“Man of Steel” and the importance of dorky red capes

man-of-steel-screenshot-01-e1369283997296

I’ve never been a Superman guy. Batman, Spider-Man, even Flash, but never really Superman. I like my superheroes to have up to one superpower, maximum. It’s the limitations that make things interesting.

Superman, meanwhile? It’s kind of boring to be the guy who can do everything. So I went to a screening of “Man of Steel” on Father’s Day putting the film in a no-win situation. If it was the square-jawed Superman of old, it would be kind of dorky. And if it attempted to “Dark Knight”-ify Superman (Christopher Nolan produced and co-wrote), well then, it betrayed all that dorkiness at the heart of Superman. No-win.

But then, in the lobby at Star Cinema, I saw a man and his son, who looked to be about 5 or 6, sitting at one of the tables. Both decked out in full-length red capes.

And these weren’t the cool maroon capes that the new Superman wears, but the bright red, old-school Christopher Reeve capes of old. And it suddenly reminded me that, while Superman didn’t mean a lot to me, it meant a lot to somebody. Suddenly, as the lights went down, I was starting to become invested in the hope that “Man of Steel” would get it right.

And, as it turns out, I liked it.

It was a slow process of winning me over — the early scenes on Krypton seemed unnecessarily busy, as if terrified of losing the audience early.  And that oil rig rescue, with a buff, bearded, flaming Henry Cavill, didn’t exactly set the right tone for me either.

But when “Man of Steel” started flashing back to Kal-El’s Smallville upbringing — Diane Lane coaxing him lovingly out of a janitor’s closet, Kevin Costner nervously telling him to hide his gifts until the world is ready for them — this movie was fantastic. Costner in particular is just so good as Pa Kent — that last moment during the tornado just wrecks you — and I love how together, without ever meeting, he and Russell Crowe’s Jor-el work in tandem as fathers for Clark, giving him the parenting he needs when he needs it.

It’s that stuff that really grounds the film, and gives weight to the theme of Superman being a protector of the world, something the movie takes very seriously. At first I worried that Cavill would just be an empty red-and-blue suit, and being just Superman and not Clark Kent doesn’t give an actor a lot to work with. But I thought he sold it, sold the audience on this idea that he’s this nearly godlike being who has chosen to serve beings much weaker than him.

And then we get into all the punching and explosions and building toppling, and that’s great — the visual effects are top-notch. I will say that director Zach Snyder continues his streak of not really caring what real people are doing — Amy Adams gets some nice moments as Lois Lane, but for the most part the human race is relegated to bystanders, watching as the big boys go at it.

For all the talk on what the revelation of Superman’s existence would do to the human race, we hardly ever see that effect — we hardly see him inspire anybody. The movie could have used a scene like the subway train scene in “Spider-Man 2,” when the passengers rise up to try to protect Spider-Man from Doc Ock. Although I appreciate any superhero movie that allows Toby from “The West Wing” to save the day.

But “Man of Steel” is an authentic, sincere take on the Superman story; it isn’t just trying to riff off previous versions with in-jokes and references, but to find a different, larger-canvas way to tell that story from scratch. And although it looks expensive and in many ways is subservient to the needs of today’s IMAX 3D summer blockbusters, the heart is still intact.

I didn’t love “Man of Steel” — not as powerful as “The Dark Knight” movies, not as fun as “Iron Man 3” or “The Avengers.” I would have liked to see someone with a lighter, more human touch take on the same material. But all the same, I liked it more than I thought I would, and thought it puts down a solid foundation to build on in other movies. I think that caped father and son went home happy.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, June 14-20, 2013

manofsteel

All week

Man of Steel” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) — Less than a decade after “Superman Returns,” DC Comics tries another “Superman” reboot, this one noticeably bearing the stamp of writer-producer Christopher Nolan as well as director Zach Snyder. Is it “The Clark Knight”?

This is the End” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — My full review is here. Everyone else is destroying the planet at the movies this summer, so why shouldn’t Seth Rogen? In this raunchy, gross and funny comedy, Rogen and several of his Hollywood friends (all playing themselves) are stuck in James Franco’s house when the apocalypse hits, and must contend with demons, cannibals and their own pampered ineptitude.

Before Midnight” (Star Cinema, Sundance) — Jesse and Celine of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” return in this long-awaited third installment, as the pair are now in their 40s and questioning the choices they made that got them to this point.

Friday

The Short Films of Miranda July” (9:30 p.m., Madison Museum of Contemporary Art rooftop, 227 State St.) — MMOCA’s cool Rooftop Cinema series presents a series of shorts from filmmaker and artist Miranda July, all pre-dating her first feature “You and Me and Everyone We Know.” FREE for museum members, $7 for everyone else. If it’s raining, the movie will take place in MMOCA’s screening room indoors.

How to Train Your Dragon” (7 p.m., Warner Park Duck Pond) — It’s the Madison Mallards vs. the Dragons, as Moonlight Movies uses the Mallards’ stadium to screen the action-packed and clever animated hit about a boy and his dragon. Concessions will be available for purchase. Visit cityofmadison.com to check on weather updates. FREE!

Monday

Mars Attacks” (9 p.m., UW Memorial Union Terrace) — Aliens attack and many celebrities are caught in the cross fire in Tim Burton’s kinda mean-spirited adaptation of the trading card series. FREE!

Tuesday

“Earth” (10 a.m. Point, Eastgate) — Marcus Theatres’ Kids Dream film series powers up for the summer, offering family films for only a $2 admission Tuesday through Thursday morning. This week it’s the Disney nature documentary “Earth,” following three animal families on their journeys.

Wednesday

“E.T. The Extraterrestrial” (1:15 and 6:50 p.m., Sundance Cinemas) — This is the third time in about a month that you can see “E.T.” in Madison, following Moonlight Movies and Memorial Union Terrace screenings. This week’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” screening was sold out, so I’d still get there early if you want to seee it.

“Earth” (10 a.m. Point, Eastgate) –See Tuesday listing.

Thursday

New Belgium Clips of Faith Film Festival” (7:30 p.m., Olin-Turville Park) — The popular annual traveling festival mixes short films with limited-edition batches of craft beer, all in a venue that encourages audiences to bike in. Salvatore’s Tomato Pies and the Good Food Truck will be serving up food, and the event is a benefit for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

“Earth” (10 a.m. Point, Eastgate) –See Tuesday listing.