses to dissect or alien technology to steal. I also wonder if Faora-Ul, who is said to be one of Superman's most formidable comic book enemies, actually died during that black hole suck, given her propensity for survival. But mostly, I look forward to finding out the most baffling question of all: Is Superman a virgin? Come on. After his implication that the best has yet to come when they took a much-needed kiss break, you were thinking the exact same thing.

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