Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Man of Steel

Okay. It's now been well over a week since I saw Man of Steel. Actually, it's been nearly two weeks. I saw it at 12:01 on, what was technically, June 14th, opening day. I left the theater thinking it was awesome. Today, as I sit in front of my computer to put down my thoughts, I still think it was awesome.

I should go ahead and mention, there will be plenty of spoilers in this here blog post. It's not because I want to spoil the plot of the movie for you, in case you haven't seen it yet. It's just because there's a lot I want to unpack and I'm not sure I'll be able to control myself or the information that spews out of my frantically typing fingers.

I guess I'm not really typing that frantically. I mean, it has been nearly two weeks since I saw the movie and I've managed to wait this long to write all my thoughts. But I had to wait. I wanted to make sure those thoughts would be coherent and not pure babble.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Superman film that we should have seen back in 2006 when Superman Returns hit the cinema. Not that I thought Superman Returns was horrible. It's just that it was a relic. It rehashed a story that had already been told in 1978. I guess they thought that if they threw in the fact that Superman fathered a child with Lois Lane, it would be viewed as fresh. I think most of the world disagreed. But let's not focus on failed attempts to reinvigorate the Superman franchise. Let's not focus on the past.

Let's focus on the present. Or, at the very least, focus on Krypton's past. The film opens up on Superman's home world. For the first time on film, we're introduced to an alien world that doesn't look like it's already dead. In the past, Krypton has been presented as cold and sterile. This time there are native creatures that interact with the people. Krypton is shown to have a rich history, one that I would love to see explored in the right way. But we only get a glimpse in Man of Steel. But it's a good glimpse.

Jor-El assists his wife, Lara, as she gives birth to a son. We soon find out that this is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Children are grown, Matrix-style, in something called a Genesis Chamber. Not only are they grown and harvested, but they're programmed for specific purposes and tasks to be performed within their society. More on that later.

After the birth of his son, Jor-El goes before the Kryptonian high council, or whatever they are, and pleads with them. Yes, we've seen this happen before. Jor-El knows the planet is doomed. This time it's because they've used up the world's natural resources, including whatever useful stuff was found in Krypton's core. This has made the planet unstable. Its destruction is imminent.

But there's just enough time for General Zod to stage a coup. While Jor-El is trying to gain access to the codex which contains the Kryptonian genetic code that feeds the Genesis Chambers, Zod wants to eliminate the council so he can "save" Krypton in his own way. During the initial battle, Jor-El puts up a great fight and escapes. He manages to get his hands on the codex (which looks a lot like a deteriorated skull), does something technical with it involving baby Kal-El's space ship, then sends them on their way to Earth. In a fit of anger, Zod kills Jor-El in response to losing his own grip on the codex. Kal-El gets away, the coup fails, Zod and his people are tossed into the Phantom Zone and Krypton explodes.

Next we meet an adult Clark Kent. Well, I guess we don't know it's Clark Kent. He goes by "Joe" but we know it's him because he's played by Henry Cavill, who the viewer knows is the actor who plays Superman. Doesn't take much to connect these dots. We get the impression that Clark has kind of been floating around the world, with no real direction in his life. Whatever it is he's doing, he gets distracted a lot. Because he has this tendency to do good wherever he goes, saving lives and standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves. Before he's established as a hero, he's already a hero.

Eventually, he finds his way to a place in the far north where the military is investigating something strange buried beneath the ice. Turns out, it's an ancient Kryptonian scout ship. Clark finds his way inside, activates the ship and learns all about who he really is. Enter Lois Lane, investigative reporter extraordinaire. Clark saves her life when she is attacked by an automated security system on the ship. Then he disappears from her life.

But Lois Lane is not the type of woman to just let a man who can shoot heat rays from his eyes disappear into the ether. Being the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist that she is, she manages to trace her mysterious hero back to a farm in Kansas. She visits Martha Kent, then takes a trip to a local cemetery to visit Jonathan Kent's grave. Once again, she comes face to face with the Man of Steel.

Clark tells Lois about his upbringing and about how his father knew he needed to keep his abilities secret from the world because the world just wasn't ready to know that there was a being with his kind of power out there. Jonathan even sacrificed his own life to drive that point home for Clark. This convinces Lois to drop her story about a mysterious alien with super powers.

Now we come to the return of Zod and his band of outlaws. When Krypton exploded, the Phantom Zone was damaged, releasing the prisoners. Zod's people traveled throughout the galaxy, searching for signs of Kryptonian life. All they found was death as they came across a number of forgotten outposts. Then they picked up the signal of the ship that Clark activated beneath the ice, leading them straight to Earth. Upon arriving in Earth's orbit, Zod demanded that Kal-El turn himself over to them.

Zod made it seem, at first, that he wanted to welcome Kal-El into this group of what was left of his people. All he really wanted was the codex. He also wanted to reshape Earth in Krypton's image. This meant terraforming the planet, changing the atmosphere so that the Kryptonians could breathe the air. Zod was willing to wipe out all of humanity in order to achieve his goal.

Superman gained the trust of the US military and, with Lois' help, they devise a plan to send Zod and his people back to the Phantom Zone on a more permanent basis. This plan eventually works, but not before an incredible loss of life as Zod's ship and their "World Engine" nearly destroyed Metropolis. Zod managed to escape the singularity that pulled his followers back to the Zone, leading to the climactic one-on-one battle between the general and Superman.

That's your summary. And I feel like I left a lot out. I think I feel that way because the movie is so much deeper than the plot that's right on the surface. I'm hoping at this point you're not already bored with this post, because I've got so much more to say. If you're willing to stick with this, thanks. And I hope you at least like what else I have to say.

Let's talk about the acting. First of all, Henry Cavill is Superman. I thought he did a fantastic job as the world's greatest super hero. He's not the Superman that people grew up with. He's a modern Superman who was raised in our modern world. There are probably people who think he's too dark and brooding, but I don't think he is. When we first meet Clark Kent, he's sad and confused about who he is and this leads to a certain amount of loneliness. He's never in any one place long enough to lay down any roots. That's a hard life to live. But he's not a dark sociopath, like a certain caped crusader. He's still a Kansas farm boy. And when he figures out he can fly, he gets excited about it. The smile on his face as he flies for the first time is the kind of smile I'd have on my face if I figured out I could fly. It's the look of someone who's really excited about what he can do.

The rest of the cast was really good too. Amy Adams was great as Lois Lane. I'm not sure how I felt about the chemistry between her and Cavill. But that could have been a problem with the story. They just kind of got thrown together and sort of generate a quick relationship out of nothingness, simply because it's Superman and Lois Lane. When it comes to the character, I was incredibly happy that Lois figured out who Superman is before he even figures it out. For 75 years she's been this investigative journalist who never put two and two together. The only reason she knew about his dual identity for most of the last two decades was because Clark revealed himself to her after they got engaged in the 90s. Lois Lane should be able to figure out that Clark Kent is Superman. Otherwise, she needs to give back her Pulitzer.

I've heard complaints about Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in their roles as the Kents. I have no complaints. I thought they both did a good job with what they were given. My problem here, again, is with the writing. Their characters were just not fleshed out enough. There's so much more to these people who raised an alien baby than what we were given on the screen. Most of what we saw were in snippets of flashbacks. Another problem people may have had is with Jonathan Kent's death. I don't have a problem with that part of his characterization. During a tornado, he showed his son an example of a hero. More than that, he sacrificed himself to protect his son's secret powers. He felt the world was not ready to know about Clark's true nature and so silently asked Clark to let him die rather than reveal himself to the public. That was probably the most moving scene in the movie.

Then there's Clark's biological father, Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe. His role is part of the reason I'd love to see more about this version of Krypton. Jor-El was shown to be a passionate activist who loved his home and was willing to think outside the box in an attempt to save it. But he wasn't just a passive scientist. The dude could hold his own in a fight. I'm not sure how. I want to know where he learned to fight. He went toe to toe with trained Kryptonian soldiers. During Zod's coup, he was fighting as if he'd been trained by Batman.

I wasn't sure what to think of Michael Shannon before I saw this movie. I'm not too familiar with him, but thought he was great as Zod. General Zod is not the kind of villain who shows up and makes you feel sorry for him. In the past, the character has been portrayed as just a powerful guy who wants to be in charge and pretty much tear stuff up. There's never been a clear motive for why he does what he does. This time we get a good explanation. Zod was bred to be a warrior. He was born to preserve the Kryptonian way of life. When Krypton was destroyed, he lost a big chunk of that life purpose. When the remainder of his people were sucked back into the Phantom Zone without him, the rest of his life purpose was taken away. He was already a genocidal maniac. Losing Krypton just pushed him further over the edge. We learned about his motivation, but that doesn't mean we had to feel sorry for him. Shannon definitely delivered on Zod's emotional turmoil.

I'd be remiss to leave out Zod's second in command, Faora-Ul, played by Antje Traue. She made Superman II's Ursa look like a kitty cat. She very quickly adjusts to her new strength and speed and takes out human soldiers the way a ruthless Kryptonian soldier would. Fast. Efficient. Which kind of brings me to a problem I have with any Superman story that introduces Kryptonians on Earth. They immediately have super powers. Superman has been here for 30ish years absorbing the yellow sunlight and adjusting to how they work. Every time another Kryptonian shows up, they generally have the same abilities right away. I will say I liked how they had trouble with the super hearing and x-ray vision at first, disorienting them for a bit. But that was a minor inconvenience for Zod and his people. I'm not saying the new Kryptonians should show up and be like normal humans, but they shouldn't be as powerful as Superman right off the bat.

I definitely like all the little things that are thrown in to the movie that shows it takes place in a larger DC Universe. Most of the details have greater meaning in the Superman mythos. For example, we don't catch a glimpse of Lex Luthor at all in the film, but we know he exists. How do we know this? There are several moments in the film where we see product placement for LexCorp. Other characters are glimpsed or mentioned: Lana Lang, Pete Ross, Ken Braverman... all characters from Clark Kent's past in Smallville. And how do we know Superman's world will likely intersect with the rest of the DC Universe? Zod and Kal-El's climactic battle takes them into orbit where they crash into a satellite owned by Wayne Enterprises.

Finally, Superman kills. There's a part of me that's okay with this, because he has killed in the past. In the late 80s, Superman faced a General Zod character from an alternate dimension. That version of Zod committed genocide on an alternate earth, similar to what Man of Steel's Zod intended to do. Superman knew the only way to put a stop to Zod's murderous rampage was to end his life. It was a difficult choice which, in the comics, eventually cost Superman a piece of his sanity for a while. It's obvious that the Man of Steel is conflicted by this decision in the film as well. It doesn't seem to drive him insane, but it's not something he enjoyed doing.

However, that being said, there's a whole lot of destruction of property happening here. I mean, Metropolis is all but destroyed. The loss of life must be incredible. And it's pretty much the same story with Smallville, on a slightly smaller scale. Why isn't Kal-El too concerned about the risk to human life during all those fights he has with the Kryptonians? He takes time out to save Lois and the guy from SVU, but at the same time, he's driving Zod through the foundations of skyscrapers, knocking them over in midtown Metropolis. I get that, in the heat of battle, it's hard to slow down and think about the consequences of every punch thrown. But he only seems to notice the casualties when Zod points out that he will start purposely murdering people while Superman watches helplessly.

Overall, I still thought the movie was amazing. I'm excited to know that the sequel is already in the works. I'm not sure I should get my hopes up because there seems to be some current turmoil behind the scenes with the people at Warner Bros. They always manage to screw up a good thing. Unless it has to do with Batman or Harry Potter. For now, we have Man of Steel, which I plan to view repeatedly once it hits the DVD. If you haven't seen it, go see it. Totally worth the price of admission.

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