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As Marvel cleans up the box office with cinematic adaptations of its biggest properties, like Spider Man, Iron Man, Thor and the multiheroed The Avengers, their biggest rival, DC Comics, has not been quite as lucky with its page-to-screen projects.  It is only Batman that has made any kind of mark as a film franchise, and not without ups and downs.  The other cinematic superstar in the DC stable, Superman, seemed to have peaked in the 1970s with four films starring the late Christopher Reeve.  Even then, it was only the first two movies that were worth any mention.  There was a famously hyped attempt to resurrect the caped wonder in 2006 with Superman Returns; notable mostly because of star Brandon Routhís nearly letter-perfect imitation of Christopher Reeveís deceptively masterful performance.  Homages aside and despite a brilliantly cast Kevin Spacey as arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, it was a pretty bland affair.  I suppose it was thought enough time had passed before trying another franchise reboot, which gives us 300 director Zack Snyderís muscular take on Superman with Man of Steel.

Galaxies away from our blue planet, another civilisation dithers while Armageddon is nigh.  Krypton is a doomed world and leading scientist Jor-El cannot make anyone believe or prepare for the inevitable. While Jor-El pleads with the powers that be, there is civil unrest as the head of Kryptonís military is determined to see to his planetís ultimate survival and dominance by taking custody of a codex that stores the DNA of every Kryptonian, guaranteeing the raceís continuance.  Thanks to Jor-El, the codex will be out of reach, hidden in a ship sent far from the imploding planet.  The other unauthorised export is the offspring of the scientist and his wife, Lara; the only natural Krypton birth for centuries.  The infant crashes deep in the heart of the American Midwest, where he is adopted by the kindly Kents.  They love the boy so much they treat his strange afflictions - the sensory overload of being able to hear every conversation for miles and his extraordinary strength - as simple growing pains.  Young Clark has the pure-hearted instincts of any child and wants to help when he sees someone in trouble; an urge his adoptive father tells him to stifle for fear of his son being ostracized by others not quite as accepting of the strange and unusual.  Itís this adherence to Pa Kentís rules that eventually leads the adult Clark away from Smallville with a small token of his homeworld in his pocket.  While Clark ambles north toward the road to self-discovery, another set of visitors is on their way to earth.  Having been defeated by Jor-El and punished by a spell in the Phantom Zone, General Zod frees himself and his loyal crew and sets about to find the codex and a new Krypton.  Zod unleashes their yellow sun-enhanced powers and superior technology on mankind until the puny humans give up the son of Jor-El, whose few public appearances have been suitably heroic, but not enough to engender trust.  Clarkís only ally is a reporter called Lois Lane, whose rescue by the caped stranger persuades her to keep his true identity a secret.  Teamed with the US military (Whoíve dubbed the flying Kansan, Superman) and armed with the instructions of an intelligent hologram of the late Jor-El, Clark chooses to become entirely visible to the world in order to stop General Zod.

Where Superman Returns was low on bombast, Zack Snyderís film is CGI explosion overload to the point of nonsensicalness.  The amount of collapsing skyscrapers is downright tedious and the superhuman Krypton warriors throw each other around for what seems like hours.  What suffers with all this purported popcorn chomping excitement is a cohesive plot.  After the destruction of Krypton, we meet Clark, fully grown at thirty-three years old and his life story with the Kents is told in flashback.  We donít know what Clark had been doing after high school, but it seems like an awfully long time to wait after finding out not only that youíre adopted, but that you arrived not by stork, but by UFO.  The romance between Lois Lane and Superman is a bust; thereís not a drop of chemistry to be found, despite some superhuman efforts: Yes, heís adorable, but are we to believe this ambitious, high-stakes frontline reporter would ditch the scoop of the millennium because she was touched by Clarkís sob story?  Without giving spoilers, that particular tale of woe couldíve easily been averted by the young man with the super powers and it seems awfully device-y and plainly absurd that he chooses that particular time to refrain from doing anything.  Heís also having father/son squabbles while appearing to be well into his twenties.  Itís just weird.  The flashback setup also adds more weight on the momentum drag that makes Man of Steel feel even longer than its two and a half hour running time.  The few moments of humour sprinkled throughout the film, like Supermanís ludicrous acquiescence to the militaryís handcuffs requirement and Diane Laneís saltiness as Clarkís adoptive mom are few and far between, making for a pretty charmless affair.  I wish there had been more moments like Clarkís clumsy first flight, which had meaning, as well as thrills.  Even goofy bits like the way-too-informed techno-spectre of Jor-El is silly but forgivable because itís one of the only moments of fun and cleverness while the filmís emptiness, emotions in a vacuum and stunning lack of magic is much less so.

Henry Cavill pulls off the right clean-cut, wide-eyed optimism and good intentions associated with the Man of Steel; weighing the desire to just be normal in the face of such literal alienness against his obvious superiority to the human race.  His furry, muscular chest, bared often for our viewing pleasure, is truly the best special effect in the film.  Cavill holds the heroic, comic book cover poses nicely and the cape is practically another character, draping itself around the statuesque Kal-El.  At one point, before flying off to rescue Lois (again), he dramatically stretches his arms out to his sides and plummets into space, very Messiah-like.  Clark being thirty-three when all this kicks off - the same age at which Jesus Christ was crucified - didnít escape me, either.  I would hope the writers werenít going for such a ham-fisted comparison, because itís an awkward analogy.  As a very different Jor-El from versions past, Russell Crowe is great as Supeís dad.  He is the brilliant mind (NPI) weíve always read about, but can also beat the stuffing out of General Zod in hand-to-hand combat.  This leads to the other big casting choice of Michael Shannon as General Zod.  This was tough.  Iíve adored Michael Shannon in everything Iíve seen him in from Revolutionary Road to Boardwalk Empire and more, but this was not an easy sell; could anything make one forget the indelible portrayal of the elegant, commanding Zod as played by Terence Stamp in the first two Reeve films?  The answer is not really.  While Shannon tamps down some of his pop-eyed crazy tendencies, he doesnít make much of a mark on the character (For which I blame the shallow script) and certainly not enough to replace Stampís cool authority (and glitter rock costume).  While he carries off the aggressive physicality well (When he wasnít a pixel), overall, the lunkish and less intellectual Kryptonians are simply less interesting.  There was something to their cerebral etherealness in the earlier versions that gave viewers the impression that Krypton really was more advanced than humankind and not simply by an accident of the solar system.  Making Zod and his horde more earthly turns them into any other conquering race from outer space come to enslave/destroy/colonise the earth, which is nothing new.  It also doesnít help that Shannon closely resembles Jack O'Halloran as the huge, apish Non, one of Zodís henchmen in Superman I and II.  Thereís also an ersatz version of Zodís other buddy, the fabulous Ursa, though Man of Steelís tough cookie reminds us more of an extra from Snyderís girlie-action opera, Sucker Punch than the haughty goth character perfectly played by Sarah Douglas.

Superman Returns and Man of Steel kind of balance each other out in their imperfections: One was too dull and the other is too hollow and noisy.  With its unceasing torrent of CGI explosions, destruction and superhuman Kryptonian combat, Man of Steel is more bang for your summer movie buck, but it would have been nice to have more intelligence to go along with all that lovely muscle.

 

~The Lady Miz Diva

June 14th, 2013

 

 

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