Sunday, June 16, 2013
One of my earliest memories of Superman was when I was very young and my parents and grandparents took me to a show one afternoon at the Ringling Bros. Barnemum Bailey Circus. One of the performances featured a man being shot out of a cannon. Pretty standard faire for a big top performance, except when the cannon boomed the figure that jettisoned from the barrell was no longer the same performer but rather an amazing being with an electric blue costume, scarlett cape, and a big letter S emblazoned boldly across his chest. I couldn't believe it. It was Superman.
Years went by and nothing outside of the characters monthly adventures in the pages of DC Comics could ever quite recapture the feelings of awe and wonder I experienced at witnessing the first and greatest superhero of all time fly out of a cannon as a child. As charismatic and memorable as Christopher Reeve's performance was, the Donner films, stymied by the technology or lack thereof of the late 70's, did not do it. The WB show, Smallville, with its modest t.v. production values and amped up teen melodrama did not do it. 'Superman Returns,' a romantic love letter to the Reeve and Donner incarnation of the character that failed to take flight due to its backwards focus and lackluster, washed out feel did not do it. No, nothing in Superman's live action history had ever truly suceeded in evoking that same feeling of amazement and wonder I felt all those years ago at a circus in Sarasota Florida. Not Until now. Not until 'Man of Steel.'
A from the ground up re-imagining of the predominant superhero in all of fiction, 'Man of Steel' is a moving symphony of pure awesomeness that excels in honoring the timeless and beloved nature of the source material while at the same time making Superman relavent to a modern audience by inserting him into a world that starkly mirrors our own.
Everyone knows the story. Of how on the doomed planet Krypton a brilliant scientist and his wife who are desperate to prevent their newborn son from having to share in their world's fate place him in a rocket and send him to earth were he lands in the heart of midwestern America and is discovered and raised by kindly, salt of the earth farmers and later grows to discover he posesses amazing, unearthly abilities, etc. In 'Man of Steel' we are deftly re-familiarized with all of these hallmark tenants of classic Superman lore but in innovative and thought provoking ways that succeed in adding layers of depth, complexity, and sheer emotional weight to the story and its characters.
Rather than assuming any kind of pre-concieved devotion to Superman the film instead invests the audience firmly in the journey of Clark/Kal El from the beginning as we witness the tumultuous events surrounding his birth. The challenges he faces as a confused and scared young adult grappling with his otherworldly abilities and alien lineage in light of his fierce love for his adoptive parents, the Kents. His lonliness and isolation as a drifter yearning to use his abilities for good and posessing the means but not the method. And the immense payoff of when he finally takes to the skies, fully at peace with himself and knowing exactly who he is.
'Man of Steel' marks the first time were a film's action and effects have truly been worthy of a movie with Superman in it. When Kal El dons the flowing red cape and defies gravity for the very first time it is not the elegent aerial dance it has been portrayed as in previous films but a violent and rapturous excercise that leaves the viewer in a breathless haze like they have just ridden the world's wildest thrill ride in the dark without the safety bar. Likewise the physical confrontations between Kal El, the villain, General Zod, and the latter's cadre of rogue Kryptonians who have arrived on Earth to take Kal El "back to Krypton" in a sense are nothing short of stunning to behold in terms of the impossible speed and sheer physical power that is on display.
The real life implications of super powered, extra terrestrials showing up on Earth and having it out in densely populated areas are not something that is glossed over in the film as we see the immediate military response that such a threat would provoke and the utter chaos devestation that ensues. Similarly, flashback sequences of Jonathan Kent urging an adolescant Clark to hide his gifts and not try to be a hero for fear of how the world would react are given all the more weight in later instances were Clark/Kal El is forced to use every one of his powers to its maximum potential.
Probably my biggest nitpick of the movie is that I wish the script could have somehow acknowledged Clark Kent's talents as a writer as it would have given a key scene at the end of the film a little more weight and credibility. Whatevs.
I do not know any greater compliment I could give Henry Cavill then to say that his earnest and "down to earth" (pun intended) portrayel of one of the most iconographic figures in all of fiction made me believe in "the man" before "the super." Posessing all of the charm, warmth and confidence of the many actors to proceed him yet imbuing the character with the doubt and vulnerability of a man searching for his identity and torn between two worlds makes this incarnation of the man of steel all the more human and superhuman at the same time. Amy Adams was absolutely terrific as the tenacious and trouble prone investigative journalist, Lois Lane, who comes to be drawn more to Clark/Kal El's humanity rather than his extra-terrestrial origins. Her chemistry with Cavill is palpable and reinforces what is arguably one of the greatest relationships in all of comics. Russell Crowe completely owns every scene he is in as Kal El's Kryptonian father, Jor El who, to my delight, is given quite a bit more to do here than we have have ever seen with previous iterations of the character, playing an Obi-Wan type role in the eventual mentoring of his son. Michael Shannon evokes a sense of cold, unflinching, militaristic might as General Zod, a villain who is very much the hero of his own story and as we come to find out, cannot help but be anything other than what he is. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are perfectly cast as Kal El's adoptive parents Jonathon and Martha Kent. I wish their characters had been given a little more screen time but each of their performances suceed in conveying the kind of sturdy and wholesome midwestern values we see reflected in their son's actions as Clark Kent and later as Superman. I will not name all of the supporting cast, it is a pretty lengthy list, but all of the actors truly inhabits their roles and bring something memorable to the table here.
I would be remiss not to mention composer Hans Zimmer's masterful work on the score for 'Man of Steel.' From tender tinklings of piano keys to the primal explosions of percussion Zimmer's score amplifies the content of the film, making the more intimate scenes are the more poignant and the super-powered battles all the more brutal.
Of course, I cannot go without acknowledging the dynamic vision of director Zack Snyder's who may have very well made the definative Superman movie for a new generation of fans and has hopefully established a template for what will hopefully be a burgeoning DC cinematic universe. Unlimited heapings of appreciation can be accredited to Producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, both of Dark knight trilogy fame, who understood how to bring Superman back to the biggest stage of all, and more importantly, how to do it right.
Since the massive success of The Dark Knight trilogy and the rise of Marvel Studios with box office juggernauts like 'Iron Man' and 'The Avengers,' the last son of Krypton has slid into becoming somewhat of an underdog of the very film genre that ironicly, 'Superman: The Movie' created in 1978. Rather than watch Superman fight for truth, justice, and the American way, a more cynical generation of movie goers preferred watching superheroes who were snarky, womanizing, tech geniuses and perpetually tormented, anti establishment rage-aholics. Now that 'Man of Steel is finally out there for people to enjoy I hope audiences around the world finally see Superman the way I, and countless other fans do. All the while covering their ears from the roar of the cannon blast.