Friday, June 14, 2013

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Guy In Body Armor!

Reel To Reel: Man Of Steel

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (3D adds little)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild language, fantasy violence

For me, Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. He played the role with poetry, humanity and charisma. So it's hard for your humble reviewer to be objective about the ambitious reboot from producer Christopher Nolan, who successfully reimagined the Batman franchise and gave us the highly intelligent thriller Inception. Team him up with director Zach Snyder, and maybe we've got something -- but only if the film is more like Snyder's 300 and less like the fanboy-tainted Watchmen.

Man of Steel seeks to change our image of Superman from the squeaky-clean American hero embodied by Reeve and George Reeves and morph him into a vulnerable, conflicted figure while amping up the messianic themes of the Superman story that got watered down from the 1978 film. It ditches the bright blue-and-red tights for something resembling chain-mail armor, with a similarly-clad supporting cast who inhabit elongated spaceships that look like something I should bait with a No-Pest Strip.

Left intact is the crux of the backstory: The planet Krypton is about to blow up, and it also faces a military coup that pits leading scientist Jor-El (Crowe) against the ruthless General Zod (Shannon). Jor-El must send his son away to Earth as both a gift to humanity and a way of preserving the Kryptonian race. The new film adds more dimension to this premise with themes of free will versus state authority, not to mention a new perspective on natural childbirth.

We see flashbacks of Kal-El (Cavill) growing up as Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas, struggling to understand why he's got super powers the other kids don't. His Earth father Jonathan (Costner) warns him to keep his abilities secret because he's the kind of person that will end up changing the world once word gets out. Still, young Clark can't help but come to the rescue, saving his school bus from disaster as one of many miracles. It's important to note Clark is anything but the mild-mannered reporter in the horned-rimmed glasses we've become accustomed to. Here he's a drifter, floating from one job to the next as he tries to figure out his purpose.

Enter Lois Lane (Adams), star reporter for the Daily Planet, who is more the belabored beat writer than the pretty print princess of Margot Kidder's interpretation. While Lane is chasing a lead on a military expedition in the Arctic, she runs across Kent who is about to discover his true identity. I like how this picture disposes of the whole secret-identity device, replacing it with a joint pursuit of the truth. Indeed, Lane becomes central to Superman's mission as he is forced to confront Zod when he tries to conquer Earth.

Any Superman reboot had better have good villains. Forget about Lex Luthor, even though Gene Hackman played him with such smarmy charm. Michael Shannon's Zod has depth and grit, unlike Terence Stamp, who rolled like a Shakespeare-company reject. Is it any wonder that guy was sentenced to eternity in a flying mirror? Crowe's Jor-El seems to channel Obi-Wan Kenobe more than anything else. I keep expecting him to tell his son to use The Force.

The new Superman doesn't waste time plucking cats out of trees or busting petty criminals. He gets right to the epic battle with Zod, something we originally had to wait for in Superman II. The remake puts the original showdown to shame. In westerns, brawls will usually trash a bar. Here the hero and villain trash most of downtown Smallville and much of Metropolis in running, flying fisticuffs of such freewheeling, over-the-top mayhem they risk becoming self-parody.

Yeah, this isn't the Superman of my youth, where Clark Kent had to change into the suit by flying around in a revolving door. It's darker, more violent, more apocalyptic than the superhero movies I grew up with. I won't forget those old movies, but Nolan and Snyder's version isn't forgettable either, which is more than I can say for 2006's Superman Returns.

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