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Ten Word or Less Review: Supermeh

The last son of Krypton’s lumpy movie resume adds another uneven chapter to its long running tradition of troubled and cumbersome films.  One would figure that there is enough of a cinematic road map for Superman to follow so as to avoid any further missteps but that’s not the case.  Between all the comic book success stories (Batman) and failures (Ghost Rider) of the last decade and a half, and his own recent misbegotten film to boot (2006’s Superman Returns), a top notch Superman film should be a no-brainer by now.  But no.  Once again Superman has proven to be a character just out of reach of Hollywood storytellers.  Man of Steel careens wildly from meditative character study to excessive slugfest and by the time it’s finished it has squashed the audience in between.

At this point in the history of comic book flicks sitting through yet another origin story of a guy who wears spandex makes me queasy.  And covering Superman’s origin story?  Again?  For an encore is Warner Brothers gonna walk me through Bruce Wayne becoming Batman?  I think there are a few people in the slums of Calcutta who don’t know how that happens.  But divisive director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) builds and shapes the first hour of Man of Steel for all its worth and then some.  An extended intro with Superman’s real dad Kal-El (Russel Crowe) flying around Krypton on his trusty winged, lizard creature while the nefarious General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup kicks things off with a showstopper.  It immediately sets itself apart from Supermans of the past with its fearless fantasy movie costumes and larger than life scope.  The producers look to be out to out Marvel Marvel in this respect.  Then in a real shock to the system, after Krypton goes kaboom, there’s a smooth transition to a more subdued and contemplative tone which leads us into the lost years of Clark Kent.

It’s this origins part of the movie works far better than anyone could have anticipated.  Watching Clark flashback to the formation of his abilities gives the film a variety of dramatic beats and interesting moments.  It’s has touching interactions between young Clark and his adoptive Earth parents, the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).  A scene with an elementary school age Clark gets really freaky as the young kid suddenly discovers he can’t control a new found ability to see through people.  Later he rescues a bus full of kids much to Pa Kent’s worry.  Costner’s father figure thinks the revelation of his adopted son’s abilities will turn the world on its head.  Costner and Lane give some skill to roles traditionally under used and quickly swept away.  I’m still holding a grudge against Superman Returns for wasting Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent.  But making Diane Lane look like an old farm wife is cruel in it’s own way.  Regardless, most of this youth oriented material works like a charm until Costner’s melodramatic and poorly thought out demise.  Aside from that misstep, Man of Steel looks to building up towards something genuinely special.  Superman’s first flight is exhilarating and after building so much promise you’re ready for Man of Steel to truly take off and fly.  But then just like that first flight Man of Steel, like Superman himself, crashes hard.

The second half of the film is where Steel’s story goes awry.  Director Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer revert back to comic book movie 101 so fast it makes your head pop.  Shannon’s General Zod escapes his Phantom Zone prison and comes to Earth looking for Jor El and the secret to rebuilding Krypton, on top of Earth no less.  I think the Decepticons had this same idea a few years ago.  After some very boring comings and goings that stop the movie dead, army guys are always instant boredom in films like this, Steel morphs into a super budget version of WWF Smackdown.  Superman endlessly trades punches with Zod and his costume clad cronies who look like the roided up, super-soldiers from the first G.I. Joe movie.

Snyder has made a reputation of sorts for himself over recent years.  A mongoloid with a paint brush seems like an apt description.  By marrying his voluptuous and ornate visual skills with an attitude that at its best is too aggressive (Watchmen) and worst, barbaric and dumb (Sucker Punch), he’s good at dividing audiences or alienating them outright.  Man of Steel’s previews implied that he had upped his game and abandoned the more fetishistic and overblown type of movie he usually clubs an audience to death with.  But the surprisingly graceful and mature nature of the movie slowly ebbs away and we’re left with a tiresome final hour of witless bombast an mindless destruction.  It’s like that scene from Superman III where Superman fights himself.  Except here the new Snyder is choked out of existence while the old one takes over and decidedly ruins things.

Snyder and his team of technicians seem to think the act of watching Superman punch people is all the audience wants to see.  A response to Superman Returns endless parade of Superman lifting things?  This obsession with super fighting culminates with Zod and Superman launching into fisticuffs in the middle of Metropolis.  The destruction of one building after another ensues as they toss and slug each other to kingdom come.  Which in itself comes on top of watching scores of buildings, cars and people be mercilessly flattened by Zod’s massive gravity machine.  Superman may be trying to save Metropolis from these villains but I’m pretty sure he inadvertently kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this clash of the titans.  Of course none of that is addressed.  By the time the mayhem has subsided Man of Steel has pancaked itself like a semi truck driving into a brick wall doing 90.  There’s nothing left but steaming wreckage and dazed audience wondering what the Hell happened.

Despite the half good/crap half construction of Man of Steel it doesn’t want for capable players.  Holding this mash up of two movies together is new Superman Henry Cavill.  The British actor gets the unenviable task of trying to hold up this massive narrative on his very broad shoulders.  Though the screenplay plays him shy and quiet at first, he eventually opens up and seems like the right man for the job.  He has more presence and gravitas than last Superguy Brandon Routh.  Despite the clear indicators that he’s on track to be a more than capable Superman he’s stuck in a poor situation that no actor could save.  New Lois Lane Amy Adams also feels like a good fit undermined by slipshod writing.  Adams is as skilled an actress as any but her Lois is an ill fit for the story.  You could practically edit her out of the movie and never miss her.  Michael Shannon is the best heavy working in Hollywood today but his Zod is one dimensional menace in an unflattering haircut.  He’s tries his absolute damnedest to eat the film right out of the camera but there’s precious little for him to play other than searingly mad and pissed off.   Russell Crowe is stuck with the most portentous dialogue of anybody and he makes it work despite the leaden, overly ponderous words he’s stuck with.  It’s a testament to his abilities and it makes one wonder what would have happened had Crowe nabbed the role of Kal-El when he was a more youthful gent.

Man of Steel is sadly another ambitious but misbegotten Superman film.  It fearlessly cast aside some of the more long standing, and annoying, traditions of the Superman myth.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) quickly determines that Supes is in fact Clark Kent.  We’re spared the dumb tradition of her not knowing the two are the same.  Annoyingly earnest Jimmy Olsen is also nowhere to be seen.  Composer Hans Zimmer supplies a rousing film score which works as a better than adequate replacement for John Williams iconic music cues.   But for every unconventional decision made a senseless one lies in its wake.  Why build a backstory in about Superman being the first natural Kryptonian birth with the freedom to choose who he will be in life when we all know he’s going to be Superman?  Even his dead Dad knows what he’s going to be.  And he’s dead.  He has a costume ready made for him the day he starts to fly around!  How is that a choice?  In what world would Clark actually consider staying a bum who works shitty jobs?  It’s daft writing in the extreme.  There are pieces here to craft a worthwhile Superman movie series and despite the misgivings about this mess I hope another, better experience rises from the wreckage of this first effort.  Superman deserves a genuinely grand cinematic experience.  Maybe next time he’ll get to do something more than slug someone in the face while building come crashing down around his ankles.


mondo superman


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