Sunday, July 14, 2013
Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
Not a well-balanced film. Willfully disjointed, at times incoherent, feels even perhaps incomplete and disappointingly insubstantial. But the highs are pretty high, as the action delivers in a way that no previous superhero film ever has. Decent.
Despite Christopher Nolan's name being attached to the movie as writer and producer, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is not The Dark Knight of Superman films. Actually, it's a lot closer to Green Lantern. It's not as stupid as GL, certainly, but it similarly seems to lack a firm grasp on the story it wants to tell, consequently feeling somewhat hollow and inconsequential. Nevertheless, it is appropriately the most "super" of all superhero films thus far.
As good as most of the Marvel movies have been, the one area where I've felt they've consistently fallen short has been the fighting. Yeah, so maybe when working to legitimize the superhero genre with a film that can be taken seriously by more than just the Con crowd, "great fighting" shouldn't usually be the aspirational filmmaker's priority. But it's also fair to say that, for a lot of geeks, one of the biggest appeals of superhero comics is the prospect of seeing two superpowered titans slugging it out. In fact, there have been multiple entire websites and endless forum topics devoted just to debating who would win in a given hypothetical throwdown between two characters. Among the Marvel films, only the Hulk movies have ever really come close to living up to that. The rest of the time, we get stupid stuff like Iron Man fighting a bunch of disposable robots, or the Avengers taking on an army of generic interchangeable aliens. Those scenes lack punch because the heroes' foes lack identity, and, truthfully, such would-be threats aren't even worthy of a full display of the heroes' powers and abilities. But Man of Steel at last delivers with action sequences that live up to how I always imagined such supremely superpowered beings really would fight. (And you're asking, "But Henry, why would you need to imagine, when these comics have pictures blah blah blah?")
Superman and Zod possess the traditional full assortment of Kyptonian powers (with the exception of the conspicuously absent freeze breath—expect Superman to bust out this "secret weapon" early in the sequel to much fanfare) and to a scale that justifies regarding them as living WMDs and veritable gods on Earth. Characters fly, zip around with super speed, withstand artillery, and throw punches that could level skyscrapers. And, most spectacularly, they connect with these punches on one another. (Oh, how I wanted Superman to just punch somebody in Superman Returns.) It's incredible and yet, in a way, more credible than the Marvel movies in exploring how bringing to Earth such beings of godlike power would necessarily upend the order of things on a grand scale.
Unfortunately, as much as Snyder nails the scale of the superpowered action, Man of Steel is unexpectedly weaker than even the mediocre, less inspired superhero films when it comes to a lot of the basics of story and world-building, to the extent that the movie feels oddly small. Superman has always been a character that I've enjoyed much more for his powers and their potential for entertaining action than for his personality or supporting cast. So you might think I'd be satisfied with a Superman movie that goes all-in on the action (and Snyder, if nothing else, is a director who commits, consistently going all-in on painting a particular image for each of his films). The problem is that action, to be truly exhilarating, must possess not only scale but also weight. In the Marvel movies, the stakes have always seemed low because the threats have never been adequately convincing. In Man of Steel, it's the world (i.e. what's at stake) that's not convincing.
A large part of the problem stems from the writers' decision to dispense with Superman's civilian life as Clark Kent, instead giving us a Superman largely isolated from humanity, who drifts from place to place, both in search of a path and in order to keep anyone from getting close enough to uncover his secret. The "soul-searching Superman" angle is obnoxious, but the elimination of the Clark Kent persona actually makes a lot of sense. There has always been this question, after all, of why this not only physically but morally superior being would ever need a secret identity. Nobody could ever threaten him, and, more than any other hero, he already takes it upon himself to protect everyone, so it's not as if a foe would gain any particular advantage by targeting his friends and family specifically. So why wouldn't he just be Superman full-time? Going further, how can a guy like this, not only nigh omnipotent but also nearly omniscient (with those ears that could hear cells divide), ever allow himself to be off the clock, knowing that the enemy—be it a supervillain, a natural disaster, or just an accident—never sleeps and that he can always make the difference?
Cut Clark Kent and a lot else goes out with him, however, and Nolan and his Dark Knight trilogy collaborator David S. Goyer seem not to have thought through how to let go of all that. There are huge gaps in Superman's life, for example, and the nonlinear narrative structure does little to distract viewers from needing answers about what the hell this guy has been doing all this time. More importantly, with him not having been a presence in Metropolis prior to Zod's demanding he show himself, Metropolis itself is largely lost. Although Batman is often raised up as a more realistic character, I've always found Superman's world closer to my reality, because Metropolis basically resembles a real American metropolis, whereas Gotham City is typically this misbegotten Gothic-noir nightmare. But Man of Steel doesn't establish Metropolis as a fully realized city populated by millions of people living lives not unlike our own, and neither are any of the other settings that the character and story pass through, providing only incongruous glimpses of this world, which consequently feels like some kind of incomplete bubble universe, disconnected from ours, though resembling it on the surface as a crude model.
Superman's relationship with Lois Lane also doesn't ring true, because, whereas in the comics, as both Superman and Clark Kent, he sees multiple sides to her while spending much of his daily life with her even before she knows his secret, meanwhile, in the movie, she's just some girl he doesn't even know but in whom he places an extraordinary amount of trust very quickly. And she knows perhaps even less about him, because, whatever she's managed to dig up about his story, when it comes to letting people in on his personality, he is, in her own words, "a cipher."
That's no fault of Henry Cavill's, who, although given little to work with, is close to ideal as Superman. And did anyone else find that, with his cheekbones, he surprisingly looked a lot like Tom Welling when he finally smiled at the end as Clark Kent? Speaking of which, how about that ending? How about the movie going back on its bold new direction of a Superman without a civilian identity? Well, it comes far too late to fix any of the problems in this movie, and, far from it, it actually introduces a flurry of implausibilities, from the traditional (how do people not notice that Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses?) to those that Man of Steel newly saddles itself with (how does being Clark Kent hide anything, considering he never tried very hard to cover Superman's tracks, Lois Lane found him pretty easily, and numerous people already know?) to assault the viewer all at once at the last minute.
Despite some enormous talent and inspired casting decisions, the rest of the characters are all woefully one-dimensional. Russell Crowe at least is a significant upgrade over the classic 1978 Superman's Marlon Brando, as he seems surprisingly into his role as Jor-El. But Diane Lane is reduced to playing basically a crazy cat lady-type, while Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent, whatever the writers' intentions, comes across as no more than an obstacle, holding back a young Clark Kent from his destiny as Earth's greatest champion, spouting vague nonsense about how it's not the right time. The writers script the most contrived death scene imaginable for Pa Kent to lend gravity to his lessons, but, at the end of the movie, take a step back and see that still nothing in the story ever actually pays off Clark's trust in his father's wisdom. Michael Shannon gives a good, albeit, again, one-dimensional performance as Zod, and perhaps my favorite part of the story is the explanation for why Zod is one-dimensional, but he unfortunately just doesn't look cool and never inspires the appropriate awe opposite Henry Cavill's ridiculously good-looking Superman. It's superficial, I admit, but, in a movie where we already know the good guy is going to win anyway, it's doubly hard to take the bad guy seriously when he looks like a generically brutish henchman.
Even with its many shortcomings, Man of Steel at least is never as embarrassingly bad as Green Lantern. There is nothing here that can't be redeemed, and the sequel could be good, even potentially great. And, much as I believe Snyder's Watchmen bestowed the modern superhero movie with more personality by his commitment to bringing back outlandish costumes, I think he has here pushed the boundaries for insanely over-the-top superhero clashes, which I hope other filmmakers in the genre learn from (while making better movies than this).