One of the crucial aspects of superheroes is the notion of the secret identity, the physical and psychic split in the character that delineates the real person from the heroic persona.
Whenever this narrative conceit is examined, the conversation always turns to Superman and Batman, as they were the first two of the modern superheroes, arguably the ones from which all others have evolved. The consensus is that where the Caped Crusader is concerned, Bruce Wayne is the false front behind which Batman hides, while Superman is the identity the Man of Tomorrow takes on when the day needs to be saved, but Clark Kent is the real person, the conscience behind the brawn, the moral center that guides this mighty being.
It's an important distinction and one that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer fail to recognize in "Man of Steel," a massive, flawed reboot of the character that is so bent on delivering one earsplitting, eye-straining action sequence after another that it forgets the human element that is vital to fully realizing this modern myth.
To be sure, having to come up with a new approach to a character that's 75 years old is hardly an enviable task, and the tack Snyder and Goyer takes is as good as any. One of the things that has made the Superman story such an enduring American tale is that Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, is the ultimate immigrant, and the film focuses on the sense of otherness that he feels. Much is made of the character trying to find himself and realize his purpose on a planet where he is constantly reminded that he will be forever different than those around him, and his journey toward self-realization makes up a good chunk of the film's first hour. Along the way, there is action, spectacle, more action, the sight of Russell Crowe as Kal's father Jor-El riding a dragon-thingie on Krypton and even more action in case you forgot this was a superhero movie.
Problem is, there's no Clark Kent. Sure, we see him briefly as a confused young boy, trying to deal with powers he doesn't understand and the easy target of bullies who have figured out the boy won't fight back.
But as far as the adult Clark Kent, he's missing in action, robbing the audience of a way to connect with the character, as we're not allowed to see Kal come to terms with his humanity. There's no sexual tension between Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Superman and his alter ego, there's not a dilemma over whether Clark should reveal his true nature to the object of his affection. There's no wonder. There's no humor. There's no charm.
Action, though — oh, there's plenty of that, much of it done well as the villain of the piece, General Zod (a fine Michael Shannon), sets out to terraform Earth to become the new Krypton. Spectacle abounds, and while I got a kick out of the destruction of Smallville, what with locomotive engines being thrown through the air and the local IHOP laid to waste, by the time we got to the razing of Metropolis, I was numb from the unrelenting pace and excessive nature of the set pieces that end up abusing the audience rather than entertaining them.
As the title character, Henry Cavill is given little to do, as he is required to simply act heroically and fill out the famous suit, which he does ably. He's not allowed to show what he's capable of by juggling the roles of Kent and Superman. That will have to wait for the next film. Only Crowe and Kevin Costner as the hero's Earth father Jonathan tap into the emotional gravity necessary to making this a special film in the superhero genre rather than another bloated exercise in computer-generated effects, which it is.
Snyder's problem has always been his sledgehammer approach, and the unrelenting pace of going from one action scene to the next doesn't allow for the characters to develop or us to breathe. I longed for a moment where a bumbling Clark attempted to ask Lois out or a moment of joy where the young alien reveled happily in his powers, something I could relate to.
No such port is accorded in this special-effects storm, which underscored Superman's otherness so well that I was left with a hero I didn't recognize.
'Man of Steel' (2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Harry Lennix, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline.
Directed by Zack Snyder; produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder and Emma Thomas; screenplay by David S. Goyer.
A Warner Brothers release. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction and some language.) At AMC Village Mall 6, Harvest Moon Drive-In and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
'Before Midnight' a bracing look at the realities of love. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
Richard Linklater's "Before" films are a special collection of movies that not only take a unique look at romantic love but remind us how engaging the fine art of conversation can be in capable hands. "Before Sunrise" (1995) introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American tourist on a train to Vienna who meets and has an immediate connection with a French student named Celine (Julie Delpy). They end up spending a romantic evening together, knowing that because of previous commitments, this will be their only moment to share. However, the success of that film led to "Before Sunset" (2004) in which she tracks him down at a book signing in which he's promoting a novel based on their experience nine years earlier. More talk ensues leading to the possibility these two may have more than one night or day together in their future.
Which brings us to "Before Midnight," which finds Jesse and Celine as a married couple who are trying to keep alive the romantic spark that once raged between them but has now faded to a flicker. The commitment and complications inherent to marriage has put a strain on them while the responsibility of raising their twins has naturally added its own brand of stress.
However, it's Jesse's son from his previous marriage that's causing the current bout of tension between them. Feeling as though he's failing as an absentee father, Jesse wants to relocate to Chicago, while Celine is adamant that they stay in Paris where she is about to start a new job.
What makes these films so special — and "Before Midnight" is the best of a good bunch — is the chemistry between the two stars. They remind us how rich the lost art of conversation can be, as the movie is made up of nothing more than four extended discussions between the two as they drive and walk around one of the Greek Islands where Jesse and his family have spent the summer at a writer's colony. There's a comfortable familiarity between Hawke and Delpy that can't be faked, and surely much of their closeness comes from the writing and improvisation process they go through in the making of these films. When anecdotes are related, feelings shared and grievances aired, there's a sense of intimacy between the two that seems to spring organically between them. As a result, the problems the couple wrestles with are easy to relate to. It is something special to behold.
If there is a fault in the film, it is that it insists on having things both ways where romantic love is concerned. When issues of infidelity, overfamiliarity and trust emerge, they're handled in such a raw, visceral manner that you know we've gotten as far from Nicholas Sparks' territory as possible.
"Before Midnight" is brave to do so, but it can't help but be sucked back into the romantic ideal with an ending that loses its nerve and seemingly leaves Jesse and Celine on far firmer ground than they deserve.
'Purge' lacks the strength of its flimsy convictions. (2 stars out of 4)
James DeMonaco's "The Purge" hints — and I mean hints — that it might be a socially relevant film that imagines that today's divide between the "Haves" and the "Have Nots" will develop into a blood sport in the near future.
Its premise of Social Darwinism in action is an intriguing one and, in braver hands, could have resulted in a pointed indictment of the financial inequalities in our country. However, to take such a tack requires nerve, something DeMonaco lacks as his film takes the easy way out and proves to be nothing more than yet another senseless ode to violence.
The time is 2022, and things are looking up in the good old U. S. of A. The crime rate has fallen to a record low, and unemployment is down to 1 percent. Seems this is all due to a radical idea implemented by the New Founding Fathers known as the Purge, a single night where for a 12-hour period, anyone can commit any crime without fear of prosecution. Apparently, knowing that you have one evening to let loose keeps everyone in check for 364 days. Jow this leads to lower unemployment is something Alan Greenspan will have to explain, because I don't see the connection.
But why quibble about details when DeMonaco doesn't? The film focuses on the Sandin family that lives in a gated community with the patriarch James (Ethan Hawke), a successful security systems salesman; Mary (Lena Headey), a homemaker who is proud of her carb-free meals; Zoey (Adelaide Kane), the petulant daughter from central casting; and Charlie (Max Burkholder), an introverted teenager whose sole function is to let a homeless man who is being hunted during the Purge into the family's home after they've holed up behind their steel windows and reinforced walls.
This sets the plot, what there is of it, in motion as a group of prep school killers come calling, requesting that the Sandins throw their prey out so they can continue to purge. If their request isn't met, then the family's humble McMansion will be turned to rubble, and they will be killed as well.
With only a modest $5 million budget to work with, DeMonaco's intent is to make an effective, economical siege drama. Problem is that the plot devices he uses to move the story along simply don't hold water. The fact that Mary can't keep her daughter by her side, generating false tension as her father may shoot her as he tries to find the unwanted intruder in their darkened home is insulting, while Charlie's insistence on repeatedly treating common sense as a quality that's to be ignored at every turn makes him immediate fodder for the next year's purge.
And while I liked the nihilistic turn DeMonaco trots out at the end, it proves to be anti-climactic after all the silliness we've endured.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.