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Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelMan of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year.  Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out.  Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more.  Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience.  I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT!  There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.

On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise.  Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth.  As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do.  But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front.  It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue.  The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here.  These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing.  I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume.  We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that.  If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that.  It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman.  Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks.  Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.

Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill.  By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance.  For me, he does a great job.  He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine.  The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be.  Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence.  He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit.  He just exudes power.  When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest.  He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character.  Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination.  Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him.  Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined.  While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel.  I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.

And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos.  I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest.  The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection.  Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning.  There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully.  Lois is not a damsel in distress either.  Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot.  She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity.  Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening.  Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist.  Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength.  She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.

Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way.  There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here.  He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal.  He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth.  You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it.  Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose.  This is no weak or generic adversary.  Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness.  This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.

There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters.  Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White.  I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion.  Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story.  Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically.  She’s extremely imposing and lethal.  Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that.  She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine.  Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.

And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El.  I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth.  The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats.  Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod.  Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando.  I do feel Brando wins in this situation.  I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider.  However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime.  Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through.  For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.

Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets.  It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions!  We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness.  Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman.  While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily.  What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time.  This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.

And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax.  Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade!  They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity.  While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats.  So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work!  It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes.  The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.

And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director.  I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here.  Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film.  Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision.  And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level.  Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.

By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie.  Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel.  His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers.  When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful.  Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments.  It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film.  Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!

Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good.  Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful.  Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection.  After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward.  I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect.  It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye.  We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me.  But that’s just me.

Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace.  It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building.  We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points.  Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel.  I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow.  The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.

This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot!  Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation.  If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see.  I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery.  While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again.  My hope is restored in full.


Superman (1978)

SupermanThe original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s.  Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton.  Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.

When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth.  There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human.  As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet.  However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.

When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman.  While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman.  Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman.  That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity.  However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.

Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea.  For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character.  No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes.  In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully.  It has weight and poignancy.  Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman.  Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son.  The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.

And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators.  Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.

Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here.  Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic.  The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic.  The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque.  They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling.  They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways.  When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare.  More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements.  The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.

Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing?  The man specializes in amazing.  However, what he does here I think is even more special.  No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman.  It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations.  It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible.  The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.

This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing.  Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great.  They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing.  However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar.  Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls.  It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects.  The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up.  It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results.  In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.

Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman.  That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time.  His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me.  The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman.  Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life.  He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois.  But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything.  You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all.  Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me.  He was a real life Superman.

Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones.  It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone.  You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there.  Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope.  Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all.  He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better.  It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.

Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor.  He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations.  I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat.  However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance.  The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect.  The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence.  He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis.  I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely.  Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime.  I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree.  Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.

And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid.  Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White.  He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly.  Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability.  We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas.  The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature.  It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.

This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film.  I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic.  Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts.  Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further.  I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman.  There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile.  The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam.  So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter.  Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure.  There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences.  The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards.  Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science.  So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.

While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be.  It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience.  It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film.  Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success.  Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.