Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

June 19, 2013

Old meets new on “Man of Steel’s” darker, effects-heavy canvas

Rob Cox
Greensburg Daily News

FROM THE DEN AT WOLF THEATRES — For many comic-book readers and moviegoers alike, the late Christopher Reeve gave pop culture its definitive portrayal of Superman.

Even after all these years then, British actor Henry Cavill steps into the role at a disadvantage, much as Brandon Routh did in 2006’s abhorrent “Superman Returns.” Routh though, appeared to be doing his best imitation of Reeve as Superman, whereas Cavill is given more latitude by Director Zack Snyder.

To be sure, Cavill’s Superman is flat compared to Reeve’s, but it IS distinct. More, Cavill makes a good start, exhibiting flashes of the wit and “American as apple pie” charm that made Reeve’s interpretation so compelling. One suspects, given more directorial leeway and more depth in writing, Cavill could be every bit as charming and compelling as Reeve, while remaining distinct.

Most critically, Cavill has a much stronger screenplay from which to work, and a director not obsessed with paying reverence to and re-creating the Reeve-era films, as was Director Bryan Singer.

That creative liberation shows in “Steel’s” darker tone and originality. The filmmakers don’t totally ignore what’s come before though, and effectively pay homage to some of the most memorable moments from the first two Reeve Superman films — to fantastic effect.

Screenwriter David S. Goyer, collaborating on the story with Christopher Nolan of “Batman” fame (who also produces), provides more intensive focus on Superman’s (a.k.a. Kal-El; a.k.a. Clark Kent) origins in “Man of Steel” than we’ve ever seen on film. “Steel’s” first 45 minutes are set entirely on Superman’s homeworld, Krypton, just after the future man-of-steel’s birth.

“Steel's” opening tells the story of a doomed planet facing complete ecological destruction. What Goyer and Nolan do so effectively and originally is weave the ecological story into the story of Superman arch villain General Zod (Michael Shannon), Krypton’s greatest military leader.

Superman’s daddy, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), has worked with Zod to understand and predict the planet’s fate. The two part ways though, over how to best solve the problem; in fact, they develop an enmity that will live on between Zod and Jor-El’s son long after Zod's attempted military coup of Krypton’s government.

Before Krypton finally explodes, infant Kal-El escapes in a tiny space craft to the planet Earth, while Zod and his minions are blasted into space in the “Phantom Zone,” a kind of space-prison designed to hold evildoers in eternal stasis.

Krypton’s doomed, short-sighted leaders, however, don’t allow for Krypton’s destruction. Zod and his followers are thus freed when the planet goes boom. They will eventually journey to Earth, where they’ll seek both vengeance against Kal-El and conquest of humanity.

There’s plenty of familiar narrative territory here, with young Kal-El being raised by human parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The filmmakers though, successfully weave old and new elements into a narrative that relies on flashbacks to tell Kal-El’s story of being raised as human child Clark Kent, who never quite fits in.

There’s a heavy emphasis on science fiction and fantasy, too — more so than in other “Superman” films, with a story that plays heavily on the “alien-invasion of Earth” element. Some of “Steel’s” imagery, in fact, recalls other popular alien-invasion films, especially — oddly enough — 1996’s “Independence Day.”

Snyder keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, with a script that, while not quite award-worthy, never rings as cheesy or overly comic-bookish — no small feat considering the nature of Superman’s source material and the character’s ultra-boy-scout-like nature.

One element available to Snyder not available to other “Superman” filmmakers (even, to an extent, to Singer), which he uses to fantastic success, are absolutely eye-popping visuals. He’s also got a fantastic cast, with Kevin Costner nearly stealing the show in a small role. Crowe’s Jor-El isn’t far behind, and Shannon is just as compelling playing Zod as the great Terrance Stamp was in “Superman II.”

Could “Steel” have been better? Undoubtedly. A little more humor and warmth would’ve gone a long way, as would’ve a little more depth to the title character. “Steel” isn’t quite as weighty or topical as it aspires to be, either.

As tentpole, popcorn entertainment goes, though, viewers won’t find a higher-quality superhero reboot during the current summer movie season.

“Man of Steel” certainly merits a trip to the den.

Rating: Howl-and-a-half

Score: 80/100

Runtime: 143 minutes

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi/fantasy violence; suitable for the pups with parental guidance

Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011