Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Man of Steel' Packs Punch

Though I take many of my hairstyling tips from Lex Luthor these days, once upon a time I was a huge Superman fan. One of my most cherished toys growing up was a Kenner “Super Powers” version of The Man of Steel, I had Superman II memorized word-for-word and I even had Superman pajamas with a cape attached at the shoulders. No, I don’t still wear them.

Like many geeks — though certainly not all — my interest in Ol’ Supes waned with age. Batman’s fight against crime without the luxury of superhuman abilities interested me as I approached my teenage years, and the edgier, more youthful heroes that populated the Marvel Universe were infinitely more relatable than a nigh-invincible being from a dead planet.

It was not until the lead-up to Superman Returns back in 2006 that I had rediscovered my childhood fascination with Kal-El, a hero that represents a godlike ideal and an oft-overlooked burden: Superman can save just about anyone, but not everyone, all the time.

Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns touched on The Man of Tomorrow’s weaknesses that don’t come in the form of glowing green rocks (that would be Kryptonite), and in many ways it succeeded at humanizing one of the most superhuman characters in literature. Yet, it was Singer’s unfettered reverence toward the original Richard Donner films — the very movies that entranced me as a youth — that ultimately prevented it from finding an audience.

Flash forward seven years to the release of Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s reboot of the dormant Superman franchise that aims to do for DC Comics’ blue-and-red boy scout what Batman Begins did for The Caped Crusader. The “gee whiz” tone of Donner’s lighthearted universe has been replaced with the “oh, s***!” spectacle of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, just as John Williams’ sweeping, romantic themes have been replaced by Hans Zimmer’s driving, percussive score.

It’s loud, it’s dark and it’s loaded with enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush. It’s also the best Superman film since 1978.

Snyder (Watchmen, 300) has gone on record in saying that he didn’t craft Man of Steel with the Donner films in mind. Rather, with Dark Knight veteran Christopher Nolan overseeing the project, the film takes us through a brazen re-telling of Superman’s origin that assumes we’re already fairly familiar with the character’s early years. Sure, we get glimpses of Clark Kent’s Smallville upbringing, but what we really want to see is Superman punching things, right? For once?

Fortunately, Snyder gives Kal-El (Henry Cavill) plenty to pummel in the form of General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his Kryptonian soldiers. You see, Superman’s dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sent his infant son to Earth with a codex that could preserve the Kryptonian race. Naturally, said codex is of particular interest to Zod’s forces, who were freed from imprisonment in the Phantom Zone when Krypton exploded. The bad guys make their way to Earth and intend to use the codex to rebuild Krypton, terraforming the planet and killing its current inhabitants (us) in the process.

There’s much to be said about the tremendous cast in Man of Steel, from Amy Adams’ impetuous Lois Lane to Shannon’s sneering Zod, but it’s Cavill’s Superman who truly shines. Never once doing a Christopher Reeve impression, Cavill embodies what we like about the character — namely his undying sense of duty — without trying to imitate any prior on-screen versions of the character.

Man of Steel isn’t short, clocking in at 143 minutes, but it seldom drags nor does it linger on sentimentality. The intense final act of the film is nearly nonstop action, as Superman battles Zod in a skyscraper-toppling final battle unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a superhero film. Just as Donner made us believe a man can fly, Snyder makes us believe a man can fly, punch people through buildings and level entire city blocks with his heat vision … if he wanted to, of course.

It is the conclusion of that final battle that has spurred much controversy among some circles who disagree with the way in which Kal-El ultimately deals with Zod. Without venturing into spoiler territory for those of you who haven’t seen the film, I’ll simply state that Superman does what is necessary for the greater good, and makes a difficult decision he didn’t want to make. For a character reviled for being godlike, don’t we want to see him at his most human?

Man of Steel might offend purists for its overwhelming emphasis on action and certain creative liberties taken with the character, but we’ve wanted a fresh cinematic take on Superman for decades and Snyder has finally delivered. Up, up and away.