Review: Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL

Superman is not a terribly thrilling character. Superficially, he’s a wonder: gifted with gargantuan strength, x-ray vision, and yes, he flies. But with his indestructible stature, what is there to truly threaten him? What about his true fears, questions that shake him to the core? It turns out that Superman’s greatest threat could be the very people he vows to protect. The ramifications of a deified presence amongst a modern society are the direct thematic concerns at the heart of this retelling of the Superman origin story, Man of Steel. The resulting film is a bombastic piece of work, alternately thrilling and pummeling, yet touched with occasional moments of grace. Man of Steel isn’t as impervious as its title character, but despite its issues with narrative structure, its scale and thematic concerns are enough to impress.

Birth and death are entwined at the genesis of Man of Steel. As Kal-El is born into the universe, his home planet of Krypton is on the brink of destruction. Nothing can save it, for the Kryptonians have exhausted their planet’s resources to the point where its core is set to implode. This occurs in the midst of a massive military coup, in which General Zod (Michael Shannon) wages civil war while Krypton begins to buckle. In an attempt to secure the future of his own race, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launches his newborn son into the heavens, set on a course for Earth. Kal-El holds the key to the future of the Kryptonian race, and Zod vows to track him down. Man of Steel then abruptly leaps three decades forward, depicting the adult human facade that Kal-El has grown into, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). He works odd jobs in a self imposed alienation from his Kansas origins. When a Kryptonian vessel is discovered buried in the Arctic, Clark travels there to discover his true calling. While there, he meets obligatory love interest reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and comes to realize that the time to reveal himself to the citizens of Earth is at hand. Of course, the consequences of his reveal are further complicated with the arrival of Zod, and a battle for the fate of Earth begins.

The biggest fundamental issues of Man of Steel lie in its structure and pacing. The film’s opening prologue on Krypton is audacious and grand, but also feels protracted. There is admittedly a great deal of exposition required, but once the film shifts to Earth, Clark’s childhood is condensed to flashbacks. The initial pacing to the flashbacks is uneven, but they grow naturally into rhythms of the film, despite feeling like bullet points rather than fully developed pieces. Nevertheless, there is much to admire about these early moments in Clark’s life, as they pose the central dilemma of the film: Can a modern society ever be ready for a figure like Superman? Situations throughout cut to the heart of this both through dialogue and through visuals, and one scene in particular between both Clark and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) is heart wrenching in its ramifications. Another layer of this is Kal-El’s all-too-on-the-nose parallel with Christian beliefs. His moment of revelation comes at the age of 33, and he even approaches a priest in a moment of crisis, backlit by a stained glass portrait of Jesus Christ. It’s admirable for Man of Steel to recognize these thematic aspects of the mythology, but they end up being simple acknowledgments than implications of anything deeper. Of course, once Superman does reveal himself, then the film drifts into slightly more conventional territory. Zod’s arrival naturally signals the end of the world, but not in the traditional sense. His methods are less than straightforward, and his motivations carry weight behind them. These added flavors of intrigue enhance Man of Steel but the question of the public’s trust in Kal-El is somewhat abandoned once the fists begin to fly. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is capably tenacious, but too often she is implemented as a “damsel in distress” and one major narrative detour involving her is wildly excessive.

Visually, Man of Steel is filled to the brim with wildly impressive moments. However, Zack Snyder’s pursuit of a realistic aesthetic is misguided when considering the fantastical nature of the character. Handheld cameras and digital zooms are abundant and only work partially when depicting the chaotic set pieces from the prologue and the final hour. It’s understandable that the goal of Man of Steel is to present a realistic version of Superman, but it is still possible to explore realistic themes and ideas without resorting to techniques that try to scream “realism.” This is by no means to say that Snyder fails in his visual approach, but perhaps a more classical style would have provided a greater sense of true wonder. If there is something to critique with Snyder’s vision it is actually in the endless action sequences. The final 45 minutes are a giant, truly epic piece of action filmmaking, but there is no arc or building of tension to sustain the runtime. Consequently, it results in a complete barrage of tiresome sound and fury, and there are few truly memorable moments. Hans Zimmer’s score, while predictably excellent, also populates every action moment with relentless percussion. Its softer moments, however, with a single piano carrying the new theme, cut to the core of film.

In the end, Man of Steel is so grand and vast with immense moments of feeling that it cannot be labeled as a missed opportunity. Of course, from narrative and thematic development, to aesthetic focuses, there are improvements to be made on all fronts. Man of Steel might not be as great as it aspires, but it has within it the ability to be, yes, truly super.

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~ by romancinema on June 24, 2013.

One Response to “Review: Man of Steel”

  1. Knowing what the trailers and previews promised, this movie could have been so much better but just settled at being “okay”. Nice review.

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