Man of Steel (2013) ****
Dir. Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I've never understood why director Zack Snyder is looked upon as a hack. Yes, he's humourless, but so is Christopher Nolan who frankly, isn't one pubic hair the director Snyder is. Snyder, you see, can direct. Nolan can't. Snyder has a natural affinity for shooting action. Nolan has little affinity for anything - especially action where he's a total tin-eye with no sense of composition or spatial geography. Stylistically, Snyder has genuine flair, but Nolan is possessed with little more than obvious, ham-fisted fakery that bamboozles the Great Unwashed as well, and rather inexplicably, all the others who simply should know better.
And now, here we be, at sea, with a new vessel containing yet another superhero franchise reboot. However, in spite of the clear divide between the two aforementioned men of the cinema, they're working as a team on it. Not a bad team, either. Nolan's got producing and co-writing duties whilst Snyder helms and results, happily, in Man of Steel, the best superhero comic book movie since the Sam Raimi Spider-Man series.
It's not as gobsmackingly phenomenal as Spider-Man 2 (which unleashed Raimi's mad sense of humour in all its glory), but Man of Steel does come closer to the dour sensibilities of Spidey 1 & 3. Frankly, this doesn't at all bother me. Great superhero comic books are, at their core, rife with darkness and when or if humour creeps in (not tongue in cheek, mind you), then it's a few extra maraschino cherries on the choco sundae. That said, if one's ice cream is rich, flavourful and drizzled with taste-bud bursting syrup, the cherries are nice, but not necessary.
Snyder hasn't attained the heights of Raimi's "Master" status, but I suspect he eventually might - albeit in his own unique fashion. Here he directs David Goyer's script with the same resolve he brought to bear on 300 and his compulsively obsessive flourishes on Watchmen (and lest we forget, the criminally underrated Sucker Punch). It results, in the parlance of a crotchety and late lamented old film distributor I knew, "One helluva good show!!!"
By now, we're all familiar with the ins and outs of this tale from both the comics and previous big and small screen incarnations. Krypton is a doomed planet. Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) puts his newborn babe on a spaceship bound for Earth before the planet explodes. Like Baby Moses in the bullrushes, the child is discovered in the cornfields owned by the All-American Kents (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane). The childless farm couple adopts the baby as their own, christen him "Clark" and hide the evidence of the space craft. They know this is one special baby and fear what the government might do if the kid is found to be an alien.
Baby Moses grows up to be Baby Jesus and with the threat of world wide annihilation at the hands of the evil Krypton war-monger General Zod (Michael Shannon), Clark (Henry Cavill) becomes Superman and enters into all-out battle to save mankind whilst getting all google-eyed with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
Goyer, who wrote all of Nolan's lamentable Batman pictures, here delivers an engaging structure rooted in flashback with an accent upon the science fiction elements of the old chestnut that have never been adequately plumbed. Add to this, the near film noir post-war sensibilities, so prevalent in the original first season of the 50s Superman series with George Reeves and Man of Steel grandly delivers the goods and then some.
What sells the picture is Snyder's spectacular handling of the action pyrotechnics. It's everything one would want. He seldom stoops to the contemporary annoyance of too many close-ups and confusing machine-gunfire styled cutting. Great compositions, breathing room when necessary, plenty of wide, long and medium shots and a few terrific moments of nail-biting suspense all add up to "one helluva good show!"
Yes, Snyder employs a lot of rapid-fire cutting, but it smartly employs genuine PICTURE cutting so that everything serves the forward motion of narrative (even if the narrative often involves extreme pummelling and shit that blows up real good). The big difference between Snyder and his untalented colleagues (Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Sam Mendes, Justin Lin, Shane Black, Gary Ross, Joss Whedon and Marc Webb) is that his editors are never forced to resort to those awful cheats of using sound almost exclusively to propel a cut because the footage itself is so haphazard. Snyder's action moves furiously, yet seamlessly because we are responding to genuine visual cuts. Action - rooted in narrative and character, not just pyrotechnics - is what moves, so to speak, the action forward.
What Snyder has going for him here - in spite of the pseudo darkness Goyer slathers upon the story - is the pure joy he delivers in one stunning image after another. Snyder clearly loves the D.C. Superman series (from a variety of periods, it seems) and paints gorgeous comic book panels that spring magically to life and are never weighed down by either crushing portent nor, frankly, the utter moviemaking incompetence of the aforementioned list of non-directors who have nary a shred of ability to adequately render action sequences.
Narratively, the only scenes that weigh the film down are those involving the Daily Planet newsroom. Amy Adams is always wonderful and while I was happy to see her in the Lois Lane role, she's still well behind the gifts displayed by Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill in the 50s TV series and Margot Kidder in the Donner/Lester features. The worst element here is Laurence Fishburne as editor Perry White. He sleepwalks through his role and displays none of the snap, crackle and pop Perry needs (a la Jackie Cooper in the 80s). The result is an incredibly dull subplot during the action scenes involving the perils faced by the newsroom team. The last 45 minutes or so is devoted almost entirely to action sequences and the rhythm here occasionally sags under he weight of this stuff. It's not enough to destroy the climactic pyrotechnics, but one wishes the screenplay simply had excised the stuff for being one thread too many - especially since Fishburne is so dull here.
The cast, though, is generally first-rate. Henry Cavill is a fine Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. George Reeves was, in the first truly great season of TV's Superman a bit more square-jawed, two-fisted and pudgier than Cavill; Christopher Reeve was funnier, more charming and imbued with nicely traditional good looks and Brandon Routh...well, he was...uh, well, he was Brandon Routh. Within the context of Goyer's revisionist take on the Superman legend, Cavill acquits himself very nicely in the bearded itinerant blue collar wanderer portion of Clark's life, transitions very well during the ice sanctuary sequence and once in full-blown vengeance mode, he's one kick-ass mo-fo. He seems less assured in the romance department, but part of this is how the role appears to be written and that I suspect he'd just come off idiotically if given a chance to shift gears into the almost Cary Grant-like charm of Christopher Reeve in Superman I and II. (Alas, we're given a hint in the Man of Steel coda-like dénouement that the sequel might well jettison this poor actor into that territory which, I suspect, he might not be up to.)
As for General Zod, are there better actors on this Green Earth than Michael Shannon? Well, maybe a few who are just as great, but none better. His varied character starring turns in Take Shelter, Bug, The Iceman, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, not to mention his endless hit parade of astonishing supporting turns can now include a bona fide blockbuster villain. While he allows himself a few tastes of ham, his Zod is tremendously restrained (given the opportunities) and from time to time, we actually feel for his genuine passion for his planet and people, as well as experiencing the gradual shift to Hitlerian madness.
In supporting roles, Costner and Lane are ideally suited to the elder Kent Couple. Costner, still one of my favourite screen personalities is easing gracefully into these types of roles whilst Diane Lane is gorgeous and appealing as she always is. If she's had any "work" done on her visage, I can't see it. I doubt she has. This woman is ageless, radiant and sexy as all get-out. Most actresses need only to look in Lane's direction to realize what freaks they're making of themselves with Botox and plastic surgery. Lane, I suspect merely eats well, exercises and perhaps indulges in nightly applications of Oil of Olay. Whatever she does, the camera loves her while she in turn, loves it with her continued fresh, appealing and winning work as an actress.
A word about Russell Crowe as Jor-El is in order since for me, the definitive portrait of Superman's Kryptonian Dad is STILL the King of Corpulence, Marlon Brando. Who will ever forget Brando's insanely overpaid extended cameo in the Donner/Lester Superman pictures? Even now, I can hear Brando as he intones in his trademark nasal-tinged drawl:
"They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."
Given that Crowe is a might pudgy these days, I'd have preferred it if he'd been afforded the opportunity to deliver all his lines with his nostrils clipped. Alas, he is not Brando-ized, but it's also a solid performance.
All in all, I think Goyer and Nolan have delivered a fine coat hanger for Superman's derring-do. The "darkness" isn't glopped on like melted butter over a corn cob at the carnival. It seems to come rather naturally out of the science fiction elements of the tale. I especially appreciated the childhood sequences wherein Clark is horrified by his powers. When he begins to develop his x-ray vision is genuinely harrowing. Why wouldn't it be? The kid's sitting in the classroom, gets a mo-fo of a headache then starts seeing everyone's innards. This would be enough to mess a kid up and it fits nicely into the latter sequences where Clark becomes a wandering lost soul. It's dramatically appealing and hardly the doom and gloom drudgery Nolan crapped out in The Dark Knight trilogy.
This Diet Coke "darkness" is perfect for a comic book picture - especially given that Snyder has both visual gifts and an eye for action. Man of Steel is precisely what this genre needed right now. A real filmmaker.
"Man of Steel" is currently in wide release via Warner Brothers.