“Man of Steel” – Kneel before Zod!

Now that’s a summer movie I’ve been waiting for! In reality I could end the review right now, because I have just shown my hand and, quite honestly, no amount of words will convey how awesome “Man of Steel” really is. Nonetheless, I think I’d like to say a little bit more on the subject.

Following yesterday’s screening of the long-awaited reboot of the Superman franchise I was so pumped I had serious difficulties focusing my thoughts enough to write the review and I spent a better part of the evening listening to the excerpts from the Hans Zimmer’s score to “Man of Steel” (which is epic, by the way, and come Monday there is no force in the universe that could stop me from buying the CD) wearing my Superman T-Shirt and feeling awesome and invincible. And before I get to the nitty gritty, I just wanted to say that this is what a superhero film is supposed to do to you; it ought to be the definition of ‘awesome’, epic and unforgettable. Clearly, Shane Black could learn a thing or two from Zack Snyder, because “Man of Steel” is everything that “Iron Man 3” isn’t. While it certainly has its flaws, which I’ll discuss later on, the film delivers on almost all fronts by being respectful to the iconic stature of Superman in pop-culture and all the while elevating his story to the proper modern standard.

The origin stories in superhero universes are almost invariably awkward – just as adolescence is in real life, I presume. In them one needs to provide enough background information for the story to actually count as an origin, but it needs to be done with some class so that it’s not heavy-handed. We all know how easy it is to desensitize the viewer by overloading him with data (“Oblivion” and “After Earth”, I’m looking at you, guys) and going for a sloppy brush-over job is not going to cut it any longer; it’s not the 70’s any more and we have the technical capabilities to give Kal-El a proper background story, without the cheap crystals, sheets and bathrobes. Moreover, “Man of Steel” – whilst clunky in the beginning in delivering the actual background – did give Superman solid foundation in his universe with very vivid interpretation of his home planet Krypton and the plot that led him to Earth.

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In that spirit – for those who are unaware – it all begins on a distant planet Krypton. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) is born and it is a special affair. I shan’t reveal why that is, because by some it might be seen as a minor twist in the movie, but the newly born Kal-El needs to be protected at all cost. More so because his father – being an important figure in the governing structures – discovers that Krypton has become unstable and is going to explode, thus claiming lives of its inhabitants. No-one, including the ruling council, believes Jor-El’s gruesome revelations, apart from General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup d’etat to ensure the planet’s survival. Jor-El doesn’t trust the young and ruthless general and refuses to join him. Despite all that, Zod with his insurgents carry on what they started, but Jor-El gets killed in the process. He does, however, ensure that his son is sent off in a capsule headed specifically to Earth. The revolution gets thwarted in the end, Zod and his henchmen banished, and Krypton – according to Jor-El’s predictions – meets its untimely demise.

When Kal-El lands on Earth (somewhere in Kansas) he is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who adopt him as their son and name him Clark. As the boy grows up, his other-worldly powers start to surface and make Clark into a social outcast. After years of living in solitude, drifting through the world and living under various aliases, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) gets a shot at understanding his past, his powers and his reason to exist. He tags along as a technician on an expedition where a young and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a possibly alien artefact frozen in polar ice for millennia, which will turn out vital for Kal-El to become what he needs to become. And little does he know, that once banished General Zod, now brutally scarred, betrayed and hungry for retribution has found Kal-El’s refuge and will stop at nothing in order to claim his revenge.

This is why I think origins stories are difficult to get right: it takes 350 words to summarize 25-30 minutes of a film and I think I held myself back a little with the details and intricacies of the story. I would certainly understand that to some people the first act of “Man of Steel” feels a bit out of tune and needs a bit of time to start rolling, and by the time the final act is upon us, it’s gleefully steam-rolling through the screen in a sensory overload of epic proportions. However, I found the first act quite pleasing, as the very details of Clark’s coming of age are delivered through flashbacks and dreams instead of a blatant biopic-like borefest. While this approach feels fragmented and slows down the pace, it never really hurts the story as a whole, because meanwhile we get to see how Clark slowly becomes Superman by gradually learning to understand and love the people of Earth. I personally loved, how Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer chose to deliver Superman’s mission. While Kal-El is far away from being dark and edgy, he is no longer the clumsy Clark Kent, as portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve – Henry Cavill’s Superman is no mere superhero… He is not your friendly boy scout, for he is a messiah. By the way, when Clark finally finds his roots, hones his powers and comes to terms with his mission in life, he is 33 years of age – just like Jesus… And his character is led more or less in a messianic way, with selfless choices and sacrifices he is willing to make.

But that is not the best part… The best part is that “Man of Steel” finally delivers a Superman that we needed. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate Chris Reeve’s classic Superman, but the forty years that stands between us make him look… cute and adorable… “Man of Steel” gives us a Superman that – no questions asked – is faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Henry Cavill’s Superman is the supersonic indestructible god it ought to have been for decades now. Thanks to technical advances in special effects, Superman is no longer a levitating guy in a red cape – he is a force of nature and any sequence with Kal-El in it is quite simply jaw-dropping. Indubitably, “Man of Steel” goes to ridiculous lengths to show us how gods would fight each other. Everything about this film is ultra-fast, massive, epic and packed with adrenaline. Whilst the first act is quite slow, dreamy, or even clunky, the remainder of the film compensates for it in a way you have never seen before.

On top of all that – the action and epic sequences – we can also find some solid acting in “Man of Steel”. Henry Cavill (first non-American to portray Superman) does a fantastic job at grounding Kal-El in the world he is in, so that it feels more natural to see him emerge as a god who would give his life to save his compatriots. While Cavill’s demeanour certainly fits the expectations, he surely doesn’t feel like a run-of –the-mill Chris Reeve lookalike, but breathes new life into Kal-El’s character and contributes vastly to the impact of “Man of Steel”. Amy Adams as Lois Lane very nicely adds to the picture. I didn’t seem to understand what her game really was for a while, because Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” is not just a damsel in distress any more (well, she is once or twice), but I think she is more of an embodiment of everything Kal-El is fighting for.

And the villain… Having a believable and scary villain in a movie is almost as important as getting your protagonist right. Michael Shannon as general Zod does a fine job creating a frightening and ultimately dangerous counter-balance to Kal-El. If it hadn’t been for certain one-liners and the initial insurgence plot-line, I would have thought Shannon’s Zod was close to the level of Ledger’s Joker, but he clearly had to grow into the boots he wore on the screen. While the older scary Zod is a fine villain and I have nothing against him, the younger Zod who revolted against Jor-El was quite artificial and laughable (almost like Commodus in “Gladiator”) and I couldn’t find him scary or threatening at all. On the other hand, that might have been the plan all along as Zod’s character seems to grow scarier in time, so that by the time we hit the climax, he’s got everything he needs. A late-blooming villain, but still…

In summary, “Man of Steel” has become my personal favourite Superman movie and it definitely is the biggest summer film for me. Well, until “Pacific Rim” is out, but that we shall see… Anyway, it is an all-round powerful sci-fi that recognises Superman’s mythos and is not afraid to bring something new to the table. The special effects are delicious and perfectly crafted and one can clearly notice someone has been taking notes from J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” with the lens flares, shooting against the light and super-zooming. Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon gave bang-on performances and only Russell Crowe looked to me as if he didn’t belong there quite as much. All this was covered with a thick layer of icing in a form of a powerful and truly epic score by Hans Zimmer, who has managed to slip in some uplifting crescendos in between the lines, so that the overall messianic feel of Superman’s mission was all the more elevated in the end.

By know I realized this article has become too long to be ended with finesse, so I shall say only this: “Man of Steel” turned out to be not only a great summer movie, not only a great Superman movie, but a very good movie in general. In fact, the film was so good that – contrary to what I normally say – I can’t wait to see the sequel…

 

 

“Star Trek Into Darkness” – it boldly went…

Note: The following review is kept spoiler-free. I have no interest in ruining anyone’s experience with this movie, so feel free to read along.

This morning I made a bet against myself, which stated that if I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” later today, I would make an effort and watch every single “Star Trek” film and all the TV shows. Yes, I admit I haven’t been the nerdiest of nerds so far and I somehow managed to survive until this day having only seen an odd episode of The Next Generation and maybe Voyager, back when it was on TV and there was nothing more interesting to see. Strangely enough, I have always been drawn more towards other types of Sci-Fi with the likes of “Star Wars” at my side.

Well, I think now would be the time to get acquainted with William Shatner and the gang, because I thoroughly enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness”. In fairness, ‘enjoyed’ is a bit of an understatement, as I can honestly say that it’s the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen this year – hands down; and quite frankly it is one of the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen in recent memory. On top of all that, it being a sequel (and I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand on sequels) makes it look even better, with the bar set a couple of notches higher than usual.

It is a very rare occurrence when a sequel surpasses the original and – make no mistake – “Star Trek Into Darkness” does not fall into that category… but it’s damn close, I have to say. If anything, people like Shane Black or Michael Bay should actually ring up J.J. Abrams and request some lessons on how to make a sequel properly, so that it doesn’t suck. My point is that if a given film deserves a sequel, than it needs to be to its original what “Star Trek Into Darkness” is to “Star Trek” (2009).

Even though it is not crucial, the knowledge of what happened in the previous “Star Trek” is highly recommended in order to feel comfortable. While there are plot-points that specifically address some events from the original, they are mostly of minor nature and refer to character development. Anyway, we are introduced to the crew of USS Enterprise a couple of years after the events of the previous film. Of course, we still operate under the assumption that the previous “Star Trek” formed an alternate timeline to what all the Trekkies consider ‘canon’, therefore it is only logical to dismiss any butt-hurt comments on the discrepancies between the old Star Trek and this one as stupid and out of place.

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Right, so we’re back with Captain Kirk and the gang who keep on going boldly where no man has gone before as they survey other species, observe, learn and stuff. Gut-feeling Kirk (Chris Pine) and cold-and-rational Spock (Zachary Quinto) have managed to develop a one-of-a-kind relationship that involves a lot of snappy comebacks and situation humor based on the fundamental differences between them. However, something goes wrong during the mission and as a result the crew gets disbanded, Kirk gets sent back to the Academy and the rest of the gang gets reassigned to other starships. Meanwhile over in England, a mysteriously looking fellow (Benedict Cumberbatch) pulls off a terrorist attack of massive proportions. The Starfleet brass quickly identifies the culprit as one of their own, a rogue agent called John Harrison, whose agenda is not exactly understood, but one thing remains clear – he’s one dangerous puppy. A series of events (that I shall not disclose) leads the Federation to reinstate Kirk and to send him on a hunt to the far reaches of the galaxy with a mission to find and bring Harrison down for his crimes. And it’s no easy task as he seems to be hiding on Kronos – the Klingon home world, and any misstep by our brave protagonists might extend the already tense relationships between the Federation and the Klingon Empire into an all-out war.

As you might have already noticed, I’m no Trekkie (at least for now, but I can’t promise anything), but what I can say is that I can’t help but admire how brilliantly Abrams handled this film; I’d even go as far as to say that I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” so much because I have little knowledge of the classical Treks. The film is packed with action delivered at a steady pace with the pathos and epic scenes dosed rationally. In fact, it’s the story and the characters that make up for the bulk of awesomeness of this film, because most of the action takes place in confined spaces. There are, of course, some epic sceneries and sequences of catastrophic proportions, but they somehow fail to overshadow what is the most important in this film – the characters of Kirk, Spock and Harrison, and the game they play.

 

Speaking of John Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch has done a splendid job in creating a real flesh-and-blood villain that a viewer can have an emotional response to. His character is seriously malevolent, scary, vindictive and unpredictable. Plus, his character is responsible for most (if not all) of the story’s dynamic qualities, as his actions trigger very important changes that protagonists will undergo, and this ultimately stands behind the film as its biggest asset. It only goes to show that you can throw away millions of dollars on CGI effects, but the story is what will make the film float or sink. Here we seem to be having a damn near perfect storm of both, with exquisite CGI, action and solid important characters.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is very much a sequel well done; still a sequel and very much an Abrams’ movie with the characteristic photography, lens flares, dynamic cutting and bold twists. J.J. Abrams clearly knows how to handle a universe of that size and still create something gripping and enjoyable. Additionally, this film does not fall into the trap of ‘bigger, louder and more explosions’ and does its job as a proper expansion on the story-line  characters and the general universe. Sure, there’s action and suspense and the entire bang required of a modern-day big label sci-fi, but “Star Trek Into Darkness” has much more to offer than only that. What I’m about to say might be considered heresy in some circles, but from the point of view of character development, story progression and the overall tone of the film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Trek universe. The story sets many important things in motion, the characters undergo massive and very important changes that would define the tone of the next installment  some potential momentum is generated, and the atmosphere as a whole is far more dark and ominous than the original “Star Trek”. I can’t say more at the time in the interest of not spoiling anything.

In summary, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a very good movie on its own and a fantastic addition to the vast Trek universe. The film pays due homage to the classics with the signature lines now part of the wider pop-culture that would make a nerd squeal, and it sports a fair share of laughs, however, not even once does it cross the line. The movie retains its independent style that looks more ‘starwarsy’ than ‘startrekky’, but it works only to the benefit of the film as a whole. The rapid action, witty humor and gorgeous effects are in perfect balance with engaging story, seriously sinister villains and their actions. It truly is a star trek into darkness.