Man of Steel

man-of-steel-poster-600x886Warner Bros. really wants Superman to turn into the next Dark Knight franchise and Zack Snyder’s mega opus Man of Steel makes a serious run for your money.  It’s a gargantuan exercise in Transformer-sized destruction masquerading as a modernized take on the most popular superhero of all time.  Can the caped do-gooder savior survive a dead-on serious interpretation courtesy of the 300, Watchmen-helmer with the guiding hand of producer Christopher Nolan?

As a matter of fact—he can, but not without a few scars and lacerations.  Man of Steel is admittedly somewhat of a choppy mess missing much of the beating heart a Superman film desperately needs more than an alien super-punch.  Snyder attempts to restructure Kal-El and his battle against the alienation of being, well, an alien.  The film lifts off immediately in a big way—Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his mother are introduced on planet Krypton (very Avatar-esque) in the middle of a planetary Armageddon.  Krptonians haven’t been able to deliver a natural born child for many years until Jor-El’s wife delivers a baby that is immediately shuttled off to Earth in the hopes of giving him a chance to survive before military leader/lunatic Zod (Michael Shannon) can find the child and turn him to mush.

Fast forward.  Kal-El (renamed Clark Kent on Earth) is a 33-year-old man-alien in hiding as a savior-to-be.  Through flashbacks, Snyder introduces Clark’s restrained hostility and his heroic efforts to save others in need despite his father’s disapproval.  Kevin Costner, superb yet limited in the film as Pa Kent, instructs Clark that the world isn’t ready for the unveiling of Clark’s identity and incredible abilities.  The film bounces around important highlights from Clark’s life before plunging into the efforts of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the willful reporter who stumbles upon Kent in the Fortress of Solitude.  Kent discovers his past.  Lane discovers the story of her career.  Bring out the cape and the romance.

Kent dons the infamous suit just in time to do battle with Zod who manages to find Earth with his evil cohorts in an attempt to reclaim that last artifact of Krypton following its destruction: Clark/Kal-El.  In the process, Zod wants to also level all of Earth and rebuild Krypton.  With no earthly measures able to stop Zod and his troops, Superman locks fists with beings just as powerful as he in the hopes of saving the third rock from the sun before it is wiped out.

I have to give Snyder credit for taking a full bludgeoning swing at the infamous DC universe character and despite a few strikes, he manages a base hit—one that nearly shatters the ball.  You couldn’t pack any more action and mayhem into the final hour of this movie.  If there is anyone left alive in the massive destruction of Metropolis by the time the film is over, consider Superman back for another go-around as the world’s alien savior.  Fans looking for action will feast on this film.  Fans looking for a little more character development will find a lot to be desired with Snyder’s film.

Granted, another origin story for Superman in 2013 wasn’t going to be an easy task.  Most viewers know the story, the beats, and what must be included.  To retread so much information already committed to film over the course of five previous feature Superman films *not to mention ten seasons of Smallville and however many seasons of Lois and Clark), would have the blind taste of Novocaine.  After a while the filmmakers wouldn’t have realized they were chewing off their own tongues.

ManofSteel-ZodWith flashback sequences utilized for Man of Steel, the required information regarding Kent’s past makes it to audiences, albeit in disjointed fashion that hinders the narrative from ever finding the proper fluidity.  The romance spark between Lois and Clark never fully develops, and everything that must occur feels like a falling gavel.  The filmmakers have sentenced the film ‘that this must take place!’  However, Snyder still captures the parallels of Christ and Kent’s battle against vengeful (sinful) temptation when ultimately he must be the burdened savior of the world that his father sent him to be.

The battle of give-and-take for audience expectation hits the film hard in the gut without bringing it to its knees.  When the film isn’t showcasing the highlight reel, some great moments and performances sneak through.  Most notably of course is Henry Cavill as the latest actor to adorn the costume.  He fits it well.  The actor comes across as charming, powerful, and certainly human.  For my money he is a great Superman in a not-so-great movie.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe are also especially good here.  Even when they all have less to do, they provide the necessary supporting talent the film really needs.

The film’s greatest disappointment arrives in the form of Michael Shannon whose one-note expression gives the villain Zod little to do.  Perhaps the script shortchanged him, but for whatever reason I found Shannon lacking in terms of a death-blow adversary.  Was he too serious that the performance came off campy?  I don’t know.  A second viewing might sort that out for me.

Another critical factor in lessening the film’s impact has to be enormous action that meanders more in silliness than importance.  The fighting feels ongoing, but never immediate.  Honestly.  The destruction in the film morphs into the Octomom-love-children of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and well, Zack Snyder.  Visually, yes, this is a mammoth spectacle to behold and I have to say that the special effects will likely drown out any other film this year.  Or next year.  But Snyder’s movie endeavor, at 2 1/2 hours, had no limits in the action department.

Yet Man of Steel still manages to fly.  I walked away satisfied, but without the butterflies.  The film is flawed for sure, but this team can take flight with a clear-cut adventure  for the sequel now that the dust has settled on the choppy origin story.  I’m guessing the film will take place ten years in the future when the rebuilding of Metropolis has a chance to finish.

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If there has ever been a franchise sequel I’ve been longing for, it could be none other than Predators, a standalone installment that would rid the stink of both recent Alien vs. Predator pictures and delve further into the universe of a race of alien hunter-killers.  Not since the so-so 1990 film Predator 2 has a proper sequel to the original 1987 actioner been released.  Twenty years later with the help of producer Robert Rodriguez, the series seemed to be in store for a worthy recharge of the batteries.  All the elements were in place for a fantastic action-movie experience, but the movie is a little  reserved, hesitant and feels slapped together.

The best that can be said about Predators is that it starts off with a bang.  As the film opens, Adrien Brody (yes, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody) falls from the sky, unconscious and unaware, that is until he wakes up mid-fall, and his parachute bursts open as he hits the ground with a thud.  In the middle of a jungle, other characters soon follow plunging to earth.  A handful of characters, unaware of where they are or how they got there, soon realize they have something in common: there all hard-boiled killers.  A U.S. mercenary, a Yakuza samurai, a death-row inmate, a warlord, a blacks ops sniper, and a few others culminate a group of prey for three nasty predator hunters.  Royce (Brody), the mercenary, soon comes to realize their purpose in this jungle, seemingly a Predator game preserve planet, and ends up taking lead in the fight against the alien hunters with hopes of finding a way back to Earth.

Robert Rodriguez was apparently given free reign on this project, producing at his very own Troublemaker Studios without studio interference.  Nimrod Antal (Armored, Vacancy) actually directs the film, and does a decent enough job establishing the Predator world, and making Predators look and sound like a sequel to the original Predator. Early on, I was very pleased to find out the filmmakers decided to reuse Alan Silvestri’s original musical score for this sequel.  And with a return to a jungle environment, the film at least attempts to please fans of John McTiernan’s film.  But that’s about where Predators stops working in our favor.

Most of the characters occupying the story disappoint.  Aside from a surprisingly solid and bulky Adrien Brody (trying desperately to fill in the shoes of Arnold Schwarzenegger) delivering a favorable performance, the rest of the characters are extremely disappointing—or at least they are written terribly.  Even Laurence Fishburne, who is introduced midway into the picture, comes in strong, and quickly descends into a stupid ten-minute segment, as his character has been trapped on the Predator planet for ten years, surviving off of whatever he can scavage and store.  He harbors Brody and the other human inhabitants running for their lives, only to exit the movie quickly and provide little substance.  The same can be said for the other characters as well.  They are no more than cardboard cutouts designed by the script to be shooting targets for the predators.  As a group of skilled human killers, apparently selected for these particular skills, I hoped these people would collaborate in hunting the predators and fighting back, but they had nothing of interest to add to the plot or any of the chases.

This brings me to the Predators themselves.  It’s as if they’re an afterthought, as they are extraordinarily underused.  The original 1987 Predator was a thoughtful, skillful hunter, utilizing his environment, and was frankly pretty darn terrifying.  Rodriguez, himself, declared Predators to Predator as Aliens was to Alien.  I’m sorry to say he is mistaking.  There is far more suspense and more action in the original.  Not to say that Antal’s film completely bores, as the action sequences are filmed decent enough and quite gritty, but the choreography (especially in a scene where the Yakuza samurai swordfights a Predator) feels dull and sloppy.  The Predators have no interesting weapons, no personalities, and nothing of interest to learn about them.  I did appreciate seeing some different creatures running amok on the alien planet, such as Predator dogs, and otherworldly species as well.  But there’s not quite enough of that explored.  I ultimately started noticing that anything that was introduced in Predators that I wanted more of, quickly disappeared. And any time I wanted the plot to explore ideas that came to fruition, the movie veered off into nonsensical dialogue that goes nowhere.  In fact, nothing is explained about how these human characters even arrive on this distant planet.  In some ways that is okay by me, as it presents ideas that could be explored in another movie, but I highly doubt the filmmakers ever intend to address any of these possibilities.

Overall, Predators was a disappointment.  It’s not as bad as the AVP disasters, but it’s not as good as Predator 2, and definitely not even close to the original Predator.  It is obvious the film is a simple miscalculation and probably came together too quickly.  However, enough interesting ideas are introduced—they just go unused or underdeveloped.  Another sequel could tighten things up, as Predators ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger.  I definitely would love to see another installment tie up the loose ends, and deliver a much more suspenseful premise.  All die-hard Predator fans should see this sequel, as there’s enough here to keep you interested, but not quite enough to thrill you.  Here’s hoping for a better follow-up.

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