Monday, June 17, 2013

In Theaters: MAN OF STEEL (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Zack Snyder.  Written by David S. Goyer.  Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Michael Kelly, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Julian Richings. (PG-13, 143 mins)

It's only through sheer luck that Zack Snyder, the director that fanboys love to hate, hasn't become a Hollywood pariah of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.  Love him or hate him--and if internet message boards are to be taken seriously, most movie fans fall under the latter--there's no denying that Snyder's got balls.  This is a guy who not only had the chutzpah to remake a classic like George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, but shocked even the most doubtful naysayers (myself included) when that 2004 remake turned out to be surprisingly good.  After his 2006 blockbuster 300, Snyder helmed 2009's WATCHMEN, an ambitious fool's mission that had no possibility of pleasing fans of the legendary graphic novel, but works very well taken on its own terms, especially in the 186-minute director's cut.  Following the 2010 animated film LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE, Snyder unveiled his most divisive film yet with 2011's SUCKER PUNCH, which opened to devastating reviews in what looked a lot more like a critical pile-on rather than an objective analysis of the film.  It's amazing that Snyder got a major studio to bankroll his bizarre pet project, especially considering that WATCHMEN didn't live up to box-office expectations.  SUCKER PUNCH is one of the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned major-studio films in recent years, and if you got caught up in the rabid bloodlust that took it down, it might be worth another look.  In just two years, it's already acquired a fervent cult following, and if there's such a thing as "Zack Snyder's masterpiece," I'm almost certain it will be SUCKER PUNCH.

A lot of directors with more clout than Snyder would've been bounced off the A-list after a commercial failure like SUCKER PUNCH, but he's obviously got believers in his corner at Warner Bros., who tapped him to helm the SUPERMAN reboot MAN OF STEEL.  Teaming with producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer, Snyder's revisionist take on the Superman saga tries to go for a dark and ultra-serious DARK KNIGHT approach and for about half of the film, it looks like they might pull it off.  We don't really need another Superman origin story, but we get one anyway, and it doesn't really look or feel like any previous SUPERMAN outing.  On the dying planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) refuses to go along with a coup by irate military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon).  Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have just accomplished the unthinkable and had a child via natural birth, which hasn't happened on Krypton in 3000 years.  That child, Kal-El, is sent to Earth with a device known as the "codex," which will be able to preserve the Kryptonian people.

30 years later, the infant Kal-El has grown into drifter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), who works a series of odd jobs, never staying anywhere too long since hints of his true nature always start to manifest, as they have since childhood when his spacecraft was found in Smallville, KS by the childless Kents.  Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) raised Clark, living in constant fear that the government would come and take him away, but as Jonathan explains, "nobody ever came."  Teenaged Clark's superhuman powers--demonstrated when he pulls a bus filled with students out of the river--make him a misunderstood outcast, and following Jonathan's death, he leaves Smallville on a quest to find himself.  The secret to his nature lies in a frozen spacecraft where he learns about his true self from the holographic image of Jor-El.  Meanwhile, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is chasing a story that brings her together with Clark, right around the same time that the banished Zod figures out that the codex is on Earth, and that Jor-El's son might be in possession of it.

So far, so good.  Maybe not for the purists, but as a radically different take on a familiar subject, MAN OF STEEL gets off to a promising start.  But once Zod arrives on Earth, Snyder seems to check out and the film becomes just another loud, blurry, ugly alien invasion epic with wall-to-wall video-game CGI and endless 9/11-inspired destruction porn straight out of a TRANSFORMERS movie.  Throughout the film, but especially in the second half, Snyder uses--and overuses--an incredibly annoying shaky-zoom move in nearly every scene.  I don't even mind the changes they made to the origin story.  I don't read comic books and I'm not slavishly devoted to any of these characters or stories and filmmakers are free to show me any interpretation of them that they so desire.  But the constant sense of destructive spectacle--and it's really not spectacular--just goes on forever and gets dizzyingly dull around the time the 43rd Metropolis skyscraper slowly collapses.  The actors take a good chunk of the climax off, replaced by CGI doppelgangers who pinball all over the screen. I thought the CGI backlash and eventual moviegoer rejection of it would've happened by this point, but I guess I just need to put up or shut up.  This is obviously just how movies look now.

Cavill is physically an impressive, imposing Superman, but we don't see much in the way of emotion beyond moody and sullen.  Christopher Reeve is a tough act to follow in this role, and it's not Cavill's fault--he's just not working with much of a script.  From a story and screenplay standpoint, Nolan and Goyer seem to be having a rare off-day here, or maybe the dark and grim post-9/11 motif just works better for Batman.  Then again, Nolan's BATMAN films had some thematic depth to them and didn't turn into Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich joints in their second halves, so it's hard to say whether it was Nolan's or Snyder's call to dumb it down to lowest common denominator destruction.  MAN OF STEEL starts strong but ultimately, there's just no story here.  It makes the hero dull and uninteresting, and the villain one-dimensionally cartoonish, with Shannon's overacting a weak substitute for Terence Stamp's Zod from SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), and he's not helped by a ludicrously distracting hipster goatee.  Reliable pros like Laurence Fishburne (as Perry White), Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix (as military officials), and Richard Schiff (as a scientist or something) are onscreen a lot but have little to do.  Crowe makes an interesting, man-of-action Jor-El and has much more to do than in Marlon Brando's check-cashing interpretation of the character, which seemed scripted around how little work Brando really wanted to do while still getting top billing. 

The film's most human, sympathetic moments come from Lane and Costner.  Costner only has a few scenes, all flashbacks, but he projects the same loving, fatherly warmth that Glenn Ford did so masterfully in only two brief scenes in the 1978 film, which handled Pa Kent's death in a way that seemed more authentic.  [SPOILER] In MAN OF STEEL, it's an excuse for another big special effects scene, and no matter how heartbreaking that shot is of Costner holding his hand up and silently telling Clark to not save him, the circumstances are just too hard to buy [END SPOILER].  But therein lies the central problem with MAN OF STEEL:  it has no heart and ultimately, no purpose after the midway point.  After setting up what would seem to be a unique take on the Superman story in Snyder's typical expectations-be-damned way, it all gets chucked to make another faceless, soulless, instantly disposable Hollywood summer product, completely interchangeable with countless others that have come before it.  Snyder has proven himself a fearless filmmaker, but in giving MAN OF STEEL the DARK KNIGHT treatment, he's made an intermittently interesting misfire that, when it's finally over, feels less like an auteur's vision and more like something that's been focus-grouped into immediate irrelevance.

1 comment:

  1. Who does Zack Snyder have major dirt on to keep getting work? I have no doubt this movie will make money, which has nothing to do with who directed it but will instantly translate in Hollywood into "Zack Snyder = box office". Will they never learn?