Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Man of Steel

In my review of Superman III, I complained that the filmmakers weren't taking Superman seriously, turning the series into a joke. Man of Steel (2013) has the opposite problem; it wants to be dark, edgy, and gritty. It wants to be a SERIOUS FILM, not just a comic book movie. It also wants to be cool, and thus, it removes much from the mythos of Superman that which might be considered out-of-date, corny, and/or lame by today's audiences. Unfortunately, in the process, Man of Steel takes away much of what made Superman Superman, and the result is a mostly charmless and empty movie.

Man of Steel, like the original Superman, is an origin story, but it also incorporates some of Superman II, mainly by having General Zod (now played by Michael Shannon) as the villain. We get the business of Krypton being destroyed, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his son to live on Earth among humanity, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and life on the Kent homestead in Kansas (Ma and Pa Kent are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Much of the movie depicts Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) traveling the world, trying to fit in and saving lives while he remembers incidents from his childhood and words of wisdom from his father (such nuggets as maybe Clark should have let a bus full of kids drown rather than expose his powers) while trying to figure out his place in the world.

The makers of Man of Steel are a would-be comic book movie dream team. Director Zack Snyder previously made 300 and Watchmen, producer Christopher Nolan directed the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy, and screenwriter David S. Goyer has written the likes of Batman Begins and Blade. Snyder as a director has shown promise in action and special effects, but I've found his storytelling and characterization superficial. Nolan, whose work I have enjoyed more, brings more intellectual depth to his projects, and I had hoped his presence would reign Snyder in and keep him focused. Instead, Man of Steel actually combines the worst habits of Nolan and Snyder: Nolan's over-reliance on forced exposition and lugubrious theme analysis in place of dialogue and Snyder's overstuffed style-over-substance approach.

In my reviews of the previous Superman movies, I labeled them as fantasy. I label Man of Steel sci-fi, and that's not an oversight. Krypton looks like Pandora from Avatar, Zod and his followers fly space ships and wear suits that look like they belong in Gears of War, Krypton babies growing cases that look like that scene from The Matrix, a black hole forms over a city (is it Metropolis?), people getting blasted by lasers, and there's talk of a genetic codex, terraforming a planet, the effects of gravity and the atmosphere, and of how Earth's sun is younger than Krypton's sun. Superman stories have had their share of sic-fi elements - androids, aliens, other dimensions - but here it feels overly complicated, and it left my brain spinning. All these elements bog what is traditionally a relatively straightforward mythic tale of Earth's defender.

Consider Zod. In Superman II, Zod is a power-hungry megalomaniac. It's enough that he arrives on Earth after escaping the Phantom Zone and decides to rule it after discovering the power he possesses on the planet. Here, Zod has more understandable motives: ensuring the future of Krypton. His methods may be brutal and his followers fanatical, but it's hard not to understand where he's coming from. His scheme involving the genetic codex of Krypton and using his ship to terraform Earth to make it habitable for his people, though, makes things more complicated than they have to be because now we have explain everything about what he's doing, how he's doing it, and why it has to be done a certain way. There's so much technobabble gobbledygook, it's mostly uninteresting.

To distract us from the fact that most of the dialogue is used to convey exposition, Snyder bombards the screen with special effects, action, and explosions. Now instead of succumbing to a heart attack, reminding Superman the limits of his power, Jonathan Kent is killed in a tornado. Instead of catching planes, having trains ride over him, or undoing time, Superman fights the villains in these big, loud action scenes in which they knock each other through buildings, causing an untold amount of collateral damage and civilian casualties in the process. Sure, it looks great, and in a vacuum, it's hard to fault, but it's hard to care about any of it. The straightforward elegance, hope, and fun of the earlier Superman movies has been bled out, replaced by something cold, technical, and chaotic.

Man of Steel also has a rather jarring structure. Like Batman Begins, it traces Superman's origins to degree, showing us the psychological motivations that drive him, but while Nolan's earlier film felt coherent, Snyder's is all over the place without much rhyme or reason. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne being recruited by Ra's Al Ghul. It follows Bruce's progress to the citadel and training, flashes back to his childhood and what drove him to become a crime fighter, returns to the present, and stays on a linear path from there. Man of Steel jumps around all over the place with so many flashbacks to random childhood incidents that you wonder why they even bothered to include them.

The emphasis on the character of Superman is much different this time. In fact, the dual identity aspect is almost completely dropped (it's not even until the very end that Clark goes to work for the Daily Planet), and the focus is on Clark Kent as an outsider. He's referred to as the alien (in fact, the one time he's referred to as Superman, it's laughed at by the characters), people don't trust him and are afraid of him, and he questions how he can fit in. Not to beat a dead horse, it may be more "realistic" that a being of such power would be treated such a way, but it's not nearly as much fun. Cavill is an intense, heroic looking Man of Steel, but he's a brooding, darker, and tortured character, closer to Batman than Superman. Even his outfit is a darker shade of red and blue. Superman is no longer a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way, a guiding example for people looking for a savior; he's just a super-powered fighter and loner.

In Superman II, Superman battled Zod, Ursa, and Non in Metropolis, and he put himself at risk to save people from being caught in the crossfire. At the end, knowing he's outmatched by three equally strong opponents, Superman lures them away to the Fortress of Solitude and uses his wits to defeat them. When he bows before Zod and then crushes his hand, it's a moment of triumph. At the end of Man of Steel, when Superman snaps Zod's neck (albeit to save lives in a rather contrived manner), it is not triumphant or rousing but shocking and grim.

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