‘Man of Steel’ is Not Just a Bird or a Plane

Man of Steel movie poster

I grew up watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves playing the iconic character, and I loved how he stood still and never blinked an eye when the bad guys shot bullets at him. Then came the movies with Christopher Reeve playing the sole survivor of Krypton, and I reveled in watching him give us the definitive version of this heroic character. Since then, Superman has not been the same for me as his goody two shoes image makes him seem a little dull compared to Batman, and the character has gone through various interpretations on television and in comic books to where I’m not sure what to make of him, or his alter ego Clark Kent, anymore.

I liked “Superman Returns” more than most people because it reminded me of the effect this iconic character had on me when I was young, and Bryan Singer made it clear we needed a hero like Superman now more than ever. However, the more Singer paid homage to the first two “Superman” movies, the more it paled in comparison to them. The character is now more than 75 years old and in desperate need of a reboot to stay relevant to today’s increasingly cynical society.

Now we have “Man of Steel” which takes Superman back to his beginnings to where we have to go through all the origin stuff yet again. This threatens to make the movie a bit tedious as we all know Superman was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton and how his parents sent him to Earth before Krypton exploded. But what’s interesting is how director Zack Snyder tells Superman’s story in a non-linear fashion to where we’re never quite sure which direction the movie is going to take. Snyder also shows us how, while it may seem cool to be Superman, being him can also be quite lonely and painful.

For the filmmakers, the real challenge was making Superman more down to earth than he has been in the past and, for the most part, they succeeded. We all have experienced loneliness and alienation in our childhood and the changes our bodies go through, be it puberty or something else, which can drive us to the brink of insanity. But what’s worse for Kal-El, who is now named Clark Kent by his human parents, is he can’t really ask anyone for advice on how to deal with x-ray vision or super hearing abilities. While this kid is capable of doing great things, you can understand why he yearns for the normal life constantly denied to him.

I liked the scenes dealing with Superman’s childhood because they rang true emotionally, and the wisdom his human father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) passes on to him makes sense. Yes, this young man has super powers, but he’s got to keep them under wraps until he can learn the truth about where he came from. It’s frustrating, but it helps to keep Superman from being subjected to crazy medical experiments by the government and from growing an oversized ego which will definitely get the best of him.

Since the first half of “Man of Steel” is told in a non-linear fashion, it doesn’t take long for us to meet Henry Cavill, the latest actor to play Superman. It also doesn’t take long for him to remove his shirt and show us how much time he has spent at the gym. Cavill’s road to playing this iconic character has been a tough one as he came so close to getting cast in “Superman Returns,” and for a while he was known as the unluckiest man in Hollywood as he barely missed out on playing Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and Edward Cullen in “Twilight.” How nice it is to see Cavill finally get his moment in the spotlight.

Cavill does solid work here as Superman, and he also gives us a Clark Kent who is unlike the four-eyed wimp we all remember him being. This is a Kent who wanders from job to job, haunted by an upbringing he has yet to learn more about, and it is a journey which has toughened him up quite a bit. Cavill also benefits from getting to play a more complex Superman in “Man of Steel” whereas the one we saw in “Superman Returns” was kind of neutered (no offense Brandon Routh). While he doesn’t quite have the same charisma Reeve brought to Superman, Cavill is a terrific choice for the role and he has more than earned the right to play him in this and future movies (and you know there will be more).

But as with “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Brothers put their nerves at ease by surrounding Cavill with a cast filled with stars and Oscar winners. I very much enjoyed Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and he gives a wonderfully understated performance as Kal-El’s human father. However (SPOILER ALERT), I’m pretty certain I have not seen another actor other than him who looked so ridiculously serene as an enormous hurricane came barreling down on him (SPOLIERS END).

Diane Lane is also well cast as Kal-El’s human mother, Martha, and it’s a treat to see this actress in anything and everything she does. Plus, even as Martha heads into old age, Lane still looks irresistibly sexy as she refuses to betray her son’s whereabouts to General Zod. Some credit should go to Snyder for this as he doesn’t plaster Lane with the same hideous old-age makeup he used on Carla Gugino in “Watchmen.” I am so very glad he learned his lesson.

Speaking of General Zod, the great character actor Michael Shannon plays him in “Man of Steel.” Shannon does make him a compelling nemesis to Superman, and I liked how the actor portrays Zod as a man led by a corrupted sense of loyalty rather than just a power hungry villain. His work in “Man of Steel,” however, pales a bit in comparison to his galvanizing turn as serial killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.” Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much from Shannon this time around as I was hoping he would give us a villain for the ages. But even though he doesn’t, he is still very good here.

In addition, Amy Adams gives us a strong Lois Lane who doesn’t falter in the face of supernatural discoveries, Laurence Fishburne makes for a good Perry White, Antje Traue makes Faora into a tremendously lethal villainess, and it’s hard to think of anyone other than Russell Crowe to play Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. Crowe gives the role a gravitas not easily earned, and you will be pleased to know that he doesn’t sing in this film. I am, however, willing to defend his performance and singing in “Les Misérables.”

The one major complaint I had with “Man of Steel” was the spectacle at times overwhelmed the story and characters. This is not to say the characters are neglected, but I’m not sure I have seen as many high-rise buildings come crashing down in one movie. Just when I think I have seen the loudest action movie ever made, another one comes along to remind me of the necessity of ear plugs. In the process of giving us one tremendous action scene after another, Snyder ends up topping himself a bit too much to where I was desperate for him to tone things down. Still, he respects Superman enough to keep the character’s ideals intact even while taking some liberties.

Part of me still yearns for the “Superman” of yesterday when Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, and of how the first two movies lifted my spirits up high. I think part of how you enjoy “Man of Steel” depends on how willing you are to separate it from all the “Superman” films which preceded it, and for me this is tough. But in the end, there’s no way things can stay the same, and this iconic character was in need of a refresher. With “Man of Steel,” Snyder has given us an exciting piece of entertainment which holds our attention for over two hours, and I am eager to see where Superman will go from here.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman vs Superman poster

What a relief it is that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has finally opened in theaters everywhere. Few movies have been dissected and criticized as deeply as this one even before its release, and it got to where it felt like decade had passed since Warner Brothers announced it as happening. After a while we all wanted to yell out, “Just release the damn movie already!” Clearly, Warner Brothers has A LOT riding on this particular superhero movie, and it is aiming to create its own comic book cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s.

Well, the best way to describe “Batman v Superman” is that it is, in a word, dour. Director Zack Snyder certainly gives us some spectacular action set pieces, but the whole movie is undone by a sense of joylessness. In keeping with Christopher Nolan’s superhero aesthetic of grounding these characters in reality, a lot of the fun and joy we have had in watching them do battle with the forces of evil feels absent this time around.

So why does Batman/Bruce Wayne have a such a bone to pick with Superman/Clark Kent anyway? Well it all goes back to the climax of “Man of Steel” where Superman did battle with General Zod over the skies of Metropolis to where a record number of buildings were reduced to rubble. One of them was the Wayne Enterprises building, and despite Bruce’s best efforts, he is unable to rescue all his employees from certain death and blames Superman that. As for Superman, he thinks Batman is too dangerous and seeks to expose Gotham’s vigilante and put an end to his reign.

Meanwhile, LexCorp mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is ever so eager to get his hands on the kryptonite from Zod’s failed terraforming experiment in the Indian Ocean as well as his body. While we all know Luthor gets super excited about real estate, those interests are shoved to the side as he is intent to reveal the duality of god and man. This all leads to an epic conclusion in which Lex unveils a monster which could very well destroy Batman and Superman in a way nothing else can.

One of the big problems with “Batman v Superman” is it tries to accomplish too much in its bloated running time of 151 minutes. This was the same problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” which also sought to create its own cinematic universe to where it became an unforgivable mess. “Batman v Superman” is a better movie as Snyder is able to keep a lot of the thematic elements in balance, but there’s still too many subplots and characters to deal with and not enough time to become fully engaged on an emotional level with everything going on.

When Marvel created their own cinematic universe, they took their sweet time and were never in a rush to bombard us with too much right away. They started out with “Iron Man” and then brought other iconic superheroes to the screen that we quickly came to root for. When the first “Avengers” movie finally came out, we were ready to see our favorite Marvel characters join forces to battle an alien threat because the groundwork had been laid slowly and carefully.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Brothers could barely wait to start their own cinematic universes, and as a result we have gotten overstuffed movies which feel more like overlong commercials for others that have yet to be made.

Snyder is not a bad director he has given us some terrific movies like “Dawn of the Dead” (one of the few horror remakes worth watching), the visual epic “300” and “Watchmen.” Clearly he had a lot on his plate with this movie’s sprawling subplots he could only be so successful with. His starting out with young Bruce Wayne watching his parents get murdered is unnecessary as we have seen this traumatic event played out many times before. We all know about Bruce’s dark past and how he became Batman, so this could have easily been skipped over.

Perhaps Snyder’s biggest setback with “Batman v Superman” is his overuse of special effects. There’s never a shortage of explosions, and he does pull off some impressive scenes like when Batman does battle with a dozen terrorists. But after a while the whole endeavor feels like one long video game with moments which brazenly defy logic. You come out of this movie wishing he had worked harder on the story’s emotional component, but when you have a ridiculously large budget of over $200 million, you are obligated to make sure the money’s up there on the screen.

For what it’s worth, the casting is spot on. Many balked at Ben Affleck being cast as the Caped Crusader, but he does solid work as Batman and Bruce Wayne, a CEO who actually looks after his workers’ needs and safety. While he can’t quite hold a candle to the best cinematic Batman of them all, Michael Keaton (Christian Bale is a very close second), he makes Bruce and his alter ego appropriately brooding and damaged. Affleck also has the requisite shirtless scene which shows how much time he has spent at the gym (his biceps are massive).

Cavill continues to do very good, if not overly impressive, work as Superman/Clark Kent as he makes the Man of Steel a noble and conflicted person on a planet whose inhabitants are not sure what to make of him. Amy Adams remains a wonderful choice to portray Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne plays things a little broadly as Daily Planet editor Perry White, Holly Hunter is terrific as a US Senator hell bent on stopping Lex Luthor’s evil plans, and Jeremy Irons proves to be an inspired choice to play Alfred.

Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg who portrays Lex Luthor as if he were an infinitely psychotic Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg is never boring, but he never comes across as truly menacing. He does, however, share some strong moments with Hunter as they verbally spar with one another. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer gives them some sharp dialogue which really stings, and it would have been great if there was more of it to go around.

But the one who steals the show here is Gal Gadot who plays Diana Prince and her alter ego Wonder Woman. Every time she appears onscreen, the movie comes to life as she battles her foes without an ounce of fear on her beautiful face. Like Affleck, many voiced their opposition to her being cast, and it’s nice to see her get the last laugh on those who doubted her.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is by no means a terrible movie, and many DC Comic fans will likely get a kick out of it. It also benefits from a conclusion which is far more emotional than we could have expected. However, there never seems to be any joy or exhilaration to be found here, and it makes this motion picture feel like an exercise in tedium. Plus, we only get one big fight between Batman and Superman which proves to be anti-climactic as the trailers have long since revealed that these two end up joining forces to battle an ever bigger threat. What looked like the comic book movie to end all comic book movies instead proves to be a big disappointment. Still, we do have “Suicide Squad” to look forward to.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016