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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Man of Steel



"This man is not our enemy."

If you need a city demolished, Kal-El is your man. Why stop at a city? How about a small town in Kansas too? And part of the Indian subcontinent. To be fair, Kal-El can't do it alone. He wouldn't demolish anything at all, in fact, without unwanted help from his long lost brethren from the planet Krypton. But when those Kryptonians get together and start whaling on each other, hoo boy, can they smash our planet to smithereens. The Avengers caused billions of dollars in property damage defending New York City from aliens last summer, and they kept the devastation contained to a couple dozen blocks. The Man of Steel is a man of action, and he's here to show those Marvel heroes how wanton destruction is done.

Man of Steel, brought to us by screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight Trilogy and directed by Watchmen's Zack Snyder, is a massive escalation of the summer superhero movie crossed with an alien invasion space opera. In Man of Steel, things from the doomed planet Krypton keep crashing on Earth and most of those things mean to do us harm. All except one man, the earnest, cleft-chinned super hunk Kal-El (Henry Cavill), who was rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist action hero father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) with the destiny to grow into a god powered by the light of Earth's yellow sun and become an action hero himself. Adopted by kindly Midwestern farmers Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and raised with the American values of Smallville, Kansas, young Clark Kent, as Kal-El was named, was a misunderstood, bullied child with special abilities and a deeply held desire to do good and help people. 

All of Clark's troubles, however, really start on Krypton, re-imagined in Man of Steel as a brown palate cross between the planets in Avatar, John Carter of Mars, and Dune, complete with flying creatures and denizens in bulky armor wielding high tech etch-a-sketches. Krypton was a great spacefaring civilization that exhausted their natural resources. Their planet will explode. Their military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts to stage a coup; he and his minions are sentenced to eternal imprisonment in a black hole called the Phantom Zone. Turns out that was a fate better than death as Krypton explodes, killing everyone but Zod and his soldiers, who are freed from the Phantom Zone. Intriguing new ideas introduced into Superman movie lore include Kryptonians being birthed artificially for specific purposes (scientists, warriors, laborers, etc.). Zod was bred to protect Krypton. It's in his very nature to do anything to maintain the Kryptonian race. As for Kal-El, he was a natural birth, the first in centuries, and Jor-El encoded the codex of Kryptonian DNA in his cells. Kal-El is literally and unwittingly the future of Krypton, until the rest of Krypton's survivors come calling.

After an unabashedly sci-fi opening, Man of Steel leaps around in a single bound with the trials of Kal-El's life on Earth as Clark Kent. Structured similarly to the Goyer-penned Batman Begins, we meet Clark immediately as an adult, a mysterious bearded drifter laboring odd jobs under false identities who uses his powers and abilities to save people from tragedies and calamities. Whenever Clark is knocked unconscious, he dreams of his childhood in Smallville, when he first learned he had super senses, first started saving his fellow school chums who in turn mocked and bullied him, and sought solace from his adoptive father, whom he watched die in a tornado in honor of his wishes to not reveal himself to a frightened world not ready to accept him. The bullying doesn't exactly stop when Clark's a jacked up man in his 30's, but he's less likely to abide assholes without some (hilarious) retribution. The Smallville sequences are efficient and emotional, yet feel slight, especially in light of the television series Smallville recently spending ten seasons covering the ground of Clark Kent coming of age to become a hero.

Clark Kent does his best to cover his tracks but he's not so careful that he doesn't find a bloodhound on his trail in the form of the fetching Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with no fears or compulsions about, say, following a mysterious stranger into an ice cave and walking right into a Kryptonian space ship buried for thousands of years in the Northern Canadian ice. Lois and Clark more or less discover Clark's alien nature together, though she can't get such a wild story past her stern but fair editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) at the Daily Planet. Soon Clark meets the avatar of his true father Jor-El, who rather briskly explains all the details of the first act of the movie to Clark. Clark barely has time to download all this information before Jor-El presents him with the blue and red-caped space long johns which will become his superhero suit. Somewhere between meeting his dad and putting on the cape, Clark got it in his head he can fly. Boy, can he. Anywhere in the world, and above it. Faster than a speeding bullet. (Though his first flight ends with crash landings reminiscent of the indignities suffered by The Greatest American Hero, believe it or not.)

Clark activating the space craft to meet his birth father turned out to be the very thing that General Zod needed to locate the son of Jor-El. In his time away, Zod learned a thing or two about 1950's sci-fi B movies on Earth because his approach to first contact with the human race is right out of The Day The Earth Stood Still playbook. Zod scares and blackmails humanity into turning over Kal-El, and humanity barely has time to process the very idea of aliens before, after some soul searching, Kal-El turns himself over to the US Military to be turned over to the custody of Zod. Soon Kal-El learns Zod's true plan is to terraform the Earth and turn it into another Krypton (this plan is spelled out deliberately to the Army's dimmest female captain, the one who thinks Superman is hot). Oh yeah, they're calling the alien "Superman" now. Lois coined it when she asked Kal-El about the S on his chest (it means "hope" on Krypton). She never got to actually say "Superman", but she must have mentioned it later on and the name stuck.

Violent and relentless action is the audience's reward for sticking though Man of Steel's creaky storytelling. The final thirty minutes of Man of Steel is a superpowered conflagration the likes of which humanity has never before witnessed in a movie. Once he pops the cap off the action bottle, director Snyder goes for broke, unleashing the full capabilities of a bunch of beings who have Superman's powers as they annihilate anything in their path while doing battle with one another. Buildings topple across the great city of Metropolis and shout outs to the absent Lex Luthor (a Lexcorp oil tanker) and a certain Dark Knight (a Wayne Tech satellite) are dropped in for the sharp-eyed as Superman tries to save the world from Zod's terraforming machine, all the while fighting off Zod and his soldiers who have all of his powers and none of his morality or concern for others. The scope of Man of Steel's action is staggering, and indeed, it all seems too much even for Superman, especially this young Superman who just put on the suit a little while ago and never even had time to wow the world with heroic do-goodery like saving Air Force One or fetching a cat stuck in a tree to get people to love him before the evil Kryptonians descended to destroy everything and everyone. 

Trust is a key issue in Man of Steel. Humanity, represented primarily by Army General Harry Lennix and Colonel Christopher Meloni, aren't ready to trust this handsome space man in blue who flat out says he grew up in Kansas. Intriguingly, Superman doesn't have a whole lot of faith in the human race either. Nor does this neophyte Man of Steel always know exactly what to do. And yet, when nothing the human soldiers shoot at the Kryptonians phase them and the only guy trying his damnedest to stop the invaders is Superman, Lennix and Meloni can't help but grudgingly admit Superman is on our side. Everyone else on the humans' side, including cast members from Battlestar Galactica (one of whom, Alessando Juliani, played Dr. Emil Hamilton in Smallville and appeared in a scene with Man of Steel's Dr. Emil Hamilton) also fly the flag for Team Superman.

The Man of Steel's biggest cheerleader, Lois Lane, believed in Superman the whole time. From their meet-cute on the Kryptonian ship where Clark cauterizes her injury with Heat Vision, their scenes together crackle with sly sexual chemistry, though with Man of Steel's breakneck pace, there's no time to explore anything beyond a well-earned climactic liplock. Lois goes above and beyond in helping Superman stop Zod. Lois even meets Jor-El's avatar aboard Zod's ship and gets the rundown straight from Superman's dad about how to save the Earth. One thing about this Lois Lane, she takes instruction from a Kryptonian incredibly well. She's very good. Lois is also fortunate, as the Kryptonian shit kept hitting the fan, the Army didn't think twice about making that day Take Lois Lane to Work Day. Man of Steel also boasts my absolute favorite line of dialogue ever uttered by any Lois Lane: "Now, if we're done measuring each others' dicks..." Adams is wonderful as Lois Lane, but the show stealing female is German actress Antje Traue as Faora, Zod's steely cool second in command, a lethal soldier-philosopher and the bane of human soldiers and Superman alike. Faora was phenomenal.

As the most heroically proportioned cinematic Superman ever, Cavill rises to the occasion, gradually becoming ever more awesome as the Man of Steel throughout. Screenwriter Goyer peppers in bits of soul searching and uncertainty in Clark's journey to become Superman, and he doesn't miss a beat in contrasting Superman's inexperience to Zod's superiority as a warrior. Shannon is a malevolently unhinged Zod, a creature in his own way doing what he thinks is best for his people because it was what he was bred from birth to do. When Zod ditches his bulky armor to reveal his own dark skintight body stocking, his status as the dark mirror to Superman is clear. (There's an amusing bit of dialogue late in Man of Steel between Zod and the Jor-El avatar where Zod expresses his meta-frustration that somehow Russell Crowe managed to stay in the movie this long. If Zod were Michael Bluth in season 4 of Arrested Development, he'd have bellowed "YOU'RE OUT OF THE MOVIE!!" after deleting Jor-El.)

Zod's rivalry with the father easily transfers to the son, and the final choice Superman has to make to stop Zod once and for all in order to save some innocent people from Zod maliciously roasting them with Heat Vision is truly shocking. (It's bound to be controversial to nerds, but the precedent for Superman sanctioning Zod was established in the comics, and Christopher Reeve's Superman sort of killed Terence Stamp's world-ruling Zod in Superman II, so there you go.) Me, I loved it, everything about it, especially Superman's scream of anguish. In my eyes, Superman had no choice; he crossed the line but grew up in the process, leaving behind childish notions.

Untold trillions upon trillions of dollars in property damage later, Man of Steel concludes with a quickie head scratcher establishing the classic status quo of Clark Kent joining Lois Lane as a reporter for the Daily Planet, but how does the secret identity make any sense? After everything that happened, Superman is the most famous man in the world. Then again, when did that secret identity ever make sense? What's next for the Man of Steel? Superman's immediate cinematic destiny is assured with a sequel already green-lit. More pressing is what the future holds for the long rumored Justice League motion picture. Jury's out on that. For now, we can take heart that the Man of Steel is indeed back. He's not perfect, he's still learning, but he's definitely Superman. The Man of Steel is our man of tomorrow.