Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: "Man Of Steel"

There's been much talk of the direction that Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan have taken Superman in for the latest adaptation of the beloved comic series.  With Nolan's Batman trilogy fresh in our minds, it seemed perhaps a grittier, more world weary superman was in order.  Certainly the flagship comic (for the better part of last year) saw Superman having lost his faith in humanity and deciding to walk the Earth in search of something to believe in.  We needed something new from this character.  We've seen the story told over and over again: first with Christopher Reeves in the original four films, then the well received (if a little cheesy) 90's TV adaptation Lois and Clark: the new adventures of Superman, with Brandon Routh in the absolutely heinous adaptation Superman Returns, and surprisingly successfully on Smallville (a television adaptation on which Reeves himself appeared).  One thing no one has ever done, however, is a 'dark and twisted' adaptation of Superman.  There's a reason Frank Miller never wrote Superman except into a Batman story he was once creating: Superman is too moral and too much a representation of the establishment.  And this is the fundamental problem with the newest adaptation in Man of Steel, they've decided that Superman needed some grit and that the farm-bred boy from Kansas was no longer an image that audiences would want to see.  But in doing so, they've ended up robbing Superman of everything that makes his story so enduring.

In an attempt to set themselves apart from all that has gone before them (and in keeping with Nolan's successfully gritty take on Batman) the team has sought to essentially reverse anything that has come before.  Jonathan Kent was Clark's source of moral fiber?  Toss it.  Clark never knew his adoptive parents, except through an echo chamber later in life?  Nahh, let's make Jor El a living hologram with motivation of his own.  Lois and Clark are constantly at odds?  Nope, let's make her a starry eyed accomplice from the get-go.  These may seem like small changes but the problem here is that Superman, more than any other character perhaps, is made up of those small things.  Certainly if we were to take away the death of Bruce Wayne's parents he would not have become Batman, but that moment so fully defines him that if we changed anything else about his story (and writers frequently have) he still becomes the same narcissistic and sometimes psychotic vigilante.  But with Clark Kent, his defining traits were always about all the little things in his past that made him what he was as an adult.

So let's break down the most glaring of these changes: Jonathan Kent from the comics has always been a source of moral fiber for his young adoptive son.  Kent was meant to stand as a shining example of the best that humanity had to offer and be an example of both what makes Superman strong and his greatest weakness.  A man who was of simple means (The Kent's owned a small farm in rural Kansas) and who sought to bring out the best in his son, Jonathan Kent would always stand up for those around him.  When Kent finally died in the comics, it was of a heart attack, something that Clark could not-- powerful though he may be-- save him from.  Kent as played by Kevin Costner, however, is a paranoid weirdo who openly tells his son that it would have been better for him to let his classmates die than to reveal his secret to the world.  While Jonathan Kent does counsel Clark to hold his temper, he does so only out of fear of his being discovered.  There's a false sense of morality here that belies a grown Clark's actions later in the film.  Why on Earth would he save men from a burning oil rig or save a reporter who had discover his secret after 20 years of being told he would be locked up and tested if he was ever discovered?  I can see why they would want to make this change: make the story about Clark setting out on his own and becoming his own man against his father's wishes.  That's okay, but if we're going to play that card then he needs a little more screen time and a LOT more to do.  The character arc has to be believable.

Which brings us to the next change in this particular adaptation: the expansion of the part of Jor El.  Played by Russel Crow, Jor El is no longer simply the leading scientist on Krypton (Clark's home world) but is demonstrated to be quite an accomplished fighter; a warrior-scientist if you will.  This of course implies that Krypton as a whole is a conquering race of warriors, which certainly isn't countermanded by our villain, the great General Zod.  But the issue with Jor El's expanded role here is not down to the changes in character.  It is logical that Jor El's role, now that Kent has been reduced to a glorified worry wart, would serve as the source of Superman's moral fiber (and certainly Crow manages to embody that).  However over the course of attempting to show Jor El and his wife Lana as the only sane people on a planet full of lemmings, we spend nearly the first forty minutes of the film anywhere but with the lead character.  This is a big problem.  Given that Man of Steel purports to be about Superman's journey to become the Superman of legend, it's a little problematic that we spend the first third of the film without him.  Instead, I finished this section of the story having come to the conclusion that--while perhaps a little overzealous-- Zod's desire for his people's lives to be saved isn't entirely unreasonable.  What's more, given a choice between an overzealous General who wants to try to find a way for thousands of people to survive the apocalypse, and an overzealous scientist who thinks the only hope for their race is letting himself and everyone else die while shooting a baby into space.  Well, which would you choose?

The nice thing here is that with the exception of Diane Lane as Martha Kent (who's doing her absolute best impression of Sally Field in the Amazing Spiderman), most of the characters were actual characters.  That can be chalked up-- in part-- to good casting, as I think the casting here was very good.  Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod and even Michael Kelly in a bit part at the Daily Planet.  Now while I don't have a huge problem with the way that Amy Adams' Lois Lane was portrayed in the film (she displays definite courage and lots of intelligence), I think that they missed some opportunities in the future by having her discover Clark's secret right away.  While it shows that she has ambition and talent, they've removed any opportunity for her to fall in love with Clark as a man (unless they retcon the whole thing), which was always the more tender part of their love story for me.  Her lack of character definition isn't such a huge problem in the larger scheme of things but she ends up being a little bit of a non-sequitur.  Clearly if Lois is smart and trusts Superman so easily, then the rest of the human race will too!

Ultimately all these small changes combined serve to paint a picture of a lead who is both wishy-washy as a hero AND seems to have no moral compass of his own.  Much is made of Clark's appearance as a deep sea fisherman in the trailers, a turn that ends up being a ten minute interlude near the beginning of the film.  If we're meant to believe that Clark found himself in two or three shifts at sea, even after saving the lives of those oil rig workers, then the filmmakers are out to lunch.  What's more, at every turn Clark is told what to do and how to act.  By his adoptive parents, his biological father, his presumptive girlfriend and even a random priest near the final climax of the film.  At no point does Clark make any decisions of his own, each one being handed down to him by a different influence in his life.  Even in the climax, the final decision of whether or not to end the life of a foe is determined by circumstance and not by his own moral compass.  For a lead that gets barely any screen time in his own movie, what time he does have onscreen is often spent listening to another characters blow hot air.  By making Clark the sum of other people's parts, the filmmakers may have thought they were making him stronger.  But it seems they've added too much carbon to the 'Man of Steel' and as with any iron alloy, he's become brittle in the process.

My rating: 1.5 out of 4 (they might have gotten a 2, but anyone who can cause THAT MUCH destruction to a city based on New York and not think twice about it deserves to have at least a half point removed from their rating).

No comments:

Post a Comment