Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Film Review: MAN OF STEEL

Full disclosure, I'm not really a fan of Superman. I remember enjoying some TV shows as a kid, I remember at least watching 1978's Superman, and I saw 2006's Superman Returns in the theater. But when it comes to the DC Comics stable of characters, my heart belongs to Gotham City and its grimier cast of characters.

That said, I was looking forward to this year's Man of Steel. With The Dark Knight Trilogy's director Christopher Nolan on board as producer and crafting the story with David S. Goyer (who had story credits on each film and co-wrote Batman Begins' script), with a script penned by Goyer, I was sure this would be a great starting point for Superman and, possibly, a DC cinematic universe.

The first act starts off well enough, hitting key points of the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El's arrival on Earth. Jumping to Kal, known as Clark among humans, as a grown man trying to find his way in the world, we get vignettes of his life through flashbacks that coalesce with him finding a long-lost Kryptonian ship that happens to have his iconic suit in it. The first act ends with Clark learning to fly.

Up to this point, everything worked in a manner that I'd expect. Soon thereafter, General Zod arrives on earth, and Man of Steel quickly becomes a CGI slugfest.

Let me take a step back and note a couple of things. First, Superman and his nature very much lend themselves more to CGI than Batman does. If I were in charge of the film, I can't see accomplishing  certain feats without digital animation. Second, Zack Snyder is a very different director than Christopher Nolan, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. So knowing what I knew about 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, I expected some CGI-heavy sequences.

CGI is a great tool, but it can be overused. It was one of the things that drove me crazy about The Avengers, and that carries over here, too. Although the directing styles between Nolan and Snyder are different, the comparison is apt. The final fight between Superman and Zod sees a lot of flight, with the latter combatant literally climb-jumping up the side of a building to meet his foe -- none of which looked convincing.

Nolan approached Batman with the idea to do as much as possible in a realistic manner. The detail in this is astute when you watch some of the behind-the-scenes extras and see Christian Bale (or a stunt double) strung up on wires, cape extended into the glider-like wings. They filmed that. Are there some CGI enhancements? I'm sure of it. But there was a foundation in reality. With Nolan and Goyer's story treatment, there was a "realistic" foundation in Man of Steel, too: What would happen if we found out there was an alien among us, one who looked like us and had been here for years? When the alien invasion aspect of the film kicks in, the ensuing freak out is kind of what I'd expect to happen. But the realism ends there, traded for CGI-Superman, Zod, or the General's minions getting tossed around like rag dolls, and explosions a-plenty.

The big problem is that this is what I felt most of the second and third acts of Man of Steel were composed of. Lots and lots and lots of CGI. To compare it to The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane drops Batman on his knee in the Gotham sewers, you feel the impact. You gasp at what you just saw happen. It was filmed. In Man of Steel, you should feel the same way. Superman is fighting people from his own world, and while he has control over his abilities, they don't -- something that can be far more dangerous. You should be able to feel each hit, but since flying into space and sending each other plummeting into buildings is something both CGI-Superman and -Zod shake off, it's hard to effectively sell. Only at the end of their battle do you really feel it, and that's because you have an actual living, breathing Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon sharing the screen.

In addition to the overabundance of CGI, the story takes a heavy hit in favor of action when the invasion begins. It's a superhero movie, and you expect action, but there's an incredible amount of story going on in Batman Begins among all the action. Heck, there's a lot of action going on in the latter part of Toy Story 3, but there's also good story progression. Story doesn't need to be sacrificed.

In this sense, I was disappointed by Man of Steel, in part because I had greater faith in the creative team. I don't know how much of that falls on the story, or how much comes from the translation of that to the script, which was written solely by Goyer. I don't want to necessarily blame Snyder, Goyer or Nolan for what I perceive to be Man of Steel's shortcomings, but knowing how the entire Dark Knight Trilogy turned out, I can't help but imagine if it wouldn't have helped to have brought in Jonathan Nolan during screenwriting.

Image by vicmarran-d5bcokd

And let me be clear with this point: I don't think Superman should be treated the same as Batman. And, thankfully, he's not in Man of Steel. My point is only that with key components of the creative team that made Batman a billion-dollar franchise, I expected more in terms of story and character development. It's obvious throughout Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises that they can do it, but somewhere in Man of Steel, Avengers-toned style over substance took over, which was especially frustrating after the first act hit many of the beats that carried Batman Begins to such great heights.

That said, the future is bright. Man of Steel is raking in tons of cash and a sequel has apparently been approved, with a Justice League or at least a Batman/Superman team-up soon to follow. Overall, I didn't feel that Man of Steel was a bad film. I just expected more. I give it 2 out of 4.

Quickly, let's talk spoilers.