‘Man of Steel’: Superman movie on steroids

The new superhero blockbuster is big on action, noise and CGI but small on resonance

GIRL FIGHT. Amy Adams and Antje Traue (seen here with Cavill) are souped-up successors to ‘Superman II’s’ Margot Kidder and Sarah Douglas. All photos from Warner Bros. Pictures 

MANILA, Philippines – Some 80 years since he was conceived by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster (and 75 years since his actual debut via Action Comics’ issue no. 1), Superman continues to be an object of fascination and aspiration for generations of comics fans. And since the superhero’s leap from page to screen, audiences have generally anticipated whether the adaptations, especially the theatrical ones, would do justice to the man of justice.

In other words, just as everyone wants Superman to succeed despite the odds, you’d likewise want every Superman director to succeed in bringing the comic book hero to big screen life. The catch is, given the diversity of audiences, such success can be relative.

The latest case in point is the 2013 movie about the dude in the blue tights and red cape, “Man of Steel.” Is it a boon or a bane? An initial viewing of the 144-minute movie suggests that “Man of Steel” helmer Zack Snyder made his latest, Warner Bros. Pictures-sanctioned caper into a big film with a little of everything.

KNEELING OPTIONAL. The ever angry-eyed Michael Shannon as the new General Zod is a compelling cinematic descendant of Terence 'Kneel before Zod' Stamp

Being an origin movie, it can’t help but bear elements of the costumed hero’s silver-screen debut, 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” — from baby Kal-El’s (and would-be Superman’s) exit from his dying home planet Krypton to his entry into and growth as Clark Kent in his adaptive planet Earth; from many of the expected supporting characters to even a few not-so-subtle, modern-day product placements.

Yet, as scripted by David S. Goyer — based on a story by Goyer and his “Dark Knight” cohort-director Christopher Nolan — “Man of Steel” also took pains to steer clear of the familiar traits of its predecessors, in many cases even presenting corrective versions of certain story points (e.g., Krypton’s explosion is now a cautionary tale for us dwellers of Planet Climate Change).

Snyder and company also made sure that their new millennium Supes has none of the silliness and datedness of that otherwise superb ’78 classic or 1980’s exhilarating “Superman II.” Instead, they’ve accentuated the drama of quieter moments and ratcheted the action of the brawny sequences. And thanks to computer-generated imagery (CGI), there are also visual, if unoriginal, innovations galore, including a portable, floating contraption that Kryptonians can talk to (like an advanced Siri) and a “genesis chamber” where infant, capsule-confined Kryptonians’ future professions get predetermined (reminiscent of the fields of humans in “The Matrix”).

HE SOARS, EVEN WHEN THE FILM DOES NOT. As Superman, Hayden Christensen-look alike Henry Cavill is just fine and dandy 

As with many a recent superhero flick or a Nolan-involving venture, “Man of Steel’s” general tone is one of earnestness and seriousness, buoyed by a sense of realism that makes the imagined proceedings even more vivid, plausible. This is evident from the get go, as the film opens with the birth of Kal-El, labor pains and all, and down the line with much of the young Clark Kent scenes and even with the toned-down Superman moments.

But Snyder appears to have had a bigger aim: all-encompassing, segmented entertainment. One moment, “Man of Steel” means to please parents, then it’s the teens’ turn, then it’s for the comic-book/superhero devotees — all in the spirit of mirroring how Superman is everyone’s hero and can be counted on to carry the weight of all types of Earth people.

The film is also crammed with countless details and talking points — such as the casting coup for the lead roles and the fleeting “Lexcorp” detail during the climax — that part of the filmmakers’ plan must have been to incite weeklong discussions among friends or family, if not to instigate clarifying repeat viewings.

INTERGALACTIC SEPARATION ANXIETY. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer, as the would-be Superman’s Kryptonian parents, bid goodbye to the Earth-bound Kal-El

Yet on top of all that, for better or ill, Snyder, in his apparent mission of coming up with the Superman movie to beat all Superman (or superhero) movies, seems to have had an even bigger, 4D (not just 3D) scheme: He wants viewers to feel what it’s like to be the invincible big guy himself.

To wit: the camera work, credited chiefly to cinematographer Amir Mokri, utilizes sudden zoom-ins to the hilt, as if to mimic for us Superman’s super vision. There’s the thunderous (yet ultimately unmemorable) musical score by Hans Zimmer, which seems to depict for us the hero’s super hearing. There are also the special effects showing upside down and sideways angles, and that Superman’s propensity for hyperspeed flight, to further show what it’s like to have his wingless capacity to fly.

In other words, “Man of Steel” is just as pumped-up as its chief protagonist, to a noticeable fault. Even the narrative structure is adrenalized, eschewing linear storytelling by bouncing from the present to the flashbacks of the hero’s past and back (not necessarily a bad thing, admittedly, since memories are ever present in human minds). And boy, even in the quieter, hushed scenes, the camera is never still, perennially in handheld mode as if to perpetually generate false tension.

PARENTAL GUIDE. Kevin Costner (with Dylan Sprayberry) plays Jonathan Kent, Superman’s wise, earthbound dad

But perhaps “Man of Steel’s” biggest woe is that, in providing one “Whoa” moment after another, Snyder and cohorts opted to rely heavily on CGI, contemporary Hollywood’s equivalent of steroids.

Some 80% of the entire movie must have had digital effects of varying sorts and amounts, and some of it helps. Yet for the most part, it’s just overkill, especially during the battle sequences involving wanton destruction of buildings and other infrastructure and in the inevitable brawl between Superman and the movie’s chief villain, his fellow Krypton-born General Zod. In these largely interminable scenes, the movie ends up being unsympathetic, impersonal, making the film’s more genuine, intimate moments come off as mere afterthoughts.

That’s too bad since, minus its surplus of fakery, “Man of Steel” has several shining moments of ingenuity and poignancy.

NEWS WORTHY. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Amy Adams as Lois Lane add to ‘Man of Steel’s’ unabashed star wattage

For one thing, Snyder et al. managed to show that, while Kryptonians may be superior in many ways to Earthlings, human beings are far from being passive, helpless weaklings. It also boasts of the long-publicized, unique sight of Superman arrested and handcuffed.

Also nifty is the concept of illustrating how overwhelming Superman’s (and Zod’s) super vision can be if uncontrolled. And the scenes featuring Kevin Costner and/or Diane Lane as Kal-El’s adoptive parents are particularly affecting, such as that if-the-world’s-too-big-then-make-it-small dialogue involving Lane and a “You are my son” moment by Costner that feels like an advanced Father’s Day gift to all the world’s dads.

Such moments of unadorned realness, however, are rather few in what is a heavily, deliberately kinetic motion picture.

Here is a trailer for ‘Man of Steel’:

All told, is “Man of Steel” worth the bother?

It is certainly not a complete letdown and does not lack entertainment value.

But I suspect many would leave the theater wondering how better it might have turned out in other handlers’ hands (here’s looking at you, Sam Raimi), or with less of unreal CGI and more of a human touch.  Rappler.com

‘Man of Steel’, rated PG by the MTRCB, is now showing across the Philippines in regular 2D and 3D theaters as well as a 3D release in IMAX theaters.

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