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Friday, June 14, 2013

'Man of Steel's' Kryptonian spectacle upstages the human touch

KNEEL BEFORE ZOD? Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel
In addition to selling comic books and movie tickets, superheroes serve a role as the mythic figures and demigods of contemporary culture. Superman's origins and essential character prove positively Biblical. Like a sci-fi spin on baby Moses on the River Nile, he travels from his alien home to Earth as an infant. In his human guise as Clark Kent, he invariably turns the other cheek when confronted by flawed humans, while he shoulders the sins of mankind as Superman.

The new movie Man of Steel embellishes the religious interpretations even further, as our Super-messiah emerges on the public stage as the age of 33, while occasionally wearing a Jesus-y beard. At one point he stops by a church for some advice, and the camera frames him alongside some portentous stained-glass windows. Man of Steel bears witness to destructive sequences worthy of the Old Testament and presents a chewy dilemma of Superman being torn between the demand of Earth and his celestial home. Amid all the nose and spectacle, however, the film's soul goes missing.

The film opens with the labor pains of Superman's mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer), but it's sort of the opposite of a virgin birth. Krypton has apparently been populated by test tube babies for centuries, but Lara and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) conceived their son Kal-El the old-fashioned way, to restore an essential spark to the Kryptonian race. Unfortunately, this occurs with the planet on the verge of destruction, and Jor-El plans to send his son to younger, safer world while resisting a coup attempt by his former ally, General Zod (Michael Shannon).

After some complicated folderol involving Kryptonian tech, the planet blows up, Kal-El's space pod appears over American farmland and then we cut to... "Deadliest Catch?" The mysterious new guy (Henry Cavill) on a fishing boat notices a disaster on a nearby oil rig, then goes to the roughnecks' rescue, seemingly untouched by fire. Like an icon of American industry, he holds up a collapsing oil derrick to let the innocents escape, then tumbles into the ocean for a cleansing baptism. Flashbacks show highlights of his life as young Clark Kent, which includes adjustment to his alien superpowers. When his super-senses kick in at school, his teacher and classmates look like skeletal x-rays.

The U.S. military's discovery of a long-dormant alien artifact causes Clark to first cross paths with Pulitzer-winning reporter Lois Lane, and both end up separately investigating Clark's origins. Lois tracks down the urban legend of a super-powered Good Samaritan to a small farming town, while Clark discovers his Kryptonian legacy thanks to a hologram of his father. He finds himself torn between Jor-El's hopes that he set an example for mankind and the counsel of his adopted Dad (Kevin Costner), who suggested he keep his otherworldly identity secret rather than freak out the human race.

Clark has barely mastered the power of flight when an invasion from General Zod forces the issue. Having escaped Krypton's destruction, Zod arrives with a squadron of superpowered followers as well as an arsenal of alien war machines

Zach Snyder, director of previous graphic novel adaptations 300 and Watchmen, seems to have watched Richard Donner's beloved Superman films and listed places for adding action scenes. Where the 1978 film depicted Krypton's destruction, Man of Steel works in fight scenes and elaborate chases along the lines of Avatar. You'd think that moments like the death of Pa Kent or Superman's first major encounter with alien technology would be plenty dramatic on their own but no, they have to include life-or-death struggled rendered in CGI. Man of Steel builds to possibly the most lavish super-powered fight scenes ever filmed, yet they also prove repetitious and empty. The big finale set in Metropolis imitates the final act of The Avengers, but removes the wit and sense of common purpose while magnifying the 9/11 imagery.

Michael Shannon may be the summer's best supervillain, turning Zod into a bug-eyed maniac unbothered by the prospect of genocide, but also motivated by a genuine need to protect the fate of his doomed race. Adams gives Lois an appealing, spunky determination without turning into a caricature of a newshound, although Lois and Clark never generate much romantic heat. As Jor-El, Crowe's magnetism keeps him from being upstaged by all the alien art direction, and he probably loves following in Marlon Brando's footsteps. Most of the supporting players provide textured roles, from Costner's loving Dad to Christopher Meloni as an Army colonel turned early Superman supporter.

Like Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel delivers a nonstop sci-fi adventure that seldom gives the characters a chance to breathe. Cavill certainly has the physique for the role, but he seems unsurprisingly lost amid the film's whirl of activity. It's hard to tell whether we're watching Clark struggle under the pressure of his choices, or Cavill struggling under the burden of carrying a zillion-dollar film franchise. He never seems to have the chance so effectively seized by Christopher Reeve, who essentially played Superman as two characters - a stalwart but relatable hero and his screwball comedy alter ego. Instead, Cavill's like the lead of the kind of Jesus biopic that shows what the Man from Galilee does, but not how he feels.

Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy, produced Man of Steel, and the film's through-line involving Superman's alien heritage seems consistent with Nolan's approach to superheroic character. However, the film's onslaught of military hardware, alien laser beams and tumbling skyscrapers make Man of Steel feel like it's catering to the Michael Bay fans, and its sensory overload leaves almost no emotional impression. Rebooting one of the most familiar superheroes ever created, Snyder delivers a film that's all "super" and almost no "man."

Man of Steel. 3 stars. Directed by Zack Snyder. Stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., June 14. At area theaters.

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