Saturday, June 15, 2013

Watch This Movie: Man of Steel

The Brave and the Bold.
It's been a while since I blogged, due to the nature of grad school. I've been waiting for a good topic before I made a return, and I thought, upon doing so, I would make it about something that truly moved me.

Man of Steel is that something.

This is going to be a long review. A short one wouldn't do the film justice, and I'm going to tackle this in several segments. I don't think I can do the film any justice if I don't pay it the attention I believe it deserves. So please, grab a drink, and try and enjoy my review of Man of Steel.
Here he comes!

Man of Steel tries to do multiple things at once. Aware of the fact that the Superman origin story has been told and retold, most recently in Superman Returns and the ten years of Smallville, Man of Steel shifts the origin story away from an extended stint in Kansas. In fact, it jumps tens of thousands of years prior to Kal-El's arrival on Earth, and focuses on the circumstances that developed on Krypton, leading to his departure into the stars.

Kal-El, now known as Clark, is seen wandering the world in search of his purpose, while also seen trying to hide his origins from any prying eyes. Always trying to do the right thing while keeping his powers secret, his life is, relatively speaking, nearly meaningless. He hasn't come out as the Blue Crusader, in fact he has no costume yet. He works odd jobs as he tries to get by in life, wherever he can pick them up.

It isn't until the story intersects with Krypton, as Clark begins to learn of his origins, that the story really begins to pick up pace again. The movie falls into a breathing period, considering the introductory Krypton sections are farely intense, and allows us to see Clark's childhood and development in flashbacks. Rather than focus a whole half of the movie to him growing up, the film moves back to critical periods in his lifetime, mostly focused around him as his father (played spectacularly by Kevin Costner). During this time he's also making his first, meaningful human connection outside his family, as he is trailed by the persistent Lois Lane (done with charm and grace by Amy Adams).

At this juncture in the film, General Zod (an amazingly intense Michael Shannon plays the role) also becomes a figure in Clark's life, meaning he is introduced to both the best and worst of Krypton at the same time. This is almost getting into spoiler territory, so I'm afraid to type much more. However, to at least glaze over the issue, Clark is forced to make decisions between his Kryptonian and Earthling heritage from this point out. For the first time he is interacting with the general world, which eyes him suspiciously, even as he works for their good. For the first time he is experiencing a human connection outside of his mother and father. Yet at the same time he's coming face to face with Kryptonian society and having to decide what defines him.

I mean they really don't trust him.
Man of Steel is done mostly with hand cam, so there's a shaky vibe throughout many of the scenes. Someone complained that this was painful to watch in 3D... to which I respond, why would you watch a film not intended for 3D in 3D? The actual effect of using this style camera is intense. It's never as stuttering as, say, Cloverfield. However there are times it almost seems like a documentary. At one point, in Alaska, I mused I might be watching an episode of Deadliest Catch.

As far as CGI, the world of Krypton is brought to life in a way never before realized on film. Those of us old enough to remember the Donner films think back on a crystalline ice world. However, the comics have made clear over the decades that Krypton was technologically, highly advanced and that it was an incredibly harsh environment. In Man of Steel we finally get a sense for the technology of the Kryptonians, their grand spaceships, their rising living towers, their incredible weapons, their mastery of space travel and their grasp of advanced genetic manipulations. Explosive, volcanic terrain is paired against flying lizards and swooping star vessels. Then, when the action moves to Earth, towers are obliterated, cars tossed about, jets leaped upon, and fights waged in the depths of space. This is great stuff, completely unimaginable as a fight just a little over a decade ago. Superman is not afraid to go hard toward science fiction, a genre far more welcome with modern audiences than it has been in decades. It never comes across cheesy, but it is awe inspiring at times to see the technology that is being wielded.

I also want to stress that, for the first time, we get an idea for just how powerful the Kryptonian species is. In Superman Returns, we all remember the infamous bullet-to-the-eye scene in which a bullet struck Superman's eye, only to flatten. There's plenty of that here. In fact, tons of hero movies have these. Iron Man, Thor, and now Superman all have scenes in which they have shrugged off weapon fire. Man of Steel goes above and beyond, though, to show the audience that Kryptonians aren't just like every other super powered being, though. In battles against the humans, Kryptonians move so fast on screen that they go between a half dozen soldiers within seconds. They barely struggle when brutally tossed through exploding fuel tankers, entire buildings, or hammered with missiles. I'll go so far as to say that this is the single greatest demonstration of what it means to be superhuman ever realized on film. It's not just the strength, it's the speed, the endurance. They seem almost limitless in their ability to deal out destruction, absorb it, not to mention move with a quickness never so accurately portrayed on screen. Not to mention that just two of them did as much damage as all the invading armies and defending heroes combined in Marvel's Avengers.

Finally, music wise, Hans Zimmer has put together a score that is going to remain with you for a lifetime. Borrowing a hint from Dark Knight and the entire recent Batman franchise, a few simple notes define Superman and recur throughout the films. This leitmotif takes on darker, more sinister tones, and seems to encompass Kryptonians as a whole. However, specific to Superman, it is often accompanied by soft choral voices, taking it away from its dark edges and into a glorious apotheosis. It's stirring notes, which I'm listening to even now as I let the soundtrack play, take on heavenly resonance at crucial moments in the movie when Superman demonstrates his willingness to give everything he has for the good of mankind.

The Battle for Krypton.

 "You're not even my real father".
These words, uttered by a young Clark Kent, are ones he'll come to regret in the course of the film. As an adopted son, they were words I also, regrettably, uttered to my own parents. This is one of the many issues Superman touches upon.

More than ever before, I am convinced that Superman is the most human of all superheroes. It's a notion echoed at least once by Batman, when he said of Superman, "In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all." This is realized on several levels throughout the movie.

Superman is a perpetual outsider for the majority of his life. The gain of his powers in his youth led to many distressing moments that labeled him as a freak. In refusing to use them, he became the victim of bullies that did not understand them. In young adulthood, he fled, itinerant, uncommitted, and alone. Loneliness, the feeling of being an outsider, unwelcomed, and unloved are feelings we all feel at one point or another. The second half of that Batman quote goes, "Then... he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him." Clark is presented with a unique problem that only the guidance of a caring father help him overcome. Though he feels like an outsider, his ability to retaliate far outstrip any of our own. Yet it is never something he truly considers, and owes much to Pa Kent's willingness to impart the value of life to his child.

Specific to Superman is the notion of adoption, which not all of us face, but I won't doubt that there aren't several adopted children out there who, like me, resonated with particular conundrums. Curiosity at one's parents, why they gave you up, where you came from, and the willingness to use that frustration as a way to hurt one's adoptive parents are all present. It even extends to Clark's decisions on to what degree he should embrace his Kryptonian past, much like a child having to decide between parents. 

Family is incredibly important, and as the primary shaper of a person's identity, it's that much more important when considering how it shapes a person with the power of a god. Two moments stand out quite prominently in my mind. One, as the Kent residence is being raided by Kryptonian soldiers and Ma Kent is being threatened directly, Superman swoops in and begins a beatdown of epic proportions while screaming out "What makes you think you can attack my mother?" There's a passion there, a reason for him being so enraged. These are the only people that have ever fully known him, a truth that, in reality, remains for many of us. There are few people that will ever know us, flaws and all, more deeply than our parents.

The second moment comes in the final flashback of the film. You've seen clips of it in the trailers, of a young Clark, a red cape wrapped around his neck, playing with the family dog. His father's working on the truck, his mother descending the stairway. It's the family we could all hope to have, if not with our parents, then maybe when we start families of our own.

Some of the grander themes obviously reside in the notion of a savior. Superman has, quite obviously, been compared to Christ or a general messiah figure many times throughout the years. The film not so subtly references this, but it's important for long time viewers of Superman to remember that these obvious themes aren't always as obvious to younger fans (just look at Twitter reactions to see there are many younger audience members only now making the connection).

This leads to two of the most prominent themes in the movie, and some of the grandest, although they can be made quite trite when abused. The willingness to put everything on the line for the sake of others, even those he reject you, is a highly Christian notion among others. The idea to love those even though they hate you is one Christ spoke of, perhaps one of the enduring reasons why even people who reject organized religion can find admirable things in the religion's founder. Turning the other cheek, taking an extra burden upon yourself even when it means helping those who don't deserve it, these are actions of love. Superman thoroughly loves humanity, with all its flaws, despite its suspicions of him. The messiah comparison isn't simply one born out of his willingness to die for others, but out of his willingness to restrain himself when he could dominate, to help when he could ignore, to be selfish instead of selfless.

Which leads to the final, grandest, and among all these others, most complicated notions of the Superman legacy. It's the hardest to get right, and can be subtle enough to be boring. It was aimed for in Superman Returns, and it's shot for here. For all that's discussed in the previous theme, and given an extraordinary number of discussions from both Pa Kent and Jor-El, Superman's primary function is to serve as a light, an example. His primary function isn't to punch down huge spaceships or fight flying enemies, but to inspire mankind to treat others with respect and dignity, to help one another, regardless of whether we think they deserve such treatment or not. Even in the most action intense sequences of the film, the director finds time to switch back to Superman's human counterparts and see how they're conducting themselves in the face of an invading menace. Soldiers put their lives on the line against overwhelming odds, against forces they can't possibly prevail against, but do so with the knowledge that they might help save others. However, this theme of inspiration is not limited to just soldiers. Everyday people, Mary Sue and John Doe, are on the ground helping each other in all odds. Many, many times it's shown that Superman inspires others, but that his character to do so was in turn forged by others that did the same. Superman's respect for life and willingness to try and do what's right in respect of life and dignity extend even to his enemies. There is no way I can give the ultimate example of this, since it occurs in an agonizingly painful climax that truly encompasses Superman's identity and love of life, but the final battle scene seals the deal on how much love he has for preserving life. That is something he inspires in others. 

At one point, Jor-El says, "one day they will join you in the sun." In the original Donner films, Jor-El also said "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." Kal-El, Superman, Clark's ultimate mission is to inspire others to good. The perfect world will no longer need a Superman.

Still, until that day, it's good to be able to go back to the red, yellow and blue.

Many thanks to the creators of this film. I cried through about three fourths of it, even in the middle of some action sequences, that's how moving I found it to be. To give it the ultimate credit, I saw this at 11:30 P.M. on a Friday. As I left at two in the morning, I wished there was another showing so I could watch it again.


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