By R. David
The ever-crowded field of superheroes wreaking havoc on our movie theaters is once again at fever pitch this summer. Like last summer’s “Avengers” VS “The Dark Knight Rises” battle for box office and fanboy supremacy, this year “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel” both arrive within mere weeks of each other, and each riding a wave of lofty buzz and expectations – both from comic book-film fans and their respective studios.
Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel” is undoubtedly the riskier and more interesting of the two competitors. The studio has had tremendous success throughout the past decade with Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, but they haven’t found a way to produce a Superman film that has resonated with audiences in over 30 years. Despite the superhero-friendly climate of the mid-aughts, 2006’s Bryan Singer-directed “Superman Returns” was a solid box office performer, but it failed to “break out” the way Nolan’s Dark Knight films did – never inciting a similar level of intense fanboy love (and this was before the game-changing juggernaut that was “The Dark Knight”) – and fell about $100 million short of the kind of box office receipts the Marvel Comics-based films were raking in at the time. The general consensus – especially amongst the all-important fanboy community – was audiences were underwhelmed by Singer’s sincere take on the hero. He tried (admirably, some would argue) to capture and continue the light, family-friendly tone of Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 theatrical take on the Man of Steel in a climate where dark, angsty superheroes were all the rage.
Now, six years later, Warner Bros. is wiping the slate clean and attempting to make a place for Superman in this ever-expanding universe of comic book movie competitors. This time, they have made an obviously calculated decision to drag Superman – kicking and screaming if need be – into the darker, hyper-realized superhero-chic aesthetic of today’s comic book film adaptations with “Man of Steel”. Director Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”) has never been one for subtlety, but has long been championed for his visual flair. He gives “Man of Steel” a visceral punch lacking in any of the previous Superman film attempts. But it’s the inclusion of Christopher Nolan as the film’s producer and obvious guiding light – and long-time Nolan collaborator, writer David S. Goyer – Warner Bros. is no doubt putting most of its faith in to (finally) jumpstart a new Superman franchise, just as they did with Batman for the studio nearly a decade ago.
Unfortunately for Warner Bros. – and for audiences – Nolan and Goyer don’t seem inspired to bring the same sort of complex narrative structure and gravitas to their Superman reboot as they did to their methodically intricate Dark Knight trilogy. Perhaps this is because Nolan is simply producing, rather than directing “Man of Steel”, or perhaps Superman’s backstory and the ultimate, inescapable nature of the character simply does not lend itself to the same weighty real-world parallels as those of The Caped Crusader. Goyer has deservedly received much praise for his Dark Knight scripts, but it’s important to remember that he has also written (“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”), produced (“Blade: Trinity”) and directed (“The Unborn”) his share of forgettable genre exercises. When not collaborating on a story with Nolan, he seems content to simply go through the motions. “Man of Steel” is no exception. Despite being a reboot, there is very little in the way of storytelling here that feels fresh or new – either in terms of crafting a character origin story or as an attempt to explore or add to the Superman mythos.
“Man of Steel” begins on Krypton (a world that looks like the inside of a volcano, as opposed to the ice crystals of previous films), introducing us to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his pregnant wife Faora-Ul (Ayelet Zurer). Krypton is in the midst of literal self-destruction. As the planet is engulfed in rolling flames and spontaneous explosions, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup d’etat to save Krypton by overthrowing the council of elders and taking command of the Codex, which will apparently prevent the impending apocalypse because, well, the film says so. Neither why the planet is so briskly decaying (it is mentioned that this has all been trigged by environmental factors – because Important Political Commentary!) or how exactly Zod plans to reverse this is ever made very clear beyond the usual convoluted comic-booky reasoning involving all-powerful objects and sins-of-the-powerful-type speak.
Jor-El swipes the Codex and returns home where his wife gives birth to a son they name Kal-El. Zod shows up to reclaim the Codex, leaving Jor-El no choice but to launch it – and his newborn son – into space, headed for an unknown planet. (Spoiler: That planet is Earth.) Zod murders Jor-El, then is captured and tried for his crimes. He and his henchmen are sentenced to some sort of outer space, cryogenic banishment, just as Krypton devours itself. This all appears to take place over the course of a single afternoon (that’s one hell of an efficient justice system those Kryptonians have).
The movie then skips ahead 30-some years to a grown Kal-El, now played by Henry Cavill, working on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia; going by the name Clark Kent and already fully aware of his Superman powers. The movie fills in the blanks with flashbacks, showing us that Kal-El’s ship landed in the cornfields of Kansas, where he was taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane – both well-cast here) and raised to carefully hide his otherworldly powers so he wouldn’t be ostracized by the masses, or worse yet, targeted by the military. Throughout his life, Clark has found himself in situations that threatened to expose his true abilities, and carrying the weight of that burden has led him to a nomadic existence. That is, until Zod tracks him down, exposes his true identity and makes it his mission to rebuild Krypton – on Earth.
“Man of Steel” is at its best in those flashback moments. Not only is seeing Clark discover and learn to live with his alien powers a lot more interesting than any of the intergalactic conspiracy nonsense Goyer cooks up, but it is a far more effective film in these quieter moments than when Snyder cranks up all of the genre-standard bombast. The quitter moments between Clark and his adoptive father are among the film’s most memorable, giving it (and the characters) a humanity that is absent from the movie’s second half, despite the fact that Snyder keeps beating the save-the-human-race drum even after the film has long since collapsed into cartoony sci-fi (so much so that he overtly and awkwardly positions Superman as a Christ-like figure in several shots).
For his part, Cavill is something of an enigma; though that may be more the script’s doing than his own. He certainly looks the part and seems capable of giving an effective performance, but he is saddled with a script that gives him hardly any dialog early on and then nothing but do-gooder, superhero clichés to spout when he is finally set loose. Mostly his performance boils down stoic brooding, indifferent gazes and puppy-dog-eyed sentimentality. He also strangely never seems to be very amazed or excited by his powers. I get that he discovered most of them as a child, but the film shows him discover he can fly for the very first time. He seems happy enough about it, but there is none of the, “Holy-effing-shit, I CAN FLY!” excitement you’d expect to see at a moment like this. The whole movie lacks a certain sense of wonder and amazement. Maybe it’s because Snyder and Goyer figure we’ve seen so much of this before in five previous Superman movies, and dozens of other superhero films. Or maybe it’s simply because we indeed have seen these things in all of these other films. Either way; that they couldn’t seem to find a way to up the ante here robs the movie a lot of potential excitement and payoff. As a result, there’s very little for Cavill as an actor to hang his hat on, and even less so for us an audience to find ourselves truly invested in the outlandish conflict presented here.
And that’s a shame because, for a while at least, “Man of Steel” seems to be on to something. Snyder’s visual flair is firmly intact here – with the flashback sequences recalling the wistful, daydream-like nature of Norman Rockwellesque Americana, and a bit of polished-cinema verite style to many of the action sequences (think a glossier version of the destruction in films like “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle”). But Snyder just doesn’t know a good thing when he’s got it. He’s like a poker player sitting pretty with 19 who says, “hit me.” He just can’t help but overplay his hand. He doubles down with a tedious second half filled with ridiculous exposition and an endless barrage of climactic sequences that are so noisy, chaotic and numbing, they make the finales in the “Transformers” movies look refined by comparison.
That I don’t even feel the need to mention should-be major plot points like Clark’s relationship with reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows just how insignificant the film treats their burgeoning romance. They have very little interaction and know each other for only a few days, yet there they are kissing and getting all teary-eyed over one another by the end of the movie. Adams does what she can with the role, but their relationship just doesn’t wash. It doesn’t help that she’s the rebellious, adventurous type and he’s the strong-silent type – hardly a convincing or interesting couple. But Goyer has a franchise to reboot, so I guess he had to shoehorn the Lois Lane character in there somehow, right?
A convincing romance is not a problem in “Iron Man 3”, however. In fact, Tony Stark’s love for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is his main motivation throughout much of the latest installment in this cash-cow series, which now by extension also includes “The Avengers” (AKA The Highest Grossing Superhero Movie Of All Time). This time around, Stark faces threats new and old. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is a psychotic Middle-Eastern terrorist bomber who intimidates our nation with murderous viral videos before launching each attack. Meanwhile, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a one-time would-be Stark protégé who still harbors scornful rage towards Stark for blowing him and his ideas off over 13 years ago. Now he is a biological weapons-manufacturing scientist who’s genius is on par with Stark’s, and if he can’t get Stark to buy his latest idea, he’ll use it against him – and the world.
The problem is, Stark has been so rattled by the events that concluded “The Avengers” that he now suffers anxiety attacks at the slightest mention of “New York”. Taking a page from Nolan and Goyer’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, Stark spends his days as a tormented recluse, toiling away in his Malibu mansion-cum-workshop, and letting Pepper take care of Stark Industries. It isn’t until she is targeted and placed in immediate danger that he becomes determined to step back into action.
And that’s only “Iron Man 3’s” plot at face value. There are several reveals in the film – scripted by its director Shane Black (who takes over for Jon Favreau, who helmed the first two installments and has a cameo here) and Drew Pearce – that turn several plot strands upside down. They aren’t necessarily believable or satisfying – or make the film better than it would have been had it stayed the course – but in the bargain we also get a second act that has more in common with Black’s “Lethal Weapon” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” scripts than the usual non-stop stunts and explosions of the more typical superhero flicks.
After The Mandarin sends Stark’s cliff-side mansion – and his entire weapons workshop, housing all of his Iron Man gear – crashing into the ocean, Stark spends the entire mid-section of the film as himself rather than the titular hero. It’s a bold move on Black’s part but it pays off thanks to some terrific writing and dialog. Not only is Robert Downey Jr. as impressive as ever as the humorously sarcastic and smug Stark, but he also has winning moments with Paltrow, Ty Simpkins as a small town kid Stark is marooned with for a spell, and his de facto partner, Don Cheadle’s Colonel James Rhodes. Stark and Rhodes buddy-cop speak and their sarcastic one-liners are right in writer/director Black’s wheelhouse; and the movie, characters and dialog feel fresher than they otherwise might have had Black not deviated from the Iron Man course for a good chunk of the film. Indeed, when the movie returns its focus to the usual razzle-dazzle special effects and convoluted exposition of the rather contrived plot points, the movie loses zip in the place where it should be gaining it. Only a mid-air rescue aboard an exploding Air Force One feels truly inspired. The finale that follows is entertaining enough from an action standpoint, but memorable it is not.
Still, “Iron Man 3” is a great deal better than the second movie. For one thing, it feels like an actual film, not simply an excuse to get the remaining necessary characters introduced before “The Avengers” film. “Iron Man 3” is also a bit less exhausting than “The Avengers”, even if it lacks a good deal of that film’s energetic pizazz and great comic moments. That’s not to say “Iron Man 3” doesn’t have enough of its own; most of them courtesy of Downey’s typically masterful portrayal of Stark(I still say there is no reason a guy can’t be nominated for an Oscar simply because he wears a giant metal suit), though you can’t praise him without acknowledging Black and Pearce’s script.
“Iron Man 3” may stumble when trafficking in some of the more tired superhero tropes, but just because it has a more familiar style and tone than “Man of Steel”, doesn’t mean it can’t be the more satisfying film. Snyder’s attempt to break new ground for the Superman franchise has many admirable qualities, but he and Goyer largely drop the ball where it counts: giving us a story we can care about and action sequences that are something more than an exhausting, endless blur of uninspired special effects. “Man of Steel” looks great and boasts some nice moments and clever ideas. Too bad they only serve to makes us all the more aware of the kind of film it could have been. “Iron Man 3” is not as ambitious or grandiose (only relatively speaking in this case, of course), but it gives the series a breath of fresh air while still giving fans what they want.
Snyder should take notes.
Man of Steel: 2 stars out of 4.
Iron Man 3: 3 stars out of 4.