Friday, June 21, 2013

Mark at the Movies: Man of Steel

Superman has a long and storied run on both television and in movies. Created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster while they were both in high school, his story was sold to DC Comics in 1938 and the rest, as they say, is history.

His first televised appeareance, according to the Internet Movie Database, was in the 1952 show Adventures of Superman where he was portrayed by George Reeves. He turned up for the first time in a cinematic production in 1978, portrayed by Christopher Reeve (no relation) who filled the role for a total of four movies through 1987, each one successively worse than its predecessor. They were so bad that the Man of Steel disappeared from Hollywood for half a decade, finally coming full circle as a fairly successful television show in 1993 under the title Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman with Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain in the lead roles. The show enjoyed a four-year run. It's success sparked an animated cartoon that began in 1996 and also ran for four seasons. 

And then mild-mannered Clark Kent (Superman's alter ego) went underground for another five years when the movie franchise underwent what has come to be known as a "reboot" with the film, Superman Returns in 2006, starring Brandon Routh. It built on the storylines in the first set of movies and perhaps for that reason, lost money and Superman would not return again.

Until this year, when the story was given a re-reboot, this one under the title, Man of Steel. If nothing else, filmmaking technology and computer-generated imagery (CGI) have been much updated so that this movie could be more "super" than any of its ancestors.

Plot: As anyone who hasn't lived under a rock or off the grid over the past 70 years should know by now, Krypton is a dying planet of beings much farther along the scientific path than we humans. Too late to save their world, in this version not only is Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name) packed up and shipped off to Earth, but he also carries with him on the trip the entire genetic future of Krypton in a "codex," which is a fancy (and archaic) way of saying database. And truth to tell, it's not an *entirely* accurate use of the term, but I shan't nit-pick. The Kryptonian military general - Zod - who was attempting to stage a planetary coup and in some fashion save Krypton, is exiled to the Phantom Zone for his crimes and yet vows to track down Kal-El and retrieve the codex, saving his people's future. Superman's early years are then depicted and show us his serving around the world in an itinerant laborer sort of fashion, coming to the rescue whenever tragedy occurs, and this forces him to move on to the next gig. We see bits of his childhood in well done flashback scenes. Enter Lois Lane, Daily Planet reporter, who embeds herself with a military excavation at the south pole where some kind of space vessel has been discovered, frozen in the ice for almost 20,000 years. She spies Superman (in yet another itinerant disguise) attempting to quietly slip away and explore the vessel himself, and follows. That decision entwines her fate and future with his as she becomes bound and determined to discover his secrets. On the ship, Superman finally learns his true identity and flies it away to the other pole, but doing so activates a distress beacon that alerts Zod - who escaped from the Phantom Zone when Krypton exploded - to his whereabouts. An epic confrontation that would be an insurance agent's nightmare follows as Earth, Superman, and all of mankind's fate hangs in the balance. (Whew! Long plot - but the movie is nearly two-and-a-half hours long.)

Players: Henry Cavill portrays this version of Superman (you may know him best from The Tudors television series), the always watchable Amy Adams is the indomitable and intrepid Lois Lane, Michael Shannon grinds through his role as Zod with lust and vigor, and a long list of other "A" actors round out the cast in smaller roles. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Superman's foster parents, Laurence Fishburne serves as Perry White, Lois' editor, Russell Crowe does double duty as Jor-El, Superman's father and the AI "consciousness" of his father later, and both Christopher Meloni (from the Law and Order TV series) and Richard Schiff (most well known for his work as Toby on The West Wing) are given small but pivotal roles. German actress Antje Traue is given a full introduction to American audiences as the right-hand of General Zod, Faora-UI and is both menacing and lovely.

Pilot: The movie is directed by Zack Snyder who also helmed 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch. He has already been announced as coming back to direct Man of Steel 2, and considering that Christopher Nolan (of the Batman trilogy of films) shares a co-writing credit on the story, I think we're probably due for another trilogy here.

Performance: This movie falls straight into the category of rollicking yarn. There are just enough lulls with character exposition and backstory to make the action scenes pop. My one note of distraction while watching was that there was, perhaps, too much action. When you're talking about a character called "Superman" - and there's a clever bit with Lois about the symbol on his chest - there's a tendency to make everything bigger. And then what do you do for a climax? Make it even bigger still. And longer. The film finally reaches a point where it's just too much and you begin to be numbed by it all. But that was a minor flaw. There are several quick bits during the climactic battle scene that Snyder fits in: a worksite with a sign displaying "106 days without an accident" is hit and the 1 and 6 fall off. In another shot, a tanker with "LexCorp" emblazoned on the side is destroyed, a millisecond homage to nemesis Lex Luthor. The movie ends with Superman set up in his Clark Kent identity, newly-hired at the Daily Planet newspaper. The final two lines of dialogue are a near-perfect ending for the film, leaving things fine as a stand-alone movie, but also ripe for the sequel.

Point: Several times throughout the movie we are asked what mankind would do if we found out there was an alien living among us, and he was a far superior being. Would we panic? Would we accept him as one of our own? Would we look to him as hero and savior or would we shun and fear him for his differences? The film shows that struggle and the conclusion is drawn by one character for us all when he says, "this man is not our enemy." I could spend some time drawing parallels between Superman and Christ, as well as critical differences, but that's for another post. There is one scene where Superman asks a local priest for advice. In the end, the priest offers, "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust comes later." I was glad the writers nailed that one.

Particulars: I found nothing truly objectionable here. There are hints of cleavage, a lingering kiss, a quick scene of sexual harassment, several violent yet mostly bloodless deaths, and a few uses of "ass" and "dick" in conjunction with other words to create insults.

Raymond's Rating: I'll give this film a solid three stars. The action goes on too long, and Superman's ultimate solution to the menace is a choice I'm not sure he ever would have made in the comic mythology, but as summer blockbusters go, this one is right up there.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Up, up, and away!

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