Thursday, June 13, 2013

Heavy mettle: Superman springs eternal

Some spoilers ahead.

No, there won’t be cellophane “S” emblems and memory-altering kisses. It’s also not the Superman mythology you remember. Co-written by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, and directed by Zack Snyder, this latest Superman movie is often visually stunning and emotionally engaging. But it’s also quite humorless, save for some brief exchanges.

“Man of Steel” is the inevitable re-imagining of the classic superhero into a more contemporary and edgier savior figure. The DC Comics character has been revamped countless times before in print, TV and film versions. But the changes this time are more significant; this iteration of the archetypal hero is a little darker and more “realistic,” its fantastical setting notwithstanding.

Henry Cavill plays the Kryptonian Kal-El, sent to Earth to escape his dying planet and eventually raised by kind Earthlings. Clark Kent grows up unaware of the origin of his powers, but finds answers and, not long after, threats from his old homeworld in the form of the brutal General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his conquering army.  This modern take is reminiscent of DC’s recent “Superman: Earth One” graphic novel, and partly inspired by the second Superman movie.

Krypton’s history is excellently revamped, the planet’s political and scientific structures epitomized in the enmity between Zod and Jor-El (Russell Crowe). It’s not merely a vague world mentioned in passing this time; we see enough of the Star Wars-esque Krypton, its culture and semantics, helping enhance Superman’s background tremendously.

“Man of Steel” does a number of things right, other than modifying the lore. The actors breathe life into the revitalized roles. Cavill dons the cape and darker (and trunks-less) costume impressively, although he’s not as charismatic as Christopher Reeve (none of the others were, to be fair). Still, he’s a very good actor, and it’s a consistently impassioned portrayal. Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane, intrepid and unyielding but still very likable. It’s good that the Clark-Lois dynamic is changed this time; she actually uses her investigative abilities to figure out the alien hero’s identity. Other standouts include Crowe, Shannon and Kevin Costner (as Pa Kent).

The Christ demigod metaphors are much subtler than in the 2006 film “Superman Returns,” but they’re there and they work. As for Clark Kent’s humanity, parts of his acclimation to Earth are presented in a non-linear manner, which keeps things unpredictable despite one’s familiarity with the established origin.

However, the storytelling isn’t always smooth. Parts that stick out include: the unnecessary scenes of the Daily Planet employees evading debris and getting trapped in the rubble (no, Superman isn’t going to save them, so it didn’t set up anything important); the end of the climactic battle (while we all saw that “last resort” option coming, it was devoid of impact and fitting music); some of the fisticuffs lack power (the CGI overload makes a few battles too video game-y).

Still, “Man of Steel” mostly thrills. Snyder does a terrific job, his shared vision with Goyer and Nolan redefining the quintessential superhero for a new and somewhat grittier era. This newly established world can help kick off an “Avengers”-like DC film mythology, if the potential is properly realized. In any case, Superman is fresh again, and it’s a version that we won’t mind seeing again in the years ahead.

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