Monday, June 17, 2013

Thoughts on Man of Steel

I'm a Superman guy.

Some people prefer Batman, but I've always been a Superman fan. It comes from being from Kansas (and not all that far, really, from where Smallville would be if it were a real town) and from loving first contact with aliens stories.

I grew up in the 70s when there were great Superman stories being told in the comics and even on 33 1/3 LPs by Curt Swan, Elliot S! Maggin, Cary Bates, Jose Garcia-Lopez,  Ross Andru, Kurt Schaffenberger, Bob Oksner, Neal Adams and so, so many others. These were the creators who helped me love Superman in his battle for Truth and Justice. I don't think they necessarily put forth 'and the American Way' like the 50s TV series did but maybe. It didn't hit me over the head so I focused on Truth and Justice.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm writing these first paragraphs before I go see Man Of Steel on opening night. I want to get down my pre-film expectations before I write anything about the film itself.

Being a child of the 70s, Christopher Reeve was my Superman, maybe always will be. I believed he could fly. Reeve looked the part, played Clark Kent as well as he did Superman and that made quite a difference. When he lost his powers in Superman II, I believed it. Of course the next two films in the franchise were terribly, terribly disappointing. Awful, in fact.

So when Bryan Singer brought out Superman Returns and paid homage to Richard Donner's films I was excited. Using Marlon Brando's voice as Jor-El was inspired thievery in the trailer, but the film itself didn't live up to the promise. It wasn't the conceits of the story so much as it was the execution. The changes didn't bother me because they weren't big enough. Brandon Routh looked the part, even scarily like Chris Reeve as Clark, but there was something missing from the film. Like most of us I was disappointed

So cue up the current incarnation. Zack Snyder doesn't thrill me as a director and my hopes for the film immediately dropped. When Henry Cavill was cast I became a little more hopeful. And then Warner Bros. did the right nerd thing and involved Christopher Nolan. My hopes, and those of lots of other Superman nerds, rose. I think we're all still a little wary until we see the picture and we should be. But there's hope again.

Hope is what the symbol on his chest stands for, or so we're told in the trailer. It comes through in the soundtrack which I downloaded first thing Tuesday morning and have been listening to ever since. It's brash, bombastic, filled with soaring chords and thundering rhythms. It is - despite the volume swells - a work separate from composer Hans Zimmer's work on the Batfilms. Here, Zimmer has music that is strong, sensitive, introspective, hammering. It's not recycled from The Dark Knight or any of his previous works but does contain some of what he does so well. He pulls you into a piece then lets you go, the way great film scores should.

If you like the music in the trailer, you will like the entire soundtrack. I bought the deluxe edition with extra stuff and it's worth every penny I paid. I can see Superman when I close my eyes.

What appeals to me about Superman is that he's this enormously powerful otherworldly being - an orphan and a stranger in a strange land - who wants to help people. He's always been nice. To the point that characters with less character than him in the comics refer to him derogatorily as a Boy Scout.

It's difficult to always be the nice guy, to always be frustrated that not everyone thinks the way you think they should. He respects individuals who don't respect him and who will as soon as they can betray him. He's trusting and sometimes naive, believing in the individual right to live your life the way you want to as long as you don't hurt anyone. He's a protector but not a demagogue. He cannot solve all the world's problems and he has no intention of doing that. He wants his own life.

So - he's powerful, smart, good-looking and can do pretty much whatever he wants. He could be super bastard but he's not. He's nice. And that ought to bring him into conflict with the rest of the world of 2013 more than anything else. That should be the struggle he works against and I hope - because the trailer has led me to believe this - that the film focuses on this.

We'll see.

***

Back from the movie.

Wow.

Where to start?

Let me set this up just a little. We went to the last show on opening night in my town and the theater was probably 80% full, maybe a little more. The trailers started up and I wondered why we were seeing so many previews of comedies. Turns out someone in the projection room had loaded the wrong film but we didn't know it for sure until the opening credits for The Internship came on. A ripple of confusion went through the crowd and a dozen people ran out to inform someone of the mistake.

Man Of Steel started up shortly and we got on with it.

I've only seen two of director Zack Snyder's films and both were comic book adaptations that had very similar visual styles. Going in to Man of Steel I hoped that this one would be different from those two. Henry Cavill looks the part of Clark/Superman and that's a great start. The rest of the cast is well chosen, too, though I was apprehensive about Amy Adams as Lois Lane.

I needn't have been.

The film is visually stunning, starting with the Kryptonian costumes and the planet's landscape and even some of its wildlife. The camera work is reminiscent of J.J. Abrams' movies with zooms in on moving objects and some lens flares but the effects are stellar. It's a comic book come to life. The fights, especially on Earth, are intense and fast and violent. This is the way Superman should be. Snyder's given us a realistic (as much as it can be, anyway) portrayal of the kind of power that was only hinted at in the Richard Donner movies. Technology's come a long, long way.

It's packed with characters that get enough screen time to flesh out Clark as a person. The downside to this is that sometimes the film drags. I can't tell you there's any scene that's not key to either plot or character, but when it bogs down it's usually for an emotional reason. The trouble there is that not every emotional punch is as tough as every physical one even though that may've been the intent. The actors are wonderful and I admire Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents. Clark's Kryptonian parents are excellent, too, though I was disappointed at Lara's somewhat diminished role.

General Zod and his lieutenant Faora are great villains proving the adage that the villain is the hero of his own story. Zod's overt statement of intent reenforces everything he does throughout the film, too. It might seem heavy handed on repeated viewings but on opening night it made sense.

Lois is finally portrayed as the scary-smart person she always has been. Gone is the 'galactically stupid' person who is fooled by a pair of glasses and a change in hairstyle. She is intuitive, tenacious and brilliant. Amy Adams acquits herself nicely in the role and I thoroughly enjoyed her in every scene. Plus, she has a bit of chemistry with Henry Cavill.

As for Clark himself, he's very, very human. He is searching for himself for a reason that isn't implicit in any dialogue but is meaningful. His story, and the film itself, is really about trust. Who can Clark rely on? He learns a great deal from his father(s) and tries to apply it the best he can but the choices he has to make are difficult and there's no one to comfort him. For every answer he finds, Clark gets another question. It's difficult being the nice guy when it would be so easy to be selfish and just take what he wants.

Henry Cavill looks the part and is convincing as Clark. The best part of the performance is that he doesn't separate Clark from Superman, they're the same person. The fact that when he's weakened he keeps on fighting is testament to that. The flight scenes are spectacular, the speed of them got my heart really thumping. Without giving anything away, his struggle with gravity is convincing. Cavill sells it well. He's affable, even humorous.

And the music works well throughout, too.

Overall, I got everything I wanted out Man Of Steel. It's action-packed, full of character development and every actor gives an excellent performance. I'm excited that a sequel has already been greenlit. Christopher Nolan's hand is obvious in this film but credit goes to David Goyer for the script, too. Snyder had excellent material to work with and a terrific cast to pull it off. I left feeling like I've been set on a journey much like the one in Batman Begins.

I'm still thinking about this movie but I'm very, very pleased it was as good as I wanted it to be. Finally we have the film we've been dreaming of.

Absolutely amazing.

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