Thursday, April 07, 2016

Man of Steel (2013) Review

Rebooting a film franchise is always divisive, however this bold reinterpretation of Superman’s origin may qualify as one of the most controversial in cinema history. Big, brashly violent, and unabashedly emotional this is definitely not the Christopher Reeve’s superhero that so many have fond memories of. Instead it is a science fiction story about what it would be like to be a perpetual stranger in a strange land while trying to find your own unique identity.

Man of Steel Title

See the title above? You won’t see that until the movie ends. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of this freight train of a story that hurtles through the two and half hours the movie runs. Contained within is a densely packed journey of discovery alternating with loss combined with all the repercussions of finding out alien life exists and may not be friendly.

Don’t expect much comic relief in this very serious take on the first comic book superhero. It stands in stark contrast to the relatively cheery 1970’s Superman film series.

Man of Steel BirthMan of Steel Krypton

Like Richard Donner’s classic from 1978, the movie begins on the dying world of Krypton somewhere far off in space. Hans Zimmer’s masterful soundtrack thrums away before giving way to a heartbeat of a baby being born. Amidst the decay of a spent people, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have done something not allowed in hundreds of years: they have had a baby by natural childbirth rather than artificial engineering.

Both an act of rebellion and desperation, the boy’s conception and birth are kept secret from the ruling council of Krypton. Dressed (and acting much) like the Time Lords of Doctor Who, the doddering rulers have brought their planet to ruin due to an inwards looking culture that stopped growing twenty millennia ago. Having exhausted their natural resources and embarked on a project to harness the molten core of the planet for a power source, they are oblivious to Jor-El’s warnings on the subject.

Man of Steel Title Genesis ChamberMan of Steel Key

The environmental decay is equally matched by cultural decay and so it is no surprise that a coup is attempted by their top general, Zod (Michael Shannon) during Jor-El’s hearing. Once friends, they are now split on how to save the Kryptonian race. Zod wants absolute purity of the caste system enforced to bring back order while the scientist has given up on the living and is plotting something even more radical than a revolution.

Man of Steel General ZodMan of Steel Exiled

Amidst the carnage of the civil war, Jor-El steals the most precious item on Krypton and ships it off with his newborn son in an experimental spaceship so that something of their race will survive. That doesn’t go over so well with Zod and his followers, though they soon face problems of their own when the coup fails.

Man of Steel Krypton Destroyed

Of course the Jor-El was right and the world ends in a fiery explosion.

While there is amazing imagery on the screen during the Krypton prologue, it is very rushed without a moment allowed to for the content to sink in. Of course, if it was allowed better pacing the movie would have been three hours long, so I can understand the pace. Suffice it to say that repeated viewings go a long way to better appreciating the sheer density of what it thrown at the audience in the prologue.

Man of Steel Oil Rig RescueMan of Steel Pa Kent

Thirty three years later and the location changes to a crabbing boat in the North Pacific. There a greenhorn crew member nearly gets himself crushed while earning the ire of the experienced hands. When an S.O.S. arrives from an oil rig on fire, he vanishes only to reappear scaling the burning structure. Our hero makes an impressive entrance covered in burning oil as he saves the trapped personnel.

The heroics come at a cost and the story device of alternating flashbacks with the current events that is the foundation of the film is established here. As the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) makes his lonely journey in search of his origins, his memories growing up in Kansas explain his motivations and self restrictions.

It is a powerful device painting the most human portrait of the character ever put on the big screen. Protected by his adoptive parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, Clark has always been an outsider due to his special gifts. Bullied and constantly told to hide his abilities, young Clark (Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry) is forced to hold in his emotions at all times.

Pa Kent in particular is adamant about this out of fear that the world will reject him and the government will come after them. Also raising him to be good and moral creates a deep conflict in the boy, for how can he ignore the suffering of others just to protect himself?

In fact, he appears to be unable to idly stand by.

Man of Steel Logging Truck

Even so, Clark isn’t a perfect goody two shoes. The inner conflict has generated a lot of repressed anger which comes out in one of the lighter hearted scenes when an adult bully goes out to find his logging truck now has some mechanical issues. It’s also a nice nod to Superman 2’s diner scenes.

Man of Steel Lois LaneMan of Steel Scout Ship

A military operation to excavate a possible Soviet era submarine in Canada lures both Clark and reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to the location. There they both stumble upon quite a secret with Lois nearly getting herself killed in the process. Unwilling to leave things well enough alone is Lane’s trademark, so the chance encounter with a mysterious and handsome man from outer space motivates her to keep digging.

Man of Steel Jor-El and ClarkMan of Steel First Flight

Meanwhile, Clark finds out his birth name, Kal-El from the ghost of his father in the form of an artificial intelligence based on the dead scientist’s uploaded consciousness. The history of Krypton is covered in a gorgeous art deco animation using the liquid metal common to the culture’s technology. Now equipped with knowledge of his potential and a suit based on the family crest, Clark begins to train in earnest.

That means learning to fly in an exhilarating series of overflights across continents and even into low orbit. Outstanding music and effects make this one of the greatest comic book scenes brought into live action I can recall. It is simply joyous and a rare respite from the terrible burden of responsibility our hero carries.

 Man of Steel Death of Jonothan KentMan of Steel Sacrifice

Of course, Lois eventually finds out too much leading to her meeting Clark again. Eager to tell his story, she instead finds out why he doesn’t want to be exposed. Knowing his tragic circumstances and realizing the world isn’t ready for him, Lois willingly cans her story to protect Clark. It is a far cry from how Lane is normally portrayed and makes her the most likeable version of the character so far.

But there wouldn’t be much of a movie if that was all there was too the story, right?

A strange spaceship arrives and takes over all the television sets, smart phones, and computer monitors around the world with an eerie, static filled message that would fit right in place with an episode of The Outer Limits. That message starts our very simply: “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.”

It is a genuinely creepy scene that owes much to older science fiction series such as The Twilight Zone and The X-Files. I really like how it was framed, staged, and edited.

General Zod has somehow survived and found his way to Earth looking for Kal-El. An ultimatum is given for Kal to turn himself in or else the entire planet will suffer. Yep, it is time for the superhero part of the story to get going.

Man of Steel SacrificeMan of Steel Clark and Lois

Of course the U.S. Government folds right away leaving it up to Clark to make a hard choice. It isn’t coincidental that he’s framed in the above shot with Jesus at Gethsemane. Both are coming to terms with a horrific self sacrifice necessary to save humanity and of course, Clark is thirty three years of age too. While the story of Superman has always had elements of Moses’ and Christ’s lives, it is laid out very explicitly this time around.

Due to Zod not being trustworthy and humanity being untrustworthy, Clark isn’t sure what to do. His discussion with the priest at the church leads to a point about the necessity of taking a leap of faith in order to build trust. A quiet and sensitively acted scene it could have been a complete disaster in execution. Thankfully, it is not and illustrates that while Clark is a very good person, he is not na├»ve.

Going to his fate, Clark surrenders to the military. Orders are to turn him over to Zod rather than risk any danger and there is a great deal of fear expressed toward the alien raised in Kansas. Like Pontius Pilate, the Feds wash their hands of him in hopes of appeasing an immediate threat.

Man of Steel Taste of DeathMan of Steel Outpost

Meeting his people for the first time isn’t a joyous occasion as the fascist soldiers following Zod are coldly menacing. Masked in skull like helmets and wearing black armor during first contact, they are imperious and condescending toward the humans they deal with. Apparently, being a proper Kryptonian involves being a rigid jerk to everyone.

Clark succumbs to the now foreign atmosphere of the starship and finds himself being shown the story of the other survivors by Zod. Some tremendous science fiction imagery is on display here, much of which is highly reminiscent of genre art from 1950s and ‘60s novel covers. In fact, there is a great deal of classic science fiction permeating the story – far more than current super hero films.

That’s a plus in my book.

Man of Steel Price of Restoring KryptonMan of Steel You Can Save Them All

Faced with the temptation to bring Krypton back at a terrible cost by Zod, Clark stays true to the mission entrusted to him by Jor-El. Just to make sure the Christian analogy is complete, his father from the heavens tells him “…you can save them all” before sending him back down to Earth after nearly dying.

Man of Steel A-10 Fight

Thus begins a spectacular three way battle in and around Smallville between Clark, the Kryptonians, and the U.S. Air Force. Putting to shame all the battles in Superman 2, it depicts just how ferocious a fight with superhumanly fast combatants would be in real life. No slow motion is used and every punch, kick, and throw is show moving at full speed which is normally a blur to a human. Topping it off is the fact it all takes place on a bright, sunny day thereby losing the advantage of concealing CG work with dark shadows.

It is a truly great special effects showcase.

Man of Steel Faora-UlMan of Steel Colonel Hardy

Humanity may be willing to put up a fight, however they are not ready for this kind of foe as the battle demonstrates how woefully outclassed mere mortals are. In the end it is up to Clark to save the day -- if he can in time.

The battles escalate in intensity with the future of Earth itself in jeopardy in a gut wrenching finale that still provokes anger in certain fan circles.

Thoughts

I went to the theater to see Man of Steel expecting a catastrophe of a movie, a train wreck on the silver screen. Expectations on my part of it being good given the director and trailers were low despite Christopher Nolan being involved as a producer. Reviews were mixed to very negative, so I settled in the theater seat feeling something akin to dread.

By the time the movie had gotten to the Artic crashed scout ship location, I realized I wasn’t just enjoying the movie, but beginning to love it. As the end credits rolled, it had became my favorite comic book movie of all time, eclipsing even The Dark Knight. Of course I had to see it again in 3D the next night, though that turned out to be disappointing compared to the 2D thanks to overly blurred backgrounds.

So what is it about Man of Steel that won me over completely? It wasn’t the first of its kind real time superhero combat, though that pleased me no end after all the slow motion fakery we’ve been subjected to. No, the classic science fiction elements laced thru ought weren’t the deciding factor either.

To my great surprise, Zach Snyder wove multiple theosophical and philosophical themes throughout the story. A much deeper experience  than any of the reviews indicated makes it more than a popcorn movie, if the viewer is sufficiently literate. Therein lies the rub. Due to a populace that is growing illiterate in every way and form, it is becoming commonplace for intellectual themes to not merely go over heads, but by completely missed in the first place.

Quite a bit of the story addresses the divergence in opinion on what makes a person: nature or nurture. Is it cold genetic programming or how we are raised that make us who we are?

Man of Steel clearly makes the case for agency and choice triumphing over nature impulses. We can choose to be good no matter how weak or strong our position is.

It was that depiction of Clark Kent and Cavill’s performance that made the movie special to me. Here was a Clark with understandable motivations and oh so very human emotions dealing with being the ultimate outsider. The theme of nurture versus nature is at its most obvious in depicting the struggles of the boy raised in Kansas rising above the cold and callous Kryptonian heritage in his DNA.

He’s a compellingly good person in a world lacking good people which of course furthers the comparison to Jesus Christ. The cycle of doing good, having the choice of whether to turn himself in or run from responsibility, being unfairly imprisoned, nearly dying, and then rising again to save humanity is all straight out of the New Testament. Writing this review during Easter weekend made it all the more obvious how much was referenced from the Holy Bible.

The rest of the cast is very good to superb without a weak performance in the lot. Even characters with minimal screen time get their beats and act like real people, with the exception of Zod’s goons. Only Faora gets any kind of development with her espousing the ultimate Darwinian view of existence. Nicknamed “Super Witch” on set, the character is a scene stealer especially when interacting with Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni). Antje Traue made the most of the part and then some.

Bannon captures the perpetually repressed rage that General Zod carries within very well. Every one of his physical movements seems calculated and controlled, reflecting the mentality of the grief maddened soldier. Elements of a wounded child confused by the opposition he encounters adds a peculiar grief to the character that makes him truly tragic.

Diane Lane is wonderful as the simple and caring Martha Kent radiating a salt of the earth vibe in every scene she’s in. More complicated is Costner’s Jonathon Kent. He’s a man torn about what to do and how far to go in order to protect his son. Imperfect but always a father who cares, his scenes illustrate why Clark is the man he is.

Russell Crowe delivers another one of his solid performances as the slightly mad yet altruistic Jor-El. Watch for the subtle differences between the man and his AI version for it is well portrayed. Charismatic and more than a little arrogant, he’s a scene stealer.

As I mentioned before, Amy Adams’ version of Lois Lane is hands down the most likeable yet and the romance between her and Clark comes off as unforced thanks to the mutual trust built up as events unfold. Who knew changing Lois’ hair color from black to red would change her personality for the better?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t compliment Lawrence Fishburne for creating a new take on Perry White that is more human and relatable than the usual stereotypical newspaper editor. In fact, Perry’s rather heroic when he’s not being the voice of reason.

Capping off the movie for me is the controversial ending, which I’ll discuss in the spoilers section. I fall into the camp that approved of what was done.

Special effects are top notch with WETA creating very realistic damage and impressive looking Kryptonian tech. The flying sequences are by far the best of any super hero movie due to kinetic camera work creating an expansive sense of scale. Watching the extras it was amazing how much apparent CG work was actually real and vice versa.

I’ll say there is one small thing about the movie that really annoyed me. There is the mystery involving a kid saying “Uh, oh!” found early in the soundtrack CD and in the ending music of the movie. Once you hear it, you will always notice it and wonder why it is there.

Rated PG-13 for some language and a lot of destruction, the film racks up an immense body count. It is an intense and often brooding story, so parents will want to evaluate it before showing it to kids below the teens. A small amount of blood in one scene is all the gore you’ll find despite thousands of deaths. Well, over a billion casualties if you count the residents of Krypton.

I recommend Man of Steel to fans of comic books who like realistic consequences to superhero action, those who enjoy multiple layers of depth, and fans of good movie making. Fans of the old films may intensely dislike the changes made.

Also, if you love light hearted popcorn fare that only occasionally tries to act serious, you are better off watching the latest Marvel Studios movie. This one requires engaging your brain and you most likely won’t enjoy it. Or to put it another way, the tone is more like Netflix’s Daredevil than say, Iron Man.

Technical

My copy of the movie is the edition bundling the Blu-ray with the DVD plus a code to get the Ultraviolet streaming version. The main movie is found on one of the Blu-ray discs and the DVD with an entire Blu-ray of extras rounding completing the set.

Typical of a current release, the video quality is impeccable being taken from the same digital masters used for theatrical release. Presented in 2.4:1 widescreen the movie is beautiful to look at which is not exactly a surprise given the director’s past work. Colors are exact, contrast is excellent, and detail can be found in every frame.

Likewise the audio is pristine, precise, and properly placed in the English DTS-HDMA 7.1 mix. Options include Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese (Mandarin). Oddly enough, the last is not listed on the case. Subtitles are available for all languages with English having the added benefit of descriptions for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Dialogue is clear, the explosions will rock your subwoofer, and flying objects move around the surround speakers. Having finally gone to a 7.1 HD from 5.1 sound setup has made a much more dramatic difference than I expected with this being a fairly good test, though The Martian is even more impressive.

Zimmer’s lovely score is properly mixed in with all the dialogue and effects to add more emotional impact. You’ll want a more musical speaker setup up front than just small satellites to truly appreciate it.

Extras provided are lavish. Spread across two discs, everything you could want to know about the production short of the production budget is covered.

On the movie Blu-ray disc:

Man of Steel Extras Zack SnyderMan of Steel Extras Character

Strong Characters, Legendary Roles – A 26 minute documentary focusing on the actors and the roles they play, it contains a few surprises here and there.

Man of Steel Extras TrainingMan of Steel Extras Green Screen

All-Out Action – 26 minutes covering the extensive six month training the main cast went through with Mark Twight plus how the action scenes were staged. As amazing as the computer generated effects were, the physical effort put into the stunts by the cast and crew was extraordinary.

Man of Steel Extras Making Krypton

Krypton Decoded – A six minute look at the design and effects used to bring Krypton alive hosted by Dylan Sprayberry. One notable fact is the look and philosophy of Kryptonian technology is nature based with all their designs based on animals. Ironic given what they did to their planet.

Man of Steel Extras 75th Anniversary

Superman 75th Anniversary Animated Short – Two minutes of Superman fanboy heaven depicting the Man of Steel from his first comic book appearance in Action Comics #1 through every era to the present. I particularly liked the all too brief animation based on Neal Adams illustrated Superman vs. Muhammed Ali special from the 1970s.

New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth – Yeah… this six minute travelogue following the filming of The Hobbit is nothing more than a glorified tourist ad and teaser for that movie series. It is completely out of place with a terribly muddy sound mix adding insult to injury.

On the separate Special Features Disc:

Man of Steel Extras CreatingMan of Steel Extras History

Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel – Almost three hours long this experiment involves running the entire movie interrupted or overlaid with commentary, behind the scenes footage, and the reasons for ideas shown make this a rather unique experience. With as many as three subpictures going at once, it can also be a disorienting one.

What is clear is that an astounding amount of background effort went into the project ranging from the creation of a written language for Krypton to radical experimentations in musical arrangements. Everything was heavily thought out creating an amazing amount of detail.

Man of Steel Extras Fake DocumentaryMan of Steel Extras Concept Art

Planet Krypton – This is a 17 minute fake documentary put out in the aftermath of the events shown in the film. Concept art becomes artist impressions while CG models become LexCorp simulations in this look at the Kryptonian invaders. It’s a clever but slight way to explain the background of the oh so rushed early parts of the story.

BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!

 

 

 

 

Man of Steel World Engine DescendsMan of Steel Terraforming Begins

The World Engine and Dark Zero mothership doing the tag team push pull terraforming will give your sound system a full workout, I discovered. Reflecting the theme of a people constantly repeating their mistakes, the Kryptonian effort to remodel Earth into a second Krypton uses the same tech that eventually blew up their home.

Of course this is also the big Green eco message part of the movie, so add that layer to the many making up the story.

Man of Steel Liquid Geo Fight

The “Liquid Geo” used for so many of the Kryptonian communications devices turns into a weapon on a much larger scale when Superman fights the World Engine. A foreshadowing occurred earlier with the security drone that stabbed Lois, but the big takeaway for me was that it was a huge tribute to the 1980s and ‘90s Brainiac. His ship always had tentacles just like these attacking our hero back then.

There is something so right about seeing Supes fighting robots and it probably originates in the old Max Fleischer cartoons of the ‘40s.

Man of Steel Reaching UpMan of Steel Reaching for the Light

Watch the film carefully and you’ll notice how reaching toward the light is used often with Clark. Being solar powered, it makes sense, however there is something deeper going on here for it is used too many times. What that may be only Snyder knows for sure, though it would be easy to interpret as Clark symbolically reaching out to God for help.

Man of Steel Krypton Had Its Chance

“They had their chance!” is the victory of nurture over nature in Clark’s soul. He condemns his Kryptonian heritage to extinction by choosing to save humanity. The look of horror on Zod’s face was well played by Shannon.

Man of Steel Kiss

There is no cat and mouse with hidden identities in this version of Lois and Clark. I like that she is in on the secret from the beginning of the relationship and begins to be his anchor to the human world.

Man of Steel SupermanMan of Steel Construction Site

Ever since I saw Superman 2, I wanted an even bigger throw down in a movie between super powered individuals. Boy did I get it here. It is a frightening high speed battle where humans are insignificant and the collateral damage immense. That’s exactly what would happen if beings of this kind fought in a real city.

Many people hated the massive destruction and thought Superman failed as a hero by not saving every single person. To me, that expectation is a peculiar kind of madness born of pure fantasy. For all his power, Clark Kent is still not God and has limitations.

Man of Steel Inescapable ChoiceMan of Steel Heat Vision Threat

Which brings me to the most controversial scene in the film, where Zod forces Clark to kill him. Abandoning himself to utter despair, Zod’s determined to force Kal-El into understanding true responsibility, the kind he carried for Krypton. If Kal is to defend humanity, he can’t avoid having to kill to protect them.

Man of Steel AgonyMan of Steel Comfort

People howled over Superman being made a killer as if he had become the main character from Death Wish. It simply doesn’t jibe with what I saw.

The torment of Clark’s scream is haunting and you can hear his pain. That’s hardly a cold blooded murderer’s reaction and completely in character for the boy scout from Kansas.

Lois comforting him afterward is one of the more emotional moments in a movie filled with them. The aggressive reporter has shown growth by becoming someone who feels and demonstrates empathy, not just daring.

As much as the movie is an origin for Superman, it is an origin for the relationship between Lois and Clark. After seeing the sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I can safely say this was very deliberate and will have repercussions in films to come.

Man of Steel DroneMan of Steel Clark Kent

The denouement sets up Superman’s awkward relationship with the U.S. government and his new identity of Clark Kent, reporter. Trust is going to be hard to develop between the authorities and our hero.

Balancing it out is seeing how Clark and Lois now have total trust in each other. I liked the film ending with them essentially sparkling at each other while sharing their own private secret. It’s rather sweet.

No comments: