Friday, April 25, 2014

"Man of Steel"

This is what you get for flying in US
airspace without proper authorisation.
I have to admit that after I first saw the trailer I was kind of hoping that this Superman adaptation would die on its arse for no better reason than because I live in hope that every now and again surely the general audience isn't going to lap up the garbage that Hollywood trough-feeds them several times a year, so when reviews started appearing in 2013 which were hardly giving high praise to Man of Steel I felt as if there wasn't a great need to see the film because evidently I was probably not going to enjoy it. That being said, "controversial" ended up being a better descriptor for Man of Steel because it seemed like lines were fairly divided as to whether it was a refreshing or even necessary new take on Superman or if it was just something Zach Snyder had cooked up on the Watchmen barbecue with the straggly leftovers of Christopher Nolan's imagination. Eventually curiosity got the better of me, however, so I ended up grabbing Man of Steel on DVD so I could check it out, which I just did. So here we go.
Nolan style Red Tornado.
It's not terrible. It's not great. It's not even average. Man of Steel is a really weird film. It feels like half a film, like there are scenes missing, like there are bits left out. With a plot that seems to go from a hyper-extended set up to an equally elongated climax with what I perceived as no identifiable middle ground, filmed on the contemporary digital equivalent of grainy stock, utilising a sparse screenplay, presenting sketchily-developed characters and focusing ultimately on over-the-top CGI action, the film feels vague, dreamlike even. It felt like abstract art to me, the Hollywood superhero equivalent of arthouse or minimalist cinema. Dialogue is heavily plot-driven, generally humourless and interspersed by long periods of silence. Characters talk at each other rather than to each other. I feel like if I had watched it with the sound off I would have still understood what was going on. There is some fairly cack-handed dialogue as well, like Lois blurting out the fact that she's a Pulitzer winner arbitrarily for the sake of the audience and the general asking Superman at the end "Are you effin' stoopid?" How old is he, twelve? I felt like there was little to grasp in the film dramatically, more featuring characters floating in reverie through set pieces. It's a strange.
Obi-Wan finally reaches General Grievous' lair.
Large amounts of the plot, of course, we've seen all before. On Krypton, General Zod and his minions attempt a coup, fail and are trapped in the Phantom Zone. Jor-El and his wife Lara send their son Kal to Earth. Krypton blows up. This is Superman 101. To avoid feeling too repetitious of 1978's "Superman" we see the life of Clark Kent in a series of meaningfully-arranged flashbacks: him discovering his powers, his feelings of isolation, his efforts to discover his identity and his relationship with his foster parents. In this film Pa Kent comes across as a bit of a dick: it seems like he wants Clark to hide himself from the world - or he wants him to just wait until the time is ripe. I don't know, really. Maybe supportive parents like Superman often has in adaptations are too cornball these days or something but Pa just seems irrational here, like he's as scared of change as the people he warns Clark about.
"Zach and Chris thought the old 'cape and tights' wouldn't appeal
to modern audiences, so this is the new Superman costume."
It turns out long ago, before the dark times and the Empire and what not, Kryptonians had outposts all over the galaxy. Superman is seemingly looking for the one on Earth so he can get more information about his origins. He overhears two rather out-of-order soldiers gasbagging about some top secret discovery so I suppose he figures "Hey, might be aliens, I'm an alien, might be to do with me." We have to read this into it, of course. For most of this part of the film adult Clark barely speaks to anyone or expresses anything especially clear about his motivations. Also he wrecks some guy's truck. It's sort of like the bit at the end of "Superman II" where he goes back to the diner and beats up that douchebag in the trucker hat who was mean to him when he didn't have his powers.
Anyway Lois Lane of course turns up and conveniently discovers the alien spaceship as well, but is accosted by alien security. Superman leaves her on the ice where she somehow survives the night and the Kryptonian ship pisses off to the Arctic Circle or something so that Superman can meet the AI replica of his father, who is Russell Crowe channelling Ewan McGregor in the Star Wars prequels. Somehow Superman's costume is on this ancient Kryptonian ship too. I guess while they were chatting about history robo Jor-El got the ship to do a respray job on an old uniform? Jor-El gives Superman a big speech while inspiring music plays in the background about how he can help the human race and so on, Superman flies through a mountain and then proceeds to do... not very much, because then Zod and his goons show up in a space ship and send a threatening but rather fuzzy television message to humanity. For some reason they can send a message that displays on every device in the world in multiple human languages but they can't get a good picture. They want Superman because they think he has the "codex," an ancient Kryptonian database of genetic code Zod needs to rebuild their race. Oh yeah, in this version Kryptonians are all flesh vat babies and Superman was the first natural birth in centuries. They're all programmed with various purposes, but he's a free agent. Zod's purpose is to be a dick.
"Why hast thou forsaken me?"
So Superman hands himself over to the US military so they can hand him over to Zod after giving them a healthy warning about how to not trust Zod. They do so, and Zod's people take Lois with them too for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Zod outlines his master plan to Superman, Lois uses robo Jor-El to escape, Zod attacks Ma Kent, Superman has a huge fight with Faora, a comic character who nonetheless must inevitably be compared to Ursa from "Superman II," and some other big bloke who never takes his helmet off so they can pay him less. In the ensuing brawl they basically wreck Smallville. After some breathing issues Zod's folks retreat and launch a giant gravity machine that is going to turn Earth into a Krypton-like environment somehow, increasing Earth's mass despite introducing no new material. One end of the device conveniently lands in Metropolis. Superman reveals that his rocket crib will launch everything back into the Phantom Zone somehow, so the army fly off to Metropolis to deliver it despite how obviously useless all their equipment is against Zod's forces, and Superman flies off to the other side of the world to have a boring CGI struggle with some metal tentacles defending the opposite end of the gravity device, which he defeats by letting the runtime drag on.
"Miss Lane, you must follow my instructions to the letter
if we are to assemble the telephone cannon in time."
Having blown up one end, Superman arrives to stop Zod's ship from destroying the plane with his rocket onboard, the soldiers all sacrifice themselves, the machine and all of Zod's chaps get sucked back into the Phantom Zone, Lois conveniently falls out of the plane, Superman catches her and they have hot sloppy make outs in the middle of a dustbowl. Why was Lois even on the plane? She's just a reporter. Incidentally the gravity machine absolutely wrecks central Metropolis, knocking over numerous buildings and presumably killing tens of thousands in some of the most heinous post-9-11 masturbatory fervour imaginable with modern effects. This is to give Laurence Fishburne's Perry White, some guy, and some girl who might be female Jimmy Olsen something to do in the film where they feel present mostly as lip service. Also, Superman must wear some special Kryptonian concrete in his hair because despite getting thrown through about a hundred buildings in this film he never musses it up.
"We must test the resilience of every part of your body."
Zod's still alive so he and Superman have a final big dust-up in Metropolis where they wreck the place even more, and then Zod forces Superman to kill him in order to save some innocents. I know traditionally Superman doesn't kill, but meh, I mean, Zod was a dick and he was about to be an even bigger dick. Then again, couldn't Superman have, I don't know, flown in the air while keeping him in that headlock? Dunno what he'd do with him then but that's the screenwriter's job. Superman lets out a giant howl of anguish, he puts his head comfortingly against Lois' maternal regions, knocks a drone plane out of the sky because hey, he's Superman and he's a dick, and gets a job at the Daily Planet. Interesting alternative take, by the way - in this version Lois knows Clark is Superman. It's just that everyone else doesn't. I don't mind. I just wish they'd had more dialogue together. Amy Adams is okay as Lois, presenting her as a reasonably competent person doing the best in a situation where she's extremely out of her depth, but at times it does feel like the film is forcing her into the plot without much explanation. Henry Cavill's got a nice, calm, reassuring tone as Superman, and I would have liked to have seen more of that. We see plenty of him doing things, flying around and beating people up, mostly, but not enough of him just being a person, like in the interview scene or the drone plane scene. Also, he seems to transform from being a troubled guy trying to find his place in the world, brooding on his past and occasionally lashing out, to the familiarly calmly-spoken Superman we know who wants to put people at their ease and do the right thing as much as possible, without much of a clear transition. My favourite parts were the conversations where they actually let Superman talk and feel like Superman, and I think we needed a bit more of that so that we could see him change a bit more clearly. Characterisation definitely gets the short straw.
"Kneel, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod in his underpants!"
So that's Man of Steel for you. There are definitely some interesting ideas. For example, the notion embodied in Zod is that often "evil" people, for want of a better term, use their "nature" or circumstances as an excuse for their deeds. Faora's remarks about their amorality shows an awareness of their wrongdoing which belies their rationalisation. I don't think we can simply see Zod as misguided because he starts wrecking Earth purely out of impatience and seems to care not so much for the codex and the genetic survival of his race as he does about a Kryptonian existing who is not under his rule. Michael Shannon's a bit of a funny looking fellow but all in all I did find his Zod reasonably compelling. Another notion which the film conveys with ruthless effectiveness is the artificiality and frailty of what many of us take for granted: the modern, especially urban, world. All our technology, organisation and infrastructure of our increasingly complex society despite their fundamental importance to our modern lifestyle are nonetheless existentially brittle. It's effective in taking the kind of thoughtless urban mayhem from recent blockbusters like the Transformers films and The Avengers and exaggerating it to its logical extreme. What meaning have office blocks, freight trains, petrol stations against the raw fury of nature? It's a troubling thought, and might reflect Pa Kent's inconsistent protectiveness of the status quo. In this regard what I fear gets glossed over, however, are any consequences for the film's events. Surely a disaster like this would cripple the nation, with so much of a city being destroyed? Yet it's left unrevealed, suggestions in the media being that it will be explored in the sequel with Batman. Why doesn't Superman try to steer the conflict towards more neutral ground where civilians won't get hurt? Regardless, I found it problematic.
They'll be disappointed it's too late to invade Krypton after this.
As such in my opinion this film needed to pace itself a little better. I feel like there needed to be some middle ground after he became Superman but before Zod showed up, and a less rushed coda. The action is artificial and extremely repetitive - Kryptonians blasting each other through multiple walls or vehicles, and buildings falling over as fleeing civilians are swallowed up in clouds of smoke and dust are the two items on the menu - and it seems to me like Zach Snyder exhausts his bag of tricks by the end of the Smallville battle. Its impression of a two-act structure reminds me more than anything of another 2013 action blockbuster with which it has numerous parallels - "Star Trek Into Darkness" (seriously: the villain is a superhuman who believes in eugenics and genetic superiority, the second half of the film is one giant climax, the protagonist loses a father figure, skyscrapers get knocked over by a big spaceship) - but Man of Steel feels more confused than fatuous like that one.
Superman's new look. He calls it 'Magnum.'
I don't believe that a perfect Superman film has ever been made, but the closest approach is easily the 1978 one. Man of Steel is an interesting film in many ways, but at the same time I personally think it is held back by an ultimately insurmountable insubstantiality in its narrative and dialogue. In fact if anything it actually rather reminds me of 2011's Green Lantern. There are films that are held back by an excessive focus on characterisation - usually, simplistic, manipulative, broadly-drawn characterisation - which limits the development of the ideas and the plot, but this is a film where the plot overrides characterisation, and where occasionally ideas cause the plot to buckle, such as Pa Kent's motivations. As I've said, however, some memorable ideas are conveyed, Henry Cavill's very watchable as Superman when they give him the opportunity to be, and Shannon's Zod is surprisingly effective. There are definitely good bits in here, but they're not capitalised upon sufficiently. This film really needed to step back, take a breath and sort out a better balance of its components. As it is the work feels dimly glimpsed, like a plot synopsis brought to life or a daydream rather than an actual film, and I hope with the sequel and the apparent assembly of a broader DC comics film narrative that the future films take a more grounded approach.

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