RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 7: Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” (2013)


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The Players…

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.


The Story…

In yet another revival (and by revival we mean crossed-fingers in hope of keeping a possible cash cow of a franchise aloft) of the Superman legend, a wayfaring Clark Kent must keep his alien origins and fantastic powers hidden from the world at large. But when the nefarious General Zod plans to conquer Earth…well, you know.


The Rant…

Hmm. According to my records, this would be the third Zack Snyder film to go under the microscope here at RIORI. Also, this would also be one of several (and several more in my Netflix queue) movies based on comic books to go under the aforementioned lens o’ snark. I don’t know if it’s too soon to spot patterns here, but on both points, it seems rather suspect Zack keeps crossing my path. I’ll let you know more when my tests get back from the lab (no, not those tests. Jeez).

Something else I feel I should mention which is kinda off track. I’ve been getting a bit of flack about maintaining this weblog; about keeping the posts coming at a regular rate. Not to whine, but I have a job with a ridiculous schedule, which does not lend itself much time to sit down and actually watch these darned films. I usually get up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning and it’s only late at at night that I can wrangle the TV away from my family, let alone on a weekend for an evening’s viewing (I know I could just stream them on my iPad, but I got a big-ass TV with surround sound, so nyah). I’m tryin’ okay? Feel free to leave any comments behind to smack my wrist.

Moving on…

Why is it such a hit-or-miss prospect with comic book movies? Also, since the turn of the century, why weren’t more comic book movies made before? I know, I know. We had Richard Donner’s take on Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman films, but that was it for over 20 years. Now since 2000, we’ve been inundated with the lot of ‘em. Took a while. You’d think they’d be naturals for cinema; they’re already storyboarded for pity’s sake. Some would argue that the special effects required for today’s comic book movies just weren’t available back then, but I think that’s weak sauce. Like I said, the early Superman and Batman films did just fine. Maybe mainstream audiences would turn their nose up at such a niche market? Not if it was marketed right, and most were. Maybe it was finding the right actors? That’s what casting agents are for, and to continually hammer this nail: Michael Keaton as Batman? Well, yeah.

I think Richard Donner had a stroke of genius in casting Christopher Reeve as the Caped One. An unknown actor who was mostly skilled in soap operas took to the skies with flourish and humor (and what else are superhero films but gussied up sci-fi melodramas?). Some of the more plausible comic book heroes were portrayed by actors who weren’t necessarily household names at the time (i.e.: Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Brandon Routh, etc.) as opposed to big name stars (I’m looking at you Affleck). When you cast an unknown, there are no preconceived notions about how the actor acts. It’s a clean slate. It works doubly so when the actor is put to task to portray an already established character, like Superman.

Henry Cavill did so. But quite left of center. More of that later. This was a Zack Snyder film after all, so what would you expect?

There’s no need to get into the movie’s baseline. We get it. Dying planet. Lost civilization. Last hope. Earth bound. Kind couple. Great power. Humanity lessons. Alien origin. Learn, adapt, overcome. Behold, Superman. Now let’s get onto the meat.

I’m not going to overview the story here. It’s not done out of contempt, believe me. It’s just that, like with my critique of Superman Returns, the folderol of explaining the history of Superman is pretty superfluous. If you’ve been extant for the past 75 years, you know who Superman is. Now let’s get on to it.

Man Of Steel is at heart an existential drama. For 75% of the movie, we get to mull over who Superman is when he’s decidedly not Superman. Henry Cavill, like Brandon Routh is an extraordinary find. An actor devoid of a complex résumé to pick apart. Clean slate. And here we have an incredibly malleable story. We start at Krypton’s end, a very stylized setting which, I gotta admit, is pretty striking. It echoes the first movie, but in a very stark way, kind of like David Lynch’s take on Dune. But it also has the intended thrill of a Zack Snyder spectacular. The whole wad is muted in colors as well as performances (save Shannon’s). In fact, the whole damned movie is pretty stark, but it works to its advantage. Again, more on that later.

Apart from the scenery chewing form Shannon, life on Krypton varies from cyber-idyllic to Orwellian nightmare, and a lot of climate-change prophesying to hit a message—some message about ignorance—home. Don’t know why. Figures it’s trying to connect Earth and the homeworld, well, home. Probably a disconnect attached to the Moses-like analogy suggested by the comics.

I’m looking too far into this. Onto Cavill…

He did a serviceable job. He didn’t honor the legacy of Reeve (or even Routh), but he got to the aforementioned meat of the story; the stuff the whole Superman sh*t pivots on. It’s namely the light of hope, the beacon, that could ignite the ideals of humanity into both light and action…only to be ignored. But Supes just keeps on tryin’, one crumbling building at a time.

But Steel was also very dry. It almost chafes. Man of Steel is a rather dour film, almost overly serious, almost pulse-pounding, almost a blockbuster. But we can’t blame Cavill. He made for a rather…different Superman. A reluctant hero, all at sea about his station in life, and well aware that he is not of this Earth. A lot of soul searching goes on here, and Cavill acts with his face so well, you can go along for the ride. He’s got a certain magnetism about him that makes the audience actually curious about what’s going to happen next to the po’ faced, conflicted Kryptonian.

The first act is very subdued. Keen on the angst. An image that sticks with me is Clark finding himself on the beach of New England fishing village, looking for clothes to replace the stuff he lost rescuing a bunch of oil drillers. He’s kind of lost, at odds with himself, and the dulcet tones of Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” illustrate that no matter how powerful Clark is, he still feels lost, on the outside.

Unlike its predecessor Superman Returns, Man Of Steel generates empathy for our hero, not awe. It’s gotta be hard with all those crazy powers to keep it under wraps in a prejudiced world, even if you’re just trying to do things for the greater good. Cavill does angsty very well, above the usual cliché that has become with reluctant heroes an overdone device. He made a “different” kind of Superman. One overly reluctant; uncomfortable having powers and not really reconciling with that fact. He’s definitely feeling his alien roots up and down here; being an outsider. It’s kind of weird watching a superhero wandering around in existential crisis. It’s hard to root for this Superman, only to pray instead.

Another contrast to Superman Returns; that film nodded a lot to the mythos. Man Of Steel seems hell-bent on retconning it. To clarify, “retconning” (short for retroactive continuity) is the practice of comic book writers to take creative license and alter a significant plot device or a piece of a character’s mythos to better serve current storylines. For example, Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker “that with great power comes great responsibility;” it was in narration, not dialogue. Later it was changed to Uncle Ben. That being said, Steel takes pains to hammer the point home that this is the definitive Superman story. Or at least it should be.

But I’m not sold on the whole Kryptonain history/embellishment either. There is a definite feel of Snyder trying to put a square peg in a round hole. By reinventing the wheel, and with it’s slate-grey view of the world, the entirety of what makes Superman fun has been stripped away. This is one of Snyder’s more serious efforts. Deliberately so. And that is funny to say since most of Snyder’s films have serious undertones, but peppered with frivolity. None of that claptrap in Steel. We’re down to business here, and that business is becoming Superman in a hard, cold world.

Oh, and also thwarting General Zod’s quest to conquer the planet.

Steel got a lot of flak—and I mean a lot flak—for gratuitous amount of collateral damage during the big fight scenes between Supes and Zod’s cronies. As was said by the pros, a lot of collateral damage. Spectacle over sensibility. Even made me squirm. Not to say that the fight scenes weren’t exciting. Snyder hasn’t lost his flair for action while trudging through the existential swamp. Exciting yes, but also overwrought. More hammering away at the heaviness of the movie’s tone. They don’t just have to be action shots, they gotta feel as if every punch means something.

Enough about the melodrama, let’s talk about the acting. We’ve already dissected Cavill enough, and he is handily backed up by a variety of solid actors. It took a while for the new Jor-El (Crowe) to earn my attention. For me, Crowe will always be Maximus. Unlike that gladiator, Crowe was more soft spoken as Jor-El, the avatar of all things Kryptonian. The quiet way about him (even when sh*ts hitting multiple fans) I found rather, dare I say, charming. And Crowe is not a charming guy.

A lot of scenery chewing from Shannon, and the climax is the stuff of…well, comic book heads would leap out of the seats in horror, spilled their Jubjubes everywhere: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! (screams, rending of garments.) Even I had trouble with that one. But overall, Shannon was a fun villain, one you love to hate but also one with a very specific agenda. His motives are clear, his execution flawless and he has a commanding presence necessary for general and/or comic book villain. I like that earnestness.

Amy Adams was a misstep in casting. She’s a great actress (and even did some voice acting for Justice League Unlimited. Really) but lacks any believable drive to get to the heart of the Superman scoop. It’s almost all a walk in the park as her Lois Lane just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time on he trail of the alien.

As for technical flourishes, there was a lot of neat camerawork and editing in Steel. Seeing how the plot for the first act of the movie is not linear, it took a lot of cool edits to keep the story floating (e.g.: Kal’s Earthfall, the “toner” bit). Along with tasteful uses of flashbacks, the flow of the film was right on. Two-and-a-half hours moved by rather smoothly. Good pacing.

This has had to be my most arch, stern, under the microscope kind of review. Man Of Steel is definitely not your father’s Superman movie. Any maybe that’s for the best. This was an interesting spin on the Superman mythos, highlighting the Kryptonian side rather that the adopted humanity Clark Kent so embraces. It made for a stark action movie, a lot of fist wrenching and teeth grinding, but it wasn’t boring.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a character study of what it’s like to be a superhero with lots of stuff going boom. ‘Nuff said (wait, that’s some other comic publisher).


Stray Observations…

  • Did the “scout ship” set borrow from Alien? Sure looked that way, and no doubt tying into the whole alien motif of the film.
  • Enough with the Jesus Christ imagery already.
  • This has got to be the best role Costner’s had in years.
  • “A good death is its own reward.” Yeah. I know. Badass.
  • What? No spitcurl?
  • “Nice suit, son.”
  • My pen died.

Next Installment…

We go over the rainbow with James Franco AKA Oz, The Great and Powerful.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 2: Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006)


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The Players…

Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington and Frank Langella.


The Story…

After spending years away from Metropolis, Superman returns to find a city that’s managed to survive without him. And much to his chagrin, Lois Lane has moved on to another man. Supes is now heartbroken and feels without purpose. Not to worry, though. His old archenemy Lex Luthor is developing a new plan to rule the world. Again.

Seems that no matter how far away you get, home waits for your return. For good or for ill.


The Rant…

Superman. The name alone brings images of heroism, magnetism and, naturally, what puts the super in super. The Man of Steel is one of the most iconic, most recognized images in pop culture (others being Mickey Mouse and—of all things—Coca-Cola). Supes recently celebrated his 75th birthday, and there is little doubt that his creators, the “two kids from Cleveland,” Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster would’ve been very surprised that their simple sci-fi premise would forever saturate the world’s consciousness.

It’s kind of funny that it took so many years for the big guy to reach the silver screen. In the late 70’s, unknown actor Christopher Reeve took to the cape and red-and-blue tights and brought the story of the Last Son of Krypton to life. His charming, earnest and humorous portrayal of the comic book icon won over hundreds of moviegoers and comic book heads alike. Despite all of Superman’s powers, his alter ego Clark Kent made the hero accessible and immediately likeable with his foibles and humility. Reeve’s performance was nothing short of wonderful, and with smart writing, good acting and (at the time) cutting-edge special effects, the first two Superman movies were big hits and are now regarded as classics. All thanks mostly to the late, great Reeve.

It was a simpler time. Now in our post-9/11 world, with heroes harder and harder to recognize in black-and-white terms, interpretations of the Superman mythos can get downright sticky. The notion of a single man (or rather, alien) with amazing powers could single-handedly right the world’s wrongs with a flick of the wrist (or the flap of a cape) is almost laughable and out of place with our jaded, cynical society. We’ve seen it all and done all of that. Does the world really need, or deserve a Superman anymore?

Maybe, maybe not. But as filmgoers we do deserve a Superman film rife with all the hallmarks that have made the character so epic over the years. We need a super tale to remind us of what made the franchise so enchanting in the first place. We could all use a bit of wonder.

As in a previous installment, I noted I was a comic book head. Superman is the A-number one comic book superhero in the world, heads and shoulders above, say, Green Lantern (you can blame Ryan Reynolds to a point). Like I had said, DC has had a harder time making it in the movie biz, despite being a property of Warner Brothers (competitor Marvel is owned by Disney, so maybe that says something). But unlike Green Lantern, Superman is far more accessible with a simpler backstory and an all-around average Joe air about him. I like that. Lots of other people do, too. It’s kind of a hard storyboard to f*ck up. Now, I’m still a Marvel acolyte—I’ll take Spider-Man over Superman any day—but I respect Superman. Any self-respecting comic book head would do the same, Superfan or no. Put plain and simple, Superman’s legacy is rooted in his honesty, humanity and humble background. It should make for great moviemaking, right?

So why has it been so damned hard to get and keep Superman in cinema? Is it because of the aforementioned world-weariness of modern audiences? It is because there have been so many (maybe too many) varied interpretations of the hero that have made him less accessible? Is it because Christopher Reeve died? Or is it simpler?

Maybe it’s the pacing.

Pacing, the flow of the movie’s narrative, has become either the high or low water mark for how I measure most of these misunderstood movies. If the pacing is slow, the film is boring. Too fast and the flick becomes rushed and spent like premature ejaculation. There is a Goldilocks zone I always try to find in any movie I watch, good or bad, and if either miss that mark I get testy. Acting can get twitchy, plotting can get messy, direction can get scattershot. But mess with the movie’s overall stream and you can sure as sh*t get a headache. You’re tampering with the audiences’ attention span, and minutes matter in a movie. You want to wisely invest your time and not feel cheated.

After watching Superman Returns, I felt cheated. Worse, I felt bored


So Supes has been on sabbatical. Earth astronomers detected the flotsam and jetsam of Kal-El’s home world Krypton, and the Man of Steel flew ever homewards to give it a look-see. The round trip took him a few years away from his adopted Earth, and a lot can happen in a few years.

Superman—and of course Clark Kent (Routh)—returns home to Metropolis only to find himself feeling more alien than ever. The world’s moved on without him and seems to be doing just ducky in the absence of the world’s greatest hero. In fact, very little has seemed to have gone on while Superman’s been on vay-cay.

There are a few exceptions. Well, one actually. Love of his life, dauntless reporter Lois Lane (Bosworth) got tired of waiting around for the Caped One and gone and settled down, got hitched and even had a kid. Poor Superman/Clark has his heart stepped on by Lois. Twice. She wrote a Pulitzer-winning article shortly (and doubtless spurned) after Superman went off-world decrying the need for him. After all, the world didn’t end after he left.

At least, not yet.

Also out of circulation for the past few years was none other than Superman’s egomaniacal and shorn enemy (ha!) Lex Luthor (Spacey). Seems that Superman’s impulsive urge to try and go home again let Luthor’s incarceration fall flaccid (it’s kind of stupid to be a key witness in a world-domination gotta-get-to-The Hague kind of thing and, oh I dunno, leave the planet). Naturally, you know ol’ Lex is jouncing for a little revenge and another world-domination ploy. You can’t keep a good villain down…


There’s really no need to spend more time on the plot. There isn’t much of one. And what there is is stale and derivative. You already know Superman will make a triumphant return (hence the title, I guess), woo Lois, save a few treed kitties and thwart Luthor’s latest hair-brained scheme to make the world his bitch. It kinda sounds like the first movie kinda.

It is.

While I was watching the film I had to catch myself from trying too hard to look for/recapture the memories of the first movie of my youth. But the parallels were obvious. Director Bryan Singer tried very hard to follow the spirit of the earlier movies. Maybe too hard. Singer is no stranger to comic book movies. He directed the serviceable first X-Men movie and its terrific sequel. He passed up directing the third to helm Superman Returns (and after seeing the X3, I think he might have had the right idea). Instead of sticking with a winning format that had proven fruitful, Singer wanted to extend his reach and tackle the DC universe with his own unique stamp. But instead he aped Richard Donner (director of the first two Superman movies) in every way possible, right down to the music.

The title sequence sets the tone for the movie, recreating everything from the theme music to the graphics of the first movie. Perhaps this is homage, or maybe suggesting a continuation of the franchise that lay in limbo for almost 20 years. In any event from then on the movie is a non-stop echo of what the original films were. There’s a lot of hat tipping to the original movies, and a holy host of details lifted directly from the comics, like the audience needed hand-holding. A generation has gone by without a Superman film. Maybe Singer felt obligated to fill in the gaps for the uninformed. As I’ve warned before, it’s far better to show than tell. Let the audience figure it out, flex their collective imagination.

That’s the funny thing. For an action movie, there isn’t a helluva whole lot of visual storytelling. Yes, yes, There’s Superman flying, demonstrating his super-strength, heat beams, icy breath, perfect hair, etc. But it’s all so preciously staged. Even the beats of solid action lack dynamics, a lack of verve. The film is so rigidly structured it was like watching a wall being mortared. A wall that kept out a good storyline, or at least an interesting one. I felt cheated, bored. Everything feels stale here.

Well, not everything. But it also may be the cause of more single dimensioned aspects of the movie. Try as you or I might, you can’t fault lead Brandon Routh’s take on Superman and/or Clark Kent. He even looks like a young (and breathing) Chris Reeve. He nails all the mannerisms of Supes and Kent flawlessly. Flawlessly if you’re measuring it against (yes, again) Christopher Reeve. We’re gonna keep tugging on that cape, so to speak, because there was so much either lifted from or nodded to the original films it was like sparking a little originality into the mythos would smash the apple cart. In the comic book world, we call it defying the continuity cops.

And the hell of it is that Routh was really good in his acting. The nobility and dare I say tenderness and humility of Superman was on point, and klutzy Kent was no less than endearing or funny. He had some big shoes to fill, and fill him well he did. The rest of the cast, not so much. Bosworth’s Lois was wooden and didn’t show the particular drive that possesses a Pulitzer winning newswoman. Kevin Spacey was hardly menacing as Luthor; he was goofy but not as campy as Gene Hackman’s performance from years ago. Let’s face it, since Superman Returns tries to emulate the original films so badly, any breaths of fresh air got coughed into the vapor.

Superman Returns is pushing too hard to be epic rather than organic. Most damning of all, there’s no sense of urgency. There’s never any real tension. You know everything’s gonna work out. Everything falls into line and by the numbers, and is thick with sluggish directorial flourishes that are thrown in there like the frill in a club sandwich, as if to reassure you that a movie is going on. There is a palpable lack of fun and wonder.

Finally, the film’s running time is way too long. This movie should’ve been wrapped up in a nice efficient 100 minutes. Instead it crawls along for over two hours, halting several times like a stalled car to where the call for cut/print should’ve been called a few dozen scenes in. Like I said, slow pacing. I actually did something I have never done while reviewing these films: I stopped it midway through. Just hit pause, went to bed, saved it for a later day when I felt like finishing it. That was how bored and cheated I felt. I just shrugged it off for a week.

In sum, Superman Returns was a heartbreaking disappointment. A lot of wasted ideas and time were squandered on this movie. The question of heroics was raised a lot during the movie. What makes one a hero. What they are to others. Quite a bit of navel gazing. Too much philosophy and not enough of a proactive stance, cinematic or otherwise.  I feel bad in saying it: the whole thing was a slog. And I so wanted this movie to work.

Does the world need another Superman movie? Yes, but not like this one.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, I’m sorry to say. Commit the cardinal sin of boredom in any movie, no matter how epic it tries to be, and you’ll get no good graces from me.


Stray Observations…

  • “Even though you’re the last, you’re not alone.” That is a good line.
  • It seems with CGI and its superluminal rate of evolution, audiences’ suspension of disbelief must be ever quicker. One can tell faster and faster what is real, model or green screen with every would-be blockbuster.
  • Gotta love that spitcurl.
  • The piano montage was cool, but seemingly pointless. Another directorial indulgence from Singer.
  • People still use faxes?
  • The Jesus Christ pose towards the end of the movie was bit too on the nose. We’ve already been reminded how much of a savior Superman is over the course of two hours. He saved the planet. Gotcha. It’s what he’s expected to do after all.
  • “Gotta fly.”

Next Installment…

Adrien Brody cuts tracks for stacks of wax as the head of Cadillac Records.