Friday, June 14, 2013

My immediate reaction to "Man of Steel"

"Man of Steel" is a pretty damn good alien-invasion movie. I'm not sure how I feel about it as a Superman movie.

Now wait a minute, you may be thinking. The guy who loves J.J. Abrams' blasphemous "Star Trek" movies has qualms with a reimagined "Superman"?!?!

Yes, and it comes down to character. The loudest detractors of J.J.'s "Star Trek" films don't like his manipulation of the canon, his emphasis on action over intelligence, or his screenwriters' penchant for ignoring (ahem) logic. What Abrams has absolutely nailed, however, is a cast of characters that we not only like, but love. Those characters have always been my chief attraction to the franchise, and I would gladly watch another twenty years' worth of movies starring the actors chosen to carry on their legacy.

So what's wrong with the characters in "Man of Steel"? Nothing for which I can fault the actors. You like Henry Cavill the moment you see him. You detest Michael Shannon the moment you see him. Amy Adams defies her super-sweet image and delivers the best Lois Lane I've ever known. Russell Crowe is so good as Jor-El, he nearly steals the whole movie.

The chief problem I have with Superma — er, excuse me, Kal-El — is that he comes off more like Bruce Banner than Clark Kent. When Kal-El needs to fight, he suddenly has little concern for human life. The civilian body count racked up in the last 45 minutes of the movie has to be astronomical, and Clark is responsible for a lot of that as he tosses General Zod and his minions through office buildings, storefronts, cars, trains ... you name it, it gets destroyed in "Man of Steel."
Then there's Jonathan Kent, played perfectly by Kevin Costner. He is barely in this movie, and the film's structure, which tells young Clark's story in flashbacks, keeps us from ever really connecting to Pa Kent emotionally. This film is far more interested in Jor-El, whose consciousness is kept alive in a Kryptonian ship, much like the crystal recording of Marlon Brando that appeared in "Superman: The Movie." That focus on Jor-El does yield some very good things in the film, but I don't think the audience is (or even should be) emotionally invested in Jor-El. He's not the man who raised Clark to be the good — no, super — man he would become.

But for everything "Man of Steel" does that I didn't like — including some of the most intrusive, obvious product placement EVER — there's something else it does that is extraordinary.

The most obvious place to begin is with the action sequences, which are so overwhelming that I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. This, perhaps, isn't the preferred reaction — it is better to be exhilarated and/or delighted, no? — but there are sights in "Man of Steel" that simply have to be seen by any and every moviegoer. You may not respond to them emotionally, but you will be awed all the same. (I especially enjoyed any sequence involving Zod's henchwoman, Faora-Ul, who is more magnetic and seems more deadly than her master. I've never seen German actress Antje Traue before, but I hope to see her again.)

The absolute best thing about "Man of Steel," the one thing I will tell all my friends about when they ask me my opinion of the film, is Lois Lane. Hands down.

I've never thought much of Lois Lane. I've never been a reader of the Superman comics, so my opinion of Lois has been forged by the flighty, feisty Margot Kidder, and by Kate Bosworth, who was so flat and uninteresting that she almost single-handedly killed "Superman Returns." In "Man of Steel," Lois Lane is not just a big-city reporter — she's a world traveler who has been embedded with soldiers. Lois is no damsel in distress — she's been in the shit, as Max Fischer would say, and she doesn't suffer fools gladly. She figures heavily into my favorite scene in the film, a tricky little action scene with Russell Crowe that reminded me of "Minority Report."

In fact, "Man of Steel" reminded me of a lot of other movies that don't have "Superman" in the title, especially "Independence Day," the "Star Wars" prequels, and the "Matrix" trilogy. (The final, cartoonish fight between Clark and Zod was more satisfying the first time I saw it in "Matrix Revolutions.") That's not a knock on the movie; in this age of superhero movies, it's refreshing to see one that doesn't feel like one.

As I alluded to in my first paragraph, this is an alien-invasion movie more than anything else, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't burdened by the Superman legacy. That being said, I feel like I need to see it again — this is not a movie you can easily dismiss.