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Cinema Signal: Lots of flaws and way too much of a tiresome villain. So, not quite a green light. MOBILE: |
. "Man of Steel"

In the early stages of conceiving and writing this sci-fi adventure about one of the most iconic figures of comic strip lore, it was decided, probably on the basis of audience analysis, to give 'em (that's us) all the violent action they can stand. For those who can do with less volume and futuristic combat, disappointment comes in the form of drawing board characters. It's even a strain to sustain admiration for the revered iconic figure we know as Superman (Henry Cavill, "Red Riding Hood," "Stardust") whom we want to cheer on.

To begin with, there's a lot of emphasis on his origins, and director Zack Snyder ("Sucker Punch," "Watchmen"), with "Dark Knight Rises" screenwriter David S. Goyer (and Christopher Nolan), fetches up what-all happened on the planet Krypton that led to the "Man of Steel's" presence on our planet.

This is NOT your grandfather's version of Superman, from the emblem on his chest to his adoptive parents, Martha (Diane Lane, "Secretariat") and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, "The Company Men") who have named him Clark.

Gone are the quick changes in garb and identity, from Clark Kent, the owly reporter on the Daily Planet newspaper, to the champion of justice for all humanity. Which transformation iconically takes place inside a phone booth. Of course, that's no surprise given current changes in societal and environmental developments since the original conception of the strip on which the character is based. Do we still have phone booths in America? We do, but we're calling them kiosks. Privacy is harder and harder to come by.

Time marches on and so do societal norms. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, "Contagion") is black, which evens out the racial balance, though the editor of the Daily is no less imperious as the functional character that he needs to be. He is, after all, the man that Clark and Lois answer to.

Speaking of which, also gone is the unspoken romance between Clark and Lois of days gone by. Once, they were co-reporters on the paper and the poor girl had no idea who her modest colleague really was. Here, however, she meets him in full regalia and witnesses his exploits in attempting to thwart General Zod's concentrated desire to "protect the interests of his people," the Kryptonites. At the expense of all earthlings. And, he's got the machinery to do it, too. But, somewhere in this phrase that he repeats like a slogan, I hear an echo of many a political mantra that we hear on TV and read in the papers these days. Could Snyder & Co. have intended a little satire in their Superman scenario?

"Mantra" brings up the religious iconism that our central character suggests when he hovers above mortals and immortals to address them. Jesus is sometimes depicted this way in religious art. The suggestion of biblical imagery is inescapable, buttressed by Supe's desire to protect mankind from the likes of his Kryptonic enemy. But any biblical purity would seem to be expunged or, at least, modified by the promise of a sexual relationship with Lois, which keeps this within the framework of the secular despite the celestial picture the Man of Steel strikes.

So, Lois knows who her man really is from the git-go. but this isn't going to change anything within this updated version. Her not knowing was a central part of strip's drama and charm. Here, once the backstory stuff is over, and the young Kal-El is grown up, he pretty much spends his time satisfying teen fantasies since they're the major audience the film addresses. The action exploits are as much the work of the CGI team as it is a stuntman's dream.

Other symbology comes in the form of incessant product placements that offset a film's budget. I'm not going to say which to look for since they don't need free advertising here, but these "commercials" will be evident when you suddenly see an indestructible sign standing tall as the smoke clears in the aftermath of horrendous destruction.

Which is the film's big problem. Violent action comes at us like an unending rainstorm, leading to drowning and drowsiness by sheer repetition. There must have been something in Shannon's contract that ensured him at least an amount of screen time as that given to the title character. This would be easy to pull off for his agent since Shannon has the theatrical marquee value and Henry Cavill doesn't yet. Guess who has the upper hand in cast negotiations. Unfortunately, this is an example of negotiating power creating an imbalance in the film.

Basically, though, this ensemble is well chosen for a variety of reasons. Shannon is doing a lot of work these days as an arch villain, especially if you saw and remember his dirty cop in "Premium Rush" last year. That part seems to have foretold his choice for the role of Zod, for which he has a literal hay day with far too much presence and repetitive speech-making that stupefies our senses.

Cavill's facial structure is the embodiment of comic strip drawing in any lighting, defying anyone to take issue with any other aspect of his portrayal. This is a good thing because it satisfies expectations.

On the other hand, Amy Adams doesn't make out so well. This superb actress has made the difference in the success of almost everything she's been in, most especially "Trouble with the Curve" and "The Fighter." But here, due to the size of the role and the reactive nature of it, to the detriment of a more fully proactive one, the script gives her little chance to function that way. For me, her talents were wasted here and I think I'd've been happier with a less-well known or lesser talent with the right looks.

The film is also not above borrowing the tropes of superhero standards, The sequence of a superhero "discovering" his massive skills and strengths was first (in modern time, at least) established as a key delight in the first "Spider Man." Remember that great scene up on the roof with Tobey Macguire? Superm... uh, the Man of Steel... is given the same moment of discovery that's a virtual copy. I would've liked some element of originality infused into it.

Finally, excess seems to be the motto here. The crashing and banging in onscreen action and in the soundtrack becomes relentless and beyond necessity. There's a point where humanization is replaced by the saturation of destruction and the can-you-top-this violence. Sadly, action excess is the price we pay to lure the ticket buyers from their free TV or the internet, which seems to be the guiding spirit of this version of the story.

The only thing that's not excessive is a plot that allows us to bond with the characters.

Still, I'm rooting for this film's commercial success, flawed though it may be. I like, if not love, Superman. And I want him to dart around the skies and the nether regions of space as, at least, an equal to his peers. In terms of what his symbology inspires in us, I think he deserves to. I feel that, as long as there's a Superman in the entertainment cosmos, all is well in the big-budget universe.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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