Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel (2013) – Review

Review: Man of Steel is a massive action/adventure film that is tonally much more serious than most superhero fare. The film is about Kal-El (Clark Kent), an alien being who struggles to find his place on Earth (deciding how to use his remarkable gifts). He is torn between two worlds. He has spent his entire life on Earth, growing from a baby into adulthood, but his alien abilities make him a god among men. Should he show his true self and potentially be hated and feared for his differences and power or should he stay hidden, keeping to the fringes? That is his choice. However, he is forced to reveal himself to mankind, to protect them, when warriors from his destroyed home world come to Earth seeking revenge for what his father did years ago (a man they consider a traitor).

From the opening scene of Man of Steel it is clear that director Zack Snyder has a grand vision for Kal-El and the world in which he inhabits. Snyder wants the film to feel epic, and thus kicks it off with the humongous battle for Krypton, ripe with wonderful sci-fi/fantasy styled action. He never really lets up from there as almost the entirety of the third act is one elongated action sequence between Kal-El and General Zod (and his group of Kryptonian warriors). Again, the set pieces are grandiose in scale with seemingly much of Metropolis destroyed during the melee, but it works because both Kal-El and Zod are titans fighting in a world incapable of restraining their power (thus, there is a lot of collateral damage as one would expect). The magnitude of their combat also greatly plays into the final decision that Kal-El must make regarding Zod. There is no Earthly force that can stop Zod, therefore it solely rests with Kal-El to make a tough choice.

Snyder, somewhat following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s (who produces this film and co-wrote the story) The Dark Knight Trilogy, takes a much more serious tone with both the character and world than fans of superhero films have become accustom to (especially given Marvel’s model for producing films that are on the lighter, entertainment first side). Man of Steel is very weighty in its drama, as Kal-El spends the whole film soul searching and trying to live up to the hopes of his two father figures. There is almost no reprieve from the intense action and emotional drama, which for some will be all too much.

Yet, as an origin story about a being caught between two worlds in addition to the clear narrative reflecting how mankind often treats outsiders and the pain and suffering incurred as result, Snyder made the stronger dramatic decision to play the film as a deeply emotional and momentous struggle. Kar-El’s path to becoming ‘Superman’ would not feel as earned or important if it was easy (both in terms of overcoming the main villains and his emotional journey finding who he is and who he wants to be). Like Nolan, Snyder invests a lot more in the journey of his lead character than the average lesser genre fare, and it pays off as Kal-El’s narrative resonates with the audience on a more profound level. His struggle actually means something, and is not merely presented for the audience’s entertainment.

Though, the film is highly entertaining too. The action scenes are supremely massive, to an extent that audiences have maybe never seen. Yet, they still work because the audience is invested in the characters. However, one of the film’s weaknesses is also the scale of its action scenes. For viewers who are only peripherally engaged (viewers who for whatever reason do not buy into Kal-El’s narrative journey) the magnitude of the action scenes can feel overwhelming. And again, there is almost no respite from the exacting tone of the narrative.

Another weakness that holds Man of Steel back from being among the genre’s best films is the one dimensionality of General Zod. He is perpetually intense and seemingly crazed. Snyder does not make any attempt to connect emotionally with the character, rather presenting him purely as a potentially unstoppable force of sheer one-sided rage. Zod is thus nothing more than a plot device, an obstacle that must be overcome, and not a fully fleshed out character (like the best genre villains), which undermines the overall power and impact of the narrative.

However, Snyder does make up for it with the great work he does with his other supporting characters, particularly Jor-El and Jonathan Kent – Kal-El’s father figures. The strong character moments that Snyder gives these characters, in addition to their dramatic interactions with Kal-El, make up the film’s emotional core and drive Kal-El’s narrative journey. Their relationship with Kal-El is what enables the audience to connect with him and relate to him. Lois Lane also plays an important role both for the audience and Kal-El. She provides the audience with an additional perspective into the narrative (as an outsider looking in), while serving as an important emotional step in Kal-El’s journey. She is the first human (outside his family) that he feels that he can completely trust, which allows him to find the will to step into the light (so to speak). Snyder handles this relationship well, but also leaving a lot for potential sequels (as the film is about Kal-El becoming Superman and not his relationship with Lane).

Man of Steel also resonates due to its look at modern society’s seemingly intensifying fear of people that are different. Without becoming overly political, there is a palpable discontent in how many feel towards those they deem as outsiders – a distrust, if not complete hatred. This stems from ignorance and anxiety regarding the unknown. The world just feels like a more dangerous place (whether it really is or not), which seems to drive people inward, shunning what they do not know or understand. Snyder’s narrative offers a symbol of hope to remind people that it is within all of us to be accepting, moral, and trust in others. Zod is utterly engulfed with the perseverance of his own beliefs at the ultimate cost to all others (which seems to be a very real, and scary, feeling today among some groups, American or otherwise). Kal-El is able to succeed because he puts his trust in the greater good, setting aside and sacrificing selfish motives.

Superman represents the good of mankind while Zod the close-minded hatred. This juxtaposition however makes the final confrontation between them all the more shocking. Kal-El is not presented by Snyder as the infallibly morel being that Superman has been represented as in past characterizations.  In Man of Steel, he is limited by his own humanity, which makes him more interesting and allows his narrative journey to resonate to a much greater degree than past Superman films.

Man of Steel is imperfect and does not stand among the genre’s truly brilliant films (like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Spider-Man 2). That said, it is very entertaining and emotionally engaging, and more specifically a great modern superhero film (and massive summer blockbuster).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Zack Snyder is an impressively visual director. Man of Steel has many wonderfully iconic and grand moments and visuals that serve the character well. However, again he seems to favor his over-the-top visuals to content. Man of Steel does have a strong dramatic narrative, which is what makes the film work so well, and the action set pieces are incredible, but they are also a bit overpowering, dulling the overall experience (but it is not to as devastating an effect as with Sucker Punch or the weakest moments of Watchmen). He is able to find a better balance with this in comparison to his past few films, which gives me hope that he will get better as a filmmaker. Man of Steel is a great start, and I look forward to seeing what will likely be an even better sequel (assuming Nolan returns as well to guide Snyder a bit). This is my favorite of Snyder’s films to date.

Following his brilliant and immense scores for Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, composer Hans Zimmer again gives Man of Steel a similarly dominating score (utilizing commanding drums). However, the genius of Zimmer’s work is in the smaller emotional moments. He is able to capture the sheer grandeur of the film while conveying the theme of hope that the character encompasses. It is fantastic work (as usual).  Amir Mokri’s cinematographer fits the tone that Snyder has set for the film visually. His lighting creates a harsh world, mirroring Kal-El’s own internal struggle. Though, it is the moments in which happiness and light are let into the frame that are the most breathtaking. The flashes of Kal-El as a kid wearing a cape playing with his dog in the sunshine are visually and thematically magnificent. Alex McDowell’s production design does a good job of creating Krypton, which has a very sci-fi fantasy feel. Meanwhile, his sets on Earth are grounded in reality, making the Kryptonians all the more extraordinary by comparison.

The cast is good throughout. Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Antje Traue are strong in small supporting roles. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe (as Jonathan Kent and Jor-El respectively) are excellent in vitally important roles. Their great dramatic work pulls the audience setting the tone and the narrative in motion. Michael Shannon has a special gift for looking like he is on the verge of a complete mental break, exploding into unyielding madness. That is how he plays Zod. It is too bad the character is not given more character development. Amy Adams does a good job with Lois Lane. She is strong enough to fit the part, but also emotionally engaging enough to feel like the right ally to help Kal-El find his way. Henry Cavill makes for a superb Superman. Physically he has the right look, and dramatically he hits the right tone as well. He is able to convey the deep and troubling struggle that he is having internally, creating a character that the audience cares about.

Summary & score: Man of Steel is Superman’s most ambitious and ultimately grandest cinematic undertaking, packed full of monumentally epic action sequences and effective dramatic heft. 8/10

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