Man of Steel (PG-13)
Up until now, however varied their ultimate emphases ended up being, all big or small screen takes on Superman have been recognizably cut from the same cloth. Whether the original '50s George Reeves series, Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville, and the many animated iterations on television to the iconic Christopher Reeve-starring franchise and its 2006 de facto revisionist timeline sequel Superman Returns in cinemas, at their core lies a fidelity to not only Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's basic Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis/Daily Planet/dual identity set-up arc, but a certain unmistakable core of unironically, unabashedly, and rather quaintly squeaky-clean Americana--both in terms of a nostalgic, homespun idealism and, maybe most importantly, a child-like purity in its sense of awe, wonder, and flat-out joy at all the super-feats. That director Zack Snyder and writers Christopher Nolan and David Goyer have left the character's name out of the title of Man of Steel proves to be less a move to evoke Dark Knight chic (though, it must be noted, the film makes obvious a concerted effort to make Superman comfortably coexist in the same universe as Nolan and Goyer's heavily real world-grounded take on Batman) than both a literal and figurative mission statement. In the literal sense, Snyder does the complete opposite of what Bryan Singer did with his 2006 extended homage to Richard Donner's revered and justly influential 1978 film. Gone is the literally crystal-clean design of Donner's Krypton, in its place a grungy, dirtier bio-metallic motif--"man of steel" indeed as Kryptonian metal plays a (again, literally) key element to the story as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son Kal-El to earth to save him from the planet's imminent imposion. A certain unpolished, rugged quality also extends to the look of Superman (Henry Cavill) himself, with his hair not exactly messy but also not quite immaculately spit-curl-coiffed either; and even (gasp) chest hair peeking from the neckline of his costume, which while on the whole true to the classic look eschews the familiar red undies-as-overwear accent.
But foremost is the figurative sense, where "man of steel" applies to the film in ways beyond Earth-rechristened Clark Kent's super-powered Kryptonian mettle. The focal point here is not his famous physical strength(s), but the more loaded question of if he can maintain a certain "steel" of psychological and emotional stoicism, and Nolan and Goyer initially frame this within the dueling philosophies put forth by his two father figures: from beyond the grave Jor-El expresses his wish for Kal-El to find the fortitude to serve as an ideal for humanity to which to aspire while his adoptive earthling father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) raises him preaching the opposite, to be courageous enough to not give the slightest outward hint of his special abilities much less use them to fight back or even save others. Thus as the focus lies, more than in any other previous screen Supes, on his alien nature and the nature of his alienation, this film is a lot more gravely serious and frankly cold like steel. Never mind the virtual dearth of humor; there is also a curious lack of warmth to the whole film, as Clark's interactions with Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa Kent are infused with angst and with the Daily Planet (a common source of levity in the Supes mythos) very much downplayed here, the origins of his connection and very root of his relationship with with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) are completely reworked (somewhat cleverly, upending the whole dynamic to which Supes fans are accustomed) and the big CG-palooza of a finale is one of those extended FX-lab-created monuments of mayhem that offer a lot of frenzied visual chaos that dazzles the visceral senses though doesn't exactly stir the heart.
As expected (if not downright required) as it is, such a closing sensory assault comes as a disappointment when Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer appear to work overtime to build the dour, character-rooted drama--not just Clark's, but also that of the big bad, Phantom Zone-escaped Kryptonian General Zod, played with the blend of equal parts emotional intensity and off-the-hinges batshit crazy one expects from Michael Shannon; in an unexpected but welcome touch, there is some deeper explanation for his manic determination to conquer Earth. But once the film hits climax mode, just about all of that groundwork gets thrown out the window (and actors such as Adams, Lane and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet chief Perry White wither around with little to do) with same ferocity that Superman and Zod throw around each other. Ironically, though, that finale is a major example of the film's strongest virtues: its blockbuster action scale. As Superman engages Zod in an epic, epically destructive battle, Snyder delivers the type of undeniable, overwhelming charge with which he's become Sny-nonymous, and his affinity for spectacle strongly courses throughout as the film is nothing if not technically adept, making shamelessly flashy and indeed effective use of his bottomless CGI toolbox. For a film that clocks in just shy of two and a half hours, while undoubtedly aided by strong casting choices across the board, Snyder keeps the energy high and the pace moving (though a recurring nonlinear flashback structure in the first half doesn't always work) even when not in mayhem-minded mode.
...which is why, though on the whole a satisfying entertainer taken by itself, Man of Steel is more of an effective set-up for potential to be fully realized in further installments. Cutting an aptly striking figure, Cavill also convinces with the more heavy dramatic material, and his chemistry with Adams, though eventually underused, clicks and is ready to be mined for some classic Lois and Clark romantic conflict--which, of course, is rooted in the Kryptonian vs. Earthling, "god" vs. man dueling dichotomies that Nolan and Goyer take such pains to establish. If Snyder and company are able to maintain that and get over their apparent fear of embracing the "super" of Superman (after all, both the Donner and Richard Lester versions of 1980's Superman II prove that treating the characters and emotional relationships with respect and gravity and having a sense of wonder and fun need not be mutually exclusive), then, to use a lazy hack critic pull-quote ready statement, the franchise can truly, eventually soar. But as of now, this film is certainly a strong, propulsive launch, which is about one would hope for for any prospective screen franchise.
This Is the End (R)
It's both a remarkable act of chutzpah and one of equal, if not even far greater, hubris to not only write and direct a fictional film with you and your off-screen friends/frequent on-screen collaborators playing yourselves, but a big blockbuster-style-FX-heavy end-of-the-world scenario, but that's exactly what Seth Rogen, making his feature directing debut with regular writing partner Evan Goldberg have done with This Is the End. Luckily for Rogen, Goldberg, and their celebrity friends--but mostly for us, the moviegoing audience--that their comic chops and their sense of humor about themselves are in direct proportion to their sheer balls. If there was such a thing as an anti-vanity exercise, this may well be it, with Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and an assortment of familiar others (among them, Emma Watson, Kevin Hart, Rihanna, and Michael Cera) gathering at James Franco's mansion for one of those self-indulgent, even self-destructive, pampered people's bacchanalia, which quickly, suddenly goes horribly awry in the most outrageous way possible: the coming of no less than the apocalypse. It's an outrageous, overblown, and even over-the-top idea, and similarly unrestrained are the focal six stars, being remarkably game sports and having a blast in rather scathingly sending up their own careers and public images (as well as, in a nice touch, throwing in some finer details from actual, real life, such as Robinson always carrying a towel for sweating), and the chemistry and byplay between them is organic, unforced, and all the funnier for it--the comic ante further upped by the apocalyptic plot, which not only generates actual suspense but seems to have even further liberated Rogen and Goldberg to really not pull the satiric punches: at themselves and at their careers and previous works, yes, but also about blockbuster disaster epics and the nature of celebrity. That Rogen and Goldberg manage to make one of the Backstreet Boys' more annoying yesteryear hit singles not only tolerable but something you giddily sing along to is a measure of just how on point the satire is--that, or that it truly is the end of the world.