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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Man of Steel proves it’s still hard to embrace cold steel.

Superman Begins... Again

Can all superheroes withstand the reality test?

Maybe Superman shouldn’t be given the reality check that’s worked so well for The Dark Knight and, to a lesser extent, Iron Man. The story and screenplay are written by the same duo, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, who so masterfully refashioned Bruce Wayne for the modern world. Superman should be more fun, though; this tale of the Man of Steel suffers from the same heavy-handedness that kept Superman Returns earthbound. It’s marginally better than Bryan Singer’s pseudo-reboot attempt, but it doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations of a wholly revitalized superhero franchise.

There’s plenty that’s good here, most definitely, but there’s also plenty that is subject to second-guessing. The biggest problem is getting around the feeling Man of Steel is a suped-up (pun intended) remake of 1981’s Superman II; it’s almost a companion piece to Star Trek Into Darkness, which was an attempt at remaking 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. It’s the ‘80s all over again, with much bigger budgets.

On the positive side, perhaps most importantly, Henry Cavill (TV’s The Tudors) makes for a solid Clark Kent/Superman combo pack. His take on Clark is quite different from Christopher Reeve and other interpretations. Clark is thoroughly competent and he’s adventurous. The first look at Clark on Earth finds him at the age of 33 out in the ocean on a crab boat. He’s rugged, bearded, and phenomenally strong. He doesn’t take cover as a buffoon. Instead, he’s mastered the art of restraint, at least to a point. He won’t do bodily harm to a human, but he will make his case in ways only a man from Krypton can do.

Chalk up Kal-El/Clark’s relentless penchant for truth, justice, and the American way (wording which never appears in this movie) to his Kansas upbringing and his Krypton genes. Switching it up a bit in regard to Clark’s Krypton roots, Kal-El, son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), is the first natural birth on Krypton in generations. For too long, pre-destination and genetic farming provided Krypton with its population.

Super Religion

The notion of pre-destination offers an interesting subtext for Kal-El and his encounters on Earth and it sets the stage for some pretty heavy religious themes.

The fact that Clark is specified as being 33 years old when he’s finally outed as being from another planet is significant. Christ was crucified at the age of 33 and the number 33 itself signifies highest enlightenment in the world of numerology (in that regard, it’s an interesting kind of spooky to note that Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933).

Those religious overtones are heavy and overt; Superman Returns lightly touched on them, but here it’s full tilt. At one point, Clark visits a priest, not so much for a confession or to ask for guidance, but to offer an obvious analogy for those who don’t get the subtler – and more effective – allusions. While Clark speaks with the priest, filling out the background space is a portrait of Christ. Not the least bit subtle, this one.

And there’s also the first time Superman rescues Lois; he drifts out in a Christ-like crucifixion pose high above terra firma before launching off like a human rocket.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Superman’s roots, by way of Siegel and Shuster, are in social justice, but that doesn’t negate the fact the guy’s from another planet. That’s a far more fantastical, colorful notion than humans, such as Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, who seek to right wrongs, particularly after having been a victim personally.

This time around, Krypton ditches the ice motif for something that feels much more Edward Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard. That’s cool. So is the back story involving Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon, Premium Rush). At one point, the two saw eye-to-eye regarding Krypton’s critical situation, but their falling out is the catalyst for much of the movie’s action.

For better or worse, the bulk of that action takes place in Middle America. As the movie rumbles along, there’s a longing to finally move over to Metropolis and the comfortable trappings of Superman lore. The Daily Planet, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Lex Luthor; not all of them make an appearance in this go-round, but there are niblets of what might come in the inevitable sequel. Amid the havoc on the streets of Metropolis, look closely for a couple Lexcorp-branded gas tankers.

Maybe the intent is take the approach of the current James Bond reboot. It took three movies before Daniel Craig’s Bond had a Q and a Miss Moneypenny. Much as Skyfall ended with the promise of some exciting times ahead, Man of Steel ends with a really terrific line delivered by Lois Lane (Amy Adams, The Fighter).

The pieces begin to fall into place at the very end and the momentum builds into a sense that maybe, just maybe, the sequel will be more fun when Clark finally takes on his reporter role, a terrific cover for him to keep his ear to the ground and keep tabs on where the world’s troubles lie.