Review: Super-duper CGI nearly ruins 'Man of Steel' reboot

Great computer effects almost obliterate superb acting effort. Photo: Warner Bros.

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2013 ― The latest modern movie reboot of DC Comics’ durable Superman — “Man of Steel” — is the third if you include the marvelous 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve. This current film is likely to win plenty of box office gold, although it shares with the current “Star Trek” release an inordinate love of pixel-happy CGI urban destruction on a distractingly massive scale.

After their failed “Superman Returns” effort (2006), Warner Brothers wisely decided to start from scratch for this film and hire “Dark Knight” miracle-worker and producer Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer to bring some dark, Frank Miller-style magic to the new script, while adding more complexity to the superhero caricatured by some cynics (probably Marvel fans) as the “Blue Boy Scout.”

As does “Superman” 1978, “Man of Steel” opens on the doomed planet Krypton. Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), is both a scientist-politician and something of a swashbuckler in the current film. He’s soon forced to fight not only against Krypton’s own version of Washington gridlock. He must also oppose the murderous revolutionary leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon in the current film), who was also the villain in 1980’s “Superman II,” portrayed at that time by Terence Stamp.

Henry Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel.” (Warner Brothers promo.)

Jor-El’s successful last-ditch effort to ship his infant son off to a planet far away is the way he strikes back at both sets of bad actors even as Krypton self-destructs; which tragedy, man-made and energy-related in this film, constitutes a sneaky yet clever bit of global-warming/anti-fracking propaganda by the filmmakers.

After those obligatory opening scenes on Krypton, events move back and forth through Clark Kent’s difficult childhood, his troubled adolescence, and his seemingly aimless young adulthood. These portions of the film are a remarkably inventive tour de force, focusing as they do on perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that the Silver Age Superman would never have bothered to consider.

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As portrayed by British actor Henry Cavill, this film’s Superman is, surprise, considerably more troubled, conflicted, and brooding than his predecessors. A Kryptonian by birth but an Earthman by necessity, Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent is troubled by the same kinds of demons that afflict Christian Bale’s Batman, right down to those key cosmic dilemmas: who really is a hero, and when and how does he have a right to intervene in the course of history?

Played first by a pair of younger actors, the younger Kent, fearing to use his powers, is mercilessly bullied by his schoolmates (another great contemporary meme), even as he himself is confused by passive, un-asked for manifestations of his secret powers, such as X-ray and heat vision. Advised strongly yet lovingly by his adoptive dad, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), he tries to keep his abilities a secret but still can’t resist saving people’s lives when nothing else seems to work. His conflict is real and palpable, and constitutes the human heart of this often too-explosive film.

In the film’s early Smallville sequences, the real surprise proves to be Kevin Costner’s wonderfully effective performance as the elder Kent. Although his appearances are brief, they are they are exceptionally effective. Costner’s Pa Kent is an idealized yet believable super-dad, whose rock-solid and genuinely All-American grasp of both good and evil and truth and falsehood prove an indelible influence on the young Kryptonian he’s adopted by chance.

From a purely artistic angle, Costner’s quiet but firm code of personal responsibility and morality permanently engraves a genuine, deeply felt humanity upon Superman’s character, imbuing him in the process with the same kind of interesting duality we’ve become accustomed to in the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock of the “Star Trek” franchise. Earlier “Superman” films glossed over this complexity for the most part. This movie meets it head on and is a better film because of it.

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The film’s treatment of Superman’s duality gains an added poignancy to the also-remarkable and sympathetic performance of Diane Lane as Clark’s adoptive mother. Lane plays her as the tough but loyal farm wife Martha Kent likely would have been in reality. Lane’s performance rounds out her sometimes troubled yet loving family in a way that allows both she and her husband to support their strange, adoptive son while helping him find his way.

Altered considerably as well is “Man of Steel’s” version of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Yes, she’s still the same slightly obnoxious, always aggressive reporter she was even in the comic book series. But in this film, she also embodies the best of the gutsy, instinctive kind of investigative journalist who seems to have curled up and died during the 2008 American election campaign. No Journo-list for her.

Sent to investigate a mysterious military “space alien” type of investigation somewhere in the Arctic, Lois instinctively sniffs out what might be a different, more compelling story—one that later turns out to be the story of Superman. Undaunted, she defies her editor, Perry White (a thoughtful Laurence Fishburne) and wears out a lot of good, old-fashioned shoe leather as she willfully fills in the blanks of the scoop she somehow knows she’s going to get.

Unfortunately, Lois inadvertently causes the triggering of a signal that tells General Zod and company—once imprisoned in the Phantom Zone on the heels of Krypton’s destruction—exactly where Jor-El’s son has landed. This launches us toward “Man of Steel’s” wild, overdone, and colossally loud conclusion.

Michael Shannon as the evil Kryptonian General Zod. (Warner Brothers promo.)

As we learn early in the film, the natural birth of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, Jor-El’s son, was an aberration on Krypton, a planet where all births occurred, in effect, in a gigantic test-tube style environment, clearly inspired by the early scenes of the original “Matrix” film.

Zod’s overriding warrior-enforcer mission—clearly determined by his own test-tube genetic blend—is to re-create the lost Kryptonian civilization on a compatible planet. Now he’s discovered where that is.

As a Kryptonian pod-person, we discover in Michael Shannon’s Klingon-like Zod, a fearfully implacable warrior-terrorist. Yet Shannon creates an odd sympathy with this otherwise two-dimensional character. We understand he was designed that way and simply cannot escape his destiny. This, in turn, is a rollicking premise leading to an epic superhero battle.

Yet this, to a great extent, is also where “Man of Steel” finally falters. We do get that rousing climax we all desire, the ultimate battle between good and evil during which a small town and a large city are nearly obliterated. Unfortunately, a lot of subtlety gets buried beneath the film’s quite spectacular CGI special effects, some of which seem to conjure up the ghosts of 9/11, perhaps intentionally so. But the mind-numbing destruction overstays its welcome.

Sample the trailer below:

We can attribute at least part of this explosive grand finale to the direction of Zack Snyder, some of whose previous films, like the intriguing but disappointing “Watchmen” and the more successful but still CGI-heavy “300,” have also wrapped things up with Daisy Cutters of aural and computerized Armageddon.

After all of this finally winds down, we end up feeling more drained than satisfied. That said, given last week’s opening numbers for “Man of Steel,” this may not matter. Apparently already on the books, a sequel will likely be confirmed if this week’s box office numbers hold up.

The only thing that still puzzles us is this: Why has Hollywood cast Brits in the iconic, All-American roles of Batman and Superman in these two current superhero franchises? Riddle me that one in the comment section below.

Movie Rating: ***1/2 (Three and one-half stars out of four.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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