Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel / *½ (PG-13)

Clark Kent/Kal-El: Henry Cavill
Lois Lane: Amy Adams
General Zod: Michael Shannon
Martha Kent: Diane Lane
Jor-El: Russell Crowe
Jonathan Kent: Kevin Costner
Perry White: Laurence Fishburne
Colonel Nathan Hardy: Christopher Meloni
Dr. Emil Hamilton: Richard Schiff
General Swanwick: Harry Lennix
Foara-Ul: Antje Traue
Lara Lor-Van: Ayelet Zurer

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Zach Snyder. Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Based on the DC Comics characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Running time: 143 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language).

I’ve written a lot recently about homage and purists and different takes on original concepts. This is because the reboot has become the new sequel for Hollywood. For every sequel that is made, it seems another franchise is being overhauled and approached from completely different points of views these days. Much of that is due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which saw a total revamp of the already successful—at least at the box office—Batman franchise. Nolan’s take on Batman abandoned all the film sources that had come before, and reworked the superhero from the ground up. The Nolan produced “Man of Steel” attempts to do the same thing with the once popular Superman franchise, and somehow it all goes terribly wrong.

It has the notion of reinvention right. It takes this somewhat silly notion of a man who can fly and stop bullets with his chest, and tries to place him into a realistic context, where—while still fantasy—he is imagined to exist in a universe very much like the one we currently inhabit, with the same fears and reactions that we might bring to such a phenomenon were he to appear in our world. In doing so, the filmmakers completely lose sight of just what makes Superman the iconic American symbol that he is. He might say he grew up in Kansas, but it doesn’t feel like he did.

The whole thing gets started on the wrong foot by concentrating far too much on the mythology of Superman’s home planet of Krypton and foregoing most of the hero’s all-American childhood upbringing. Krypton is a fascinating world, and I can see a movie being made about the world imagined here that would be astonishing and entertaining, but then that’s not this movie. We meet Jor-El arguing to the elders of the planet that they’ve wasted the planet’s resources and there may only be weeks left for life on Krypton. He’s interrupted by the violent entrance of General Zod, the planet’s military protector, who has decided a coup is his only option left to defend the planet against the folly of its elders. With the destruction of the planet imminent, it seems too little too late on both men’s parts.

Nevertheless, Jor-El has his own plan to save the heritage of Krypton by sending his newborn son to the planet Earth with all of Krypton’s secrets and knowledge in tow. Meanwhile Zod’s coup is stopped, and he and his minions are sentenced the Phantom Zone for their treason against the state. I’m a little foggy on the parameters of the Phantom Zone. Then Krypton goes kabluey.

Normally, for a superhero story, the audience is introduced to the hero, and the people that surround him in the context of where most of his story will take place before the structure wanders into his backstory. This is because we need to know the world in which the story will exist before we learn what shaped that world. The now is more important than the then in a fantasy setting. We need to know who Superman is, what drives him, and how he affects his current world before we start adding weight to his story by diving deeply into an origin that happens before he is even born. Otherwise, we have nothing on which to hang our own personal emotions. Superman is never allowed to build any sort of meaning or purpose in our world before his former world imposes itself on him and us.

We are given some background on Supes through flashbacks to his childhood as Clark Kent, which mostly consist of his adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, insisting that he not reveal how different he is to other people because they won’t understand. His lessons about how people will fear what they don’t understand are good insight into the themes of alienation in this story. He seems to carry his purpose a little too far when he suggests that Clark should’ve let a busload of kids die in an accident just to protect his secret. That doesn’t seem to be the type of wholesome lesson he should be learning to shape him into the hero of our age. Ultimately, Jonathan’s fate and final lesson is an exercise in utter stupidity, rather than the heroism intended by the filmmakers.

Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane discovers Clark’s alien powers when she bullies her way into a top-secret military archeological dig where a Kryptonian spacecraft has been discovered in the arctic. She begs her editor, Perry White, to run her story on a muscle-bound alien living among us, but he’ll have none of it. Lois tracks Clark down again, and after he tells her the story of his father’s death, she decides to keep his secret. Huh? Why? What a non-position for Lois Lane to take. This isn’t a top-notch reporter; this is a girlfriend in waiting, which is the last thing Lois should be.

Clark and Lois keep his secret until an alien spacecraft is discovered orbiting Earth’s atmosphere. It is the banished General Zod, who has tracked down Clark to exact his revenge on the elders of Krypton and terraform the Earth to build a new Krypton. All of this concentration on Krypton has its foundations laid by all the focus on the true alien nature of Clark. Now, the Earth is essentially being invaded by the same alien race as Clark and the people are really still completely unaware of Clark’s existence. Where is Clark’s connection with the human race supposed to be founded? Why should any people care about what happens to Clark? It seems to me, Superman’s story is much more poignant when the people come to love him before the issues of his alien ancestry become a point of contention. That presents a much more interesting study on the nature of people and could be used as a launching point for a severe alienation of the hero.

But here I am trying to interject Superman themes that are never even contemplated by director Zach Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer. That is precisely my problem with this movie. Superman isn’t just an alien; he’s also an American. Without one, the other is less significant. This film only concentrates on his alien nature. Even in that area it destroys great story potential by so quickly introducing more aliens from the very same planet into the mix. Superman’s dilemma is more powerful if he actually gets a chance to think he’s truly alone before he discovers his place in the world.

In fact, “Man of Steel” plays more like an alien invasion movie than a comic book superhero movie. All of the threat to the people of Earth comes from outside. None of the human characters are given much development, which makes it difficult to empathize with their plight. All the audience is given is Superman’s perspective; and since he’s never treated as one of us, we don’t feel the weight of what is happening to the planet. Instead we’re given action sequence after action sequence where invincible beings from another world dole out punishment on each other to little or no effect. The only things they damage are structures and geography. This might as well be a “Transformers” movie for all of the human connection to be found in it. The action only serves to show how cool the CGI effects can be. Someone called it “CGI porn”, and that’s about right. After a while, it becomes tiresome.

One and a half stars is probably the lowest rating I’ve ever given to such a well-produced film as “Man of Steel”. Many will disagree with me. It is a total reinvention of the mythology of Superman, but at what cost? The reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise has come under fire for some of its plundering of previously successful elements in the former series, but the reinvention is successful because its entire premise is built on the notion that these characters are all the exact same people we’ve already come to know. It’s just their circumstances that have changed.

With “Man of Steel” the characters are incomplete and mere shadows of what came before. Its premise is built on the notion of Krypton’s mythology rather than the Superman cannon of characters. Without the heart of those characters, the reinvention loses its purpose and becomes just another alien invasion movie where the destruction of Metropolis is the focus rather than some sort of revelation about why these characters should continue to play an important role in our world’s modern mythology. The Superman I know would never have believed this Superman’s solution to the problem of General Zod was an acceptable outcome. 

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