Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

This weekend, Superman returned to the big screen in Man of Steel. Directed by Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen), with a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), this is DC Comics's latest effort to capture the popularity of Nolan's Batman trilogy (something other recent DC films, like Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, utterly failed to do) while opening the door to a larger film universe, something to rival Marvel's success with the Iron Man films, The Avengers, etc.

And you know what? I think DC has finally done it.

There are a lot of things that need to happen for someone to tell a good Superman story: you need to have villains that are not lame (Toyman anyone? Hellgrammite?) and are actually threatening to Superman. You also need to make the man himself interesting, which can be pretty tough--'truth, justice, and the American way' isn't exactly a recipe for a complex, dynamic character. Besides, that, you'll need to know how to integrate the supporting characters, Lois Lane in particular, into the story well.

And Man of Steel does it all.
Taking a cue from Batman Begins, Man of Steel features a generally lesser-known villain, though one who is formidable and naturally ties into the origin tale. No, more than formidable... more than dangerous... General Zod is seemingly unbeatable. There were several moments during the movie when I wondered how our hero could possibly save the day, and, honestly, I'm still not positive how Superman bested him at all. But this is exactly what you need with a hero as powerful as Superman.
The film also does its best to give Superman himself some complexity, to make him something more than a one-dimensional embodiment of good. They approach this task from several directions. Throughout the film Clark is clearly struggling under the burdens and expectations his Kryptonian and human fathers have placed on him, both of them hoping, in their own ways, that he'll single-handedly save an entire civilization. The movie also tells a deeply personal story: full of family, childhood memories, dogs, and old photo albums. This isn't simply a story about Superman; it's a story about Clark Kent.
And it's a story that takes place in the real world, with IHOPs and 7-Elevens, where governments see a superhero as a potential threat, the villains cause real destruction, and Superman can't always protect Metropolis. In some ways, this movie is a thought experiment: what would happen if a being who was invulnerable, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, who could fly--what would happen if such a being arrived on earth? How would he react? How would we?

The stars of the film won't let you down. Amy Adams, not surprisingly, gives a fine performance--I've yet to see her give anything less. Her Lois Lane is exactly what you need: curious, intrepid, and determined. And cute. The age difference between her and Cavill seemed a bit strange at times to me (Adams is 8 years his senior), but it didn't detract much.
Casting a relatively-unknown Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel himself was a risk, but it has paid off: not only is he physically spot-on (something we all knew coming in to the movie), but he manages to capture the tensions the character's struggling with: the tension between small town, all-American Clark Kent and extraterrestrial orphan Kal-El; the tension between limitless power and reluctant restraint, lest the world's fear of him be justified. Cavill skillfully communicated the emotions and the conflict.

Of course, the movie's not without weaknesses. One thinks immediately of the scene where Superman and Lois kiss in the middle of the ruins of Metropolis, while thousands of people Superman could be helping are trapped behind rubble, desperately in need of medical attention.
Still, on the whole, this is a really solid superhero movie. It's probably not as good a film as any of Nolan's Batman movies, and it's not as fun as the recent Marvel slate, but it's solid: a classic story re-told well, with a great cast, spectacular effects, and a really nice score from Hans Zimmer

One surprising thing about Man of Steel has been the focus on the 'messianic themes' in the movie. For instance, one piece on CNN's Belief Blog this weekend described Warner Bros.'s efforts to advertise the movie to churches. Director Zach Snyder also discussed some of this on CNN recently. Frankly, I'm not sure why this should garner so much attention. For starters, the parallels all seem pretty superficial to me: a child is born, and this brings people hope; a man (he's 33!!!) has to save the world. Nothing there for me to get too excited about. And, unfortunately, in the film itself, the Jesus-connections are pretty heavy handed--they were not going to let the audience miss this, apparently. But one glimpse of the stained glass window would have done, you know?
Maybe I'm missing something, but I think that, instead of using the movie to say some rather generic things about Jesus, Christians would be better served exploring some of the moral and theological questions the story raised: Is it right to kill to save life? What makes Zod killing humans to save Krypton different from Superman killing Kryptonians to save Earth? What's the difference, if any, between faith and trust? There are plenty of questions Man of Steel raises that Christians could benefit from pondering and wrestling with--I just don't think 'how does Superman remind you of Jesus?' would be the most fruitful one.

I've got to admit, Superman has never been my favorite character, and a lot of my hopes for this movie were tied up with the possibilities it represents, namely, more DC characters on the big screen, a Justice League movie, etc. And given the box office success so far, I'd say a lot of those possibilities will become reality in the years ahead. But, while I walked into the theater thinking about sequels and spin-offs, I walked out thinking about the movie I'd just seen. Like any good superhero movie, Man of Steel is entertaining and action-packed, but it has also situated Superman in the real world, with all of it's troubles and fears and ambiguities. In the end, that's what will make the sequels and spin-offs--and what makes Man of Steel--worth watching.

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