' Cinema Romantico: Man of Steel

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

The supposed eternal conundrum with the ongoing cinematic character as culled from the long-running DC comic, Superman, is that he is simply too virtuous, too indestructible, too indefatigable, to make for a compelling protagonist. After all, one of the cardinal rules of storytelling is to make your hero multi-dimensional. How do you do that for someone who comes from another planet to Earth where he is - to quote his own father - "like a god"?

Yeah, that's Superman all right.
Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer (who concocted the film's story with superhero savior Christopher Nolan) decide to interject Superman and/or Kal-El and/or Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) with humanity by way of doubt and a confusion about his role on Earth. When we first catch up with him in young adult mode he is essentially wandering in the desert, working on a fishing boat, assuming an apron and wiping up spilled beer at some honky tonk bar in who-knows-where, interning (or some such) at a science facility in the Arctic. It is here that he first encounters a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from Metropolis's Daily Planet named Lois Lane, played by a piercing Amy Adams less as Erma Bombeck than Lara Logan (that is, unafraid to go anywhere, like a spaceship). She's the motherfucker that found Superman.

This is crucial. Traditionally, Lois does not know Superman's true identity straight away, but Snyder and company dispense with that formal bit of rom com misunderstanding. She knows he is from another world from the get-go, which both turns him into Krypton's Deep Throat when he becomes her protected source for a story and underscores how in this version of the story Superman's real identity crisis is with himself.

The overlong "Man of Steel" is filled with flashbacks to his life as a youth on a Kansas farm where he was found as a from-outer-space baby boy by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent who raised him as their own. Costner delivers perhaps the film's finest performance, knowing his "adopted son" is destined for unexplainable greatness but also perfectly projecting a parental protectiveness. There are several dozen more than few Biblical parallels in this film - which Snyder has indicated were purposely amplified - and it's almost as if Jonathan Kent, trading carpentry for farming, is providing the untold story of Joseph. There is less of this then there is of so much else and it hits the hardest, which is not a coincidence.


Of course, Clark Kent's real name is Kal-El and his real father is Jor-El (Russell Crowe) who we see in the film's opening prologue set on a CGI-sculpted Krypton where political bickering has led to the planet's potential destruction. This prompts Jor-El to send his son shooting off through the stars and toward the distant planet Earth with the hopes of preserving at least one of his species. General Zod, meanwhile, played by Michael Shannon not with the rogue majesty of Terrence Stamp but with a mentally unbalanced tempestuousness, plans to preserve his species by overthrowing the government and acquiring a Kryptonian Codex. Alas, this is the same Codex Jor-El has sent along with his son.

This prologue is a visual delight but also laden with gravitas, tagged with Jor-El and Zod in hand-to-hand combat that works to set the table for the inevitable showdown between Kal-El and Zod nearly two hours later. The latter should be a moment to savor. The narrative does not conveniently stack the deck against Zod so the audience's emotions all line up in just the right way, instead making him a villain not necessarily to love but to respect. That is commendable. So why is it so dramatically deficient?

I have this theory about superhero movies of recent times - so much is demanded of them that in an effort to meet those demands they eventually cave in. And I'm as guilty as anyone! Just last week I was whining about The Daily's Planet's editor not smoking a cigar! (Laurence Fishburne's Perry White does not smoke a cigar, but that's okay. It's okay because he strikes me as someone who waits to smoke after hours at his regular lounge across the street, never at the office, with a nice cognac in tow.)


Consider "Iron Man 2." Here was a movie that seemed oddly uninterested in its own action scenes and more attentive to its characters and their interactions and banter. I think the latter was what most interested director Jon Favreau but in an effort to meet demands for action and special effects and new characters, it crumbled. Zack Snyder's primary interest in "Man of Steel" seems to be Kal-El's internal dilemma, the love between fathers and sons and what we are or are not willing to do to forge our own destiny. These are interesting ideas, but their impact is blunted under the weight of two and a half hours of exposition (the Helpful Jor-El Hologram!) and planetary terraforming and newspaper deadlines and product placement (shop Sears, everyone!) and what has apparently turned into the obligatory destruction of New York City.....er, Metropolis. The third act plays like a studio mogul said to Snyder: "The third act of 'Avengers?' Do that." Forget about pleasing everyone, reign in your focus and tell your story.

At the end of "Superman: The Movie" there is, of course, the famous sequence where, in an effort to stop Lex Luthor's two nuclear missiles heading in opposite directions, Superman stops one missile and then proceeds to reverse time to stop the other missile. He has his cake and then he eats it too. Which is fine. That's the sort of thing that happens in the movies.

It doesn't happen when you're making movies.

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