What a turnaround it has been in recent years for both comic book movies and Marvel Studios. In the early years, they sold the film rights to their best-selling titles to studios such as Paramount, Sony and Fox. In doing so, Marvel often saw their franchises treated with disdain or indifference by major for decades. For every excellent X2 or Spider-Man, there was a Ghost Rider or a Fantastic Four that would ruin everything you might have liked about the characters. But while Marvel still doesn’t own the rights to some of their biggest comic titles, their perfectly-executed “Phase One” plan reversed their fortunes almost immediately. By taking several of their titles and placing them within the same overall universe and timeline, they created a force of nature that started with 2008’s Iron Man and finished with The Avengers, not only one of 2012’s best movies but the biggest blockbuster not directed by James Cameron (coming to a rest third on the worldwide box office behind Titanic and Avatar). Between that and Marvel’s purchase by Disney, the studio is locked in to deliver more greatness with their “Phase Two”, which began this summer with the extremely popular Iron Man 3.
|What a day to not be wearing shorts!|
DC Comics, meanwhile, would love that kind of success right now. Once seen as the creative superior to Marvel when it came to the film medium, their output the past decade has consisted of two-thirds of a great Batman trilogy (thanks to director Christopher Nolan) and a string of disappointments that includes Catwoman, Watchmen, Jonah Hex, Green Lantern and arguably the biggest bust, Superman Returns. A sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve classics (and ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), the Bryan Singer-directed Returns was in fact moderately successful. Unfortunately, moderately successful doesn’t cut it with a film that costs over $200 million to put together, and plans for two future sequels were scrapped as a result. Now DC (and their resident film studio Warner Brothers) has attempted to recreate the success they had in rebooting their Batman franchise with their other major comic superstar, giving Supes a grittier, more grounded origin and dripping the story in emotional layers in Man of Steel. In doing so, they want to build the DC film universe to the point where they can answer Marvel’s challenge and issue their own superhero-team flick with The Justice League. And while the director they assigned this task – Zack Snyder, of Watchmen and Sucker Punch infamy – wouldn’t seem like quite the right guy for that job, DC did good by getting Christopher Nolan to produce, placing the best director they’ve ever hired just behind the shoulder of the flashy, style-over-substance Snyder.
|Is he getting jealous?|
The result of this pairing? Well, it’s good, for the most part. Man of Steel has some great moments, especially the early flashbacks of a dying planet Krypton and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saving his infant son by placing him in a rocket and sending him to the distant planet Earth before his home can be destroyed. Growing up knowing he is different from the people around him, Clark Kent (The Tudors’ Henry Cavill) travels around the world, helping people through his actions (and enhanced strength and abilities), and trying to discover where he comes from and his purpose in life. In flashbacks, we see how Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) encouraged his adopted son to keep his powers a secret, feeling that the world would be unprepared to accept Clark’s abilities. These are beautifully captured moments, mixings of bittersweet emotion, artistic camerawork, and excellent CGI when required (not just when it would look cool). Looking back, with the exception of the fall of Krypton, there isn’t a real action sequence until almost the last act of the movie, and the fact that you can forget and forgive that transgression from a supposed Summer blockbuster is a testament to how invested we become with the characters themselves.
Those characters are the backbone of the film and its greatest resource, and Snyder (with perhaps some cajoling from Nolan) does an excellent job of using them to the best effect. Cavill and Amy Adams (who plays tough-as-nails investigative reporter and intergalactic love interest Lois Lane) are excellent both together and apart, with Cavill showing (often without dialogue) that he is an actor on the rise. Adams has arguably never done a bad performance, and her veteran presence is not only the best-ever interpretation of Lane, but a stabilizing agent for the up-and-coming Cavill. As for the rest of the cast, both Crowe and Costner do excellent jobs as Clark’s biological and adoptive fathers, respectively. Crowe seems born to play Jor-El, and Costner’s homesy look and drawl make for an excellent Papa Kent (Diane Lane however is kind of boring as mother Martha). Michael Shannon takes up the Terence Stamp’s mantle when he plays the Kryptonian General Zod. To look at Shannon on paper, you wouldn’t expect him to be so frightening a character as someone with all of Superman’s strengths and none of his morals, but the veteran actor really carries Man of Steel in the second half. As a result, he’s definitely going to be a tough act to follow in any potential sequels. My only disappointments in the cast were located in the Daily Planet, Lois Lane’s newspaper. Lawrence Fishburne plays the first ever African-American version of Editor-in-Chief Perry White, while Rebecca Buller plays intern Jenny Olsen, obviously the adaptation of the comic books’ Jimmy Olsen. The problem I have is that these characters are largely pointless, taking part in some expository scenes but otherwise not contributing much to the overall movie. I don’t care if Perry White is black or if Jimmy Olsen is a woman; I just wish that wasn’t the beginning and end of their character development.
|Lois Lane: Kicking ass and taking names since 1938.|
But Man of Steel’s biggest problem is not its development of poorly-scripted secondary characters or even the strangely wide-open plot holes that are scattered about the script, but an abrupt change of pace in the final act. That’s when the action strikes, and while it contains beautiful imagery, excellent CGI and character-defining moments, it’s just not that much FUN. Snyder’s direction has always been visually-appealing, even when the product was the mind-numbing horror of Sucker Punch. I’ve said before that Snyder should direct music videos, as his ocular palette works wonders in spurts a few minutes at a time. By the time we’ve gotten through twenty minutes of action sequences involving bright beams of light, explosions, rescues, destroyed buildings and a ton of violent acts, we just want the whole thing to be over with. The filmmakers also make the questionable choice of changing a major aspect of the caped crusader – in other media, you’ll never see Superman put defeating the bad guys in a higher priority over protecting innocent bystanders in big fights. Here the term “bystander” appears all but ignored in the script, resulting in simplistic good-vs-evil battles that never break the mold, and feeling almost like a typical Jerry Bruckheimer production. The film never gets Great Gatsby boring, but there’s still no excuse for such beautiful action that is so generic that we almost don’t care about the outcome.
|Maximum security just got an upgrade.|
The limp finish is really the only major thing wrong with Man of Steel, but it’s still enough to turn a potentially great film into a merely good one. I’ll give credit where it’s due: Snyder, Nolan and their crew succeeded in creating a Superman movie more grounded and realistic than anything done before them, and it’s the next-best thing in the DC film universe to Nolan’s first two Batman projects in terms of quality. Obviously Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are high watermarks to cross, and expectations of the like from Man of Steel are definitely unwarranted, though you can still have a good time should you see this on the big screen. In the battle of Marvel vs. DC, Man of Steel is a long way away from being as iconic as The Avengers or Iron Man, and is probably closer to Marvel’s second-rate Captain America movie. That’s not a bad place to be, however, and if the folks at DC and Warner Brothers can build upon its early successes (and bypass its weaknesses), then this might just be the first step in its own “Phase One”. Can a Justice League movie be far in the future? Give me a Wonder Woman I can get behind, and that’ll be a step in the right direction. Just like Man of Steel.