So, who knew we needed another Superman origin story? After 2006's Superman Returns turned into box-office kryptonite, one would have thought that Warner Brothers would take pause about giving it another go less than a decade later. But alas, the mega success of the Marvel films (and the name recognition of one of the few bankable properties outside of Marvel's tent) brings us back, yet again, to the oft told story of the comic world's least interesting superhero.
What makes Superman such a bummer? He's too nice. Sure, most superheroes tend to be that way because they are good guys. But they can also be flawed, fallible and vulnerable. Tony Stark is hamstrung by not only the shards of metal that threaten to pierce his heart, but also by excess. Hulk is a victim of his rage. Thor's power can be taken from him without his hammer and he has Shakespearian family drama to contend with. The X-Men are distrusted and feared by the very people they risk everything to protect. Superman? Everyone just loves the guy and he's next to invincible. That he's an orphan is the most dramatic thing about him (and even with that he still gets to shoot the shit with his dead dad).
So, with Man of Steel, producer Chris Nolan and longtime writing partner David Goyer bring a little of The Dark Knight's isolationism to lend some edge to the character of Supes, while leaving the character's melty, milquetoast center more or less intact, as director Zack Snyder (300) captures the bombastic action with his trademark visuals. The result is something we've seen before, though different enough to feel unfamiliar.
Of course, the setup is mostly familiar: Jor-El (Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind) has fathered a son with his wife -- apparently the first live birth in 300 years -- just as their home world, Krypton, is about to come to an abrupt end. It seems the governing council decided to try and mine the planet's core for energy, contributing to its now-inevitable collapse. Jor-El implores the council to send the Codex (a sort of genetic back up for many unborn Kryptonians) with his newborn son, Kal-El (Henry Cavill, Immortals) to Earth so that their race might survive total extinction. The council is having none of it.
Call It the Symbol of Hope All You Want, But Thatís Totally an S. Cuffing Supermanís pretty much just using the honor system, isnít it? Man of Steel stays true to story.
Meanwhile, General Zod (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) stages an attempted coup, believing that he can also save their people if he had control of the Codex. Unfortunately, Jor-El has already stolen it and sent it with his son to Earth. Zod, a former ally of Jor-El, kills him for treason and vows to find Kal-El. But he's kiboshed when the council regains control of the insurrection and sentences Zod and his people to an eternity in the Phantom Zone.
Of course, Kal-El lands on Earth and becomes Clark Kent, when he is raised by his adoptive parents in Kansas (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) while trying to hide (and understand) the superhuman abilities he's granted by the radiation of our yellow sun. Turning the other cheek when he's assaulted (one of many Biblical shout outs in the script) and hiding amongst the humans who have become his adoptive race, the adult Clark drifts from place to place like a migrant worker, changing his name for each new job -- that he invariably has to leave when circumstances force him to reveal his true powers.
Inexorably drawn north, Clark discovers an old scout ship from Krypton, buried deep in the arctic ice, one that has also drawn the interest of the U.S. government and also the intrepid Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams, The Master) who's been chasing a story about a mysterious man whose superhuman strength and speed have saved many bewildered lives.
When Zod shows up, all of humankind's questions about being alone in the universe are drastically answered with his creepy warning: he wants Kal-El back and the Codex he believes the son of Jor-El carries and he'll wipe out what or whoever it takes to get them. Humanity, powerless against both Supes and Zod, is caught in the middle.
Man of Steel represents a vast improvement of Bryan Singer's 2006 film. While Brandon Routh's Superman wasn't really the problem, here Snyder nails the casting in stark contrast to Singer. Henry Cavill is all chiseled good looks, but brings an underlying gravity that sells the more dramatic, Wolverine-esque Supes. Where Routh was amiable in the role (with sweetly knowing nods to Christopher Reeves' performance) Cavill defines it on his own terms.
Same goes for Michael Shannon as Zod, in a scenery-chewing turn that has large, Terrance Stamp-sized shoes to fill. He's great, and even better, Zod is written more deeply, no longer just an evil nutjob with two friends who want to dominate a planet. Here, he's a patriot tasked with saving his species and who will stop at nothing to fulfill that responsibility.
Sure, with Singer's film, the villain was Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. And while that sounds right on paper, it clearly it didn't work in the movie. Getting the most from Goyer's script, the casting and performances here are great and are the main reason that Man of Steel is Zack Snyder's best movie. That and Nolan restraining his worst instincts while Goyer gives him a script with actual themes and subtext that Snyder would typically dilute.
Of course, even at his worst (Sucker Punch), he was always a visionary extraordinaire, and his growth shows. The scope of the action is huge, almost to the point of overkill. Be it the opening battle on Krypton -- where his visual penchant for throwing every cool-looking idea he can render onto the screen sets the bombastic tone -- or boss fights that are almost Looney Tunes-thick with dudes flying through walls, to the epic attack on Metropolis, the visual destruction on display is nearly as unprecedented as it looks amazing.
It runs a little long, and dramatically doesn't quite live up to the promise of its incredible trailers, but Man of Steel is something I didn't think another stab at Superman could be: worth the effort.
All You Need Is Love
Danish writer director Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire) returns to her dark, rom-com roots in her latest outing with long-time co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen (In A Better World), the borderline delightful, sadly Mads Mikkelsen-free, Love is All You Need.
Ida (Trine Dyrholm, A Royal Affair) is a Copenhagen hair dresser who has just finished the chemo after successfully beating breast cancer -- though the disease has claimed not only her breasts but also her hair. Ironically forced to wear a wig, she just seems happy that she'll get to spend more time with her husband, Leif (Kim Bodina, In A Better World) and see her daughter, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind, Rebounce) get married in Italy.
But after she discovers Leif has been having an affair with his accountant, Ida decides to go to the wedding solo and serendipitously meets Phillip (Pierce Brosnan, Goldeneye) the British father of her soon-to-be son-in-law, who seems at first to be a cold businessman, uncomfortable with emotions.
Bomb. Photo Bomb. Pierce Brosnan leaves his Walther PPK behind to look at pretty blond girls on boats in Love Is All You Need, now playing.
Soon, the wallflower Ida begins to chip away at Phillip's curmudgeonly exterior, her inherent sweetness becoming even more magnified when her husband shows up at the wedding (held at Phillip's rustic Italian estate) with his "fiancée" lover in tow -- completely oblivious to what a huge tool he is.
As Phillip fights off the advances of his equally awful former sister-in-law, Benedikte (von Trier vet Paprika Steen) he is drawn inexorably to Ida, whose reticence to grab a new life with both hands is rooted in her unquestioning belief that she still loves Leif and that his transgressions are somehow her fault. Meanwhile, Phillip's son (and Ida's future son-in-law) Patrick, is struggling with his own deep denial.
Love Is All You Need never really transcends its rote title, but that's okay. Bier knows how to get charming performances from her cast and finds a decent balance to the film's tone -- a lighthearted comic sense that shouldn't really work considering all the cancer and infidelity, yet somehow does. Leif and Benedikte are such terrible people they become hilarious, while the deeper emotional traumas of Phillip and Ida still ring true, due largely to their great performances.
I'm loving the choices Brosnan has made post-James Bond, and his role here is no different. Subtle and nuanced Brosnan delivers a genuine turn, both charming and sad and a perfect counterpoint to Dyrholm's Ida. She's also wonderful, a revelation really, bringing brilliant detail and sad beauty to the character.
Confidently directed by Bier and its otherworldly Italian vistas gorgeously framed by Morten Søborg (Valhalla Rising) Love is All You Need is a featherweight affair, a bonbon whose entertaining charms subvert what might have been a tonally misguided bit of feel-good schmaltz, instead, delivering a funny, sweet and memorable surprise.
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