Illegal Alien: Superman the Underdog

City Pulse | June 10, 2013
“Man of Steel” takes a fresh approach to the well-worn origin of the Superman narrative (first published as Action Comics #1 in 1938). It piles on state-of-the-art special effects toward a double-edged theme of xenophobic ambition —reference planet-Krypton baddie General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempting to repopulate his people with the aid of Superman’s blood — and America’s racist anti-immigrant ideologies as turned sideways against resident alien Clark Kent. The movie makes clear that Superman is not human, much less the red-blooded American that he outwardly appears to be.

The sad part is that the film’s collectivist themes are so concealed by spectacle and pedantic storytelling that most audiences will barely notice their presence — blame Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer for the story and script, respectively.

Director Zack Snyder’s earnest reboot of the Superman franchise is visually appealing, but doesn’t shift gears often or quickly enough to validate its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. There are lulls. Still, Henry Cavill (“Immortals”) wears well the appropriate stoic charm of our holy-trinity extraterrestrial protagonist — Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman. Cavill’s imposing physicality, square jaw, and piercing blue eyes are justly suited for the pantheon of comic books’ most iconic figure.

Other casting choices don’t go over so well. Russell Crowe flails in his role as Kal-El’s powerful father Jor-El. Here’s a part that Ralph Fiennes or Georg Clooney could have hit out of the ballpark with panache to spare. Instead, we get the overbearing Russell Crowe giving line readings that sound as if he has a marble in his mouth. Momentous visitations between Jor-El’s undying soul and the corporal Kal-El provide old-fashioned exposition informing the young outlier regarding choices he must make toward fulfilling his hero’s journey.

For her leading lady role as Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane, Amy Adams plays the character ahead of the beat. Every line she delivers seems like an end-run to a foregone conclusion. We never get to see the gears turn. Of course there’s the non-brunette issue related to Amy Adams that begs a question about why a more obvious choice — such as Michelle Williams or Jennifer Lawrence — wasn’t made.

Baby Kal-El grows up on Earth after being jettisoned here in the wake of his home planet Krypton’s destruction as initiated by Zod. Kal-El’s adoptive father, Midwest farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), imparts a stern warning to Clark not to use his super-human powers to save people lest he be outed as the freakish alien that he is. Conformity is the key to survival in America. A school bus accident on a bridge gives the adolescent Clark sufficient cause to defy his patriarchal guardian’s worrying demands. Clark Kent has his own sense of ethics to answer to. However, it isn’t until General Zod and his army invades to hold Earth hostage in exchange for Kal-El that Clark makes the transition into the Man of Steel. We learn that the “S” on Superman’s chest is a Krypton symbol for hope, rather than the apparent first letter of his super hero moniker. Superman’s ability to use his eyes, as a laser isn’t explained, but it gives the movie a kick in the sweet spot every time he turns on the fiery red beam during ferocious battles with Zod and his troops.

Michael Shannon’s Zod makes the movie happen more so than the endless stream of falling skyscrapers that Zack Snyder is compelled to show, for fear that the narrative isn’t strong enough without so much cataclysmic destruction on display. He has a point. But it didn’t have to be that way. Superman is caught between two enemies, the earthlings that threaten to persecute him like the latest King Kong — another version of an undesirable immigrant — or the insane militarized bully from his home planet.

As with all other comic-book movie adaptations — save Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” 1 and 2 — “Man of Steel” never connects tone, rhythm, and theme into a unifying whole. That isn’t to say it isn’t an entertaining movie; it is. It just doesn’t leave you walking out of the cinema with that breathless sense of transformative wonder that you always hope for as an audience member.

Rated PG-13. 143 mins. (B-) (Three Stars – out of five/ no halves)

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