Man of Steel (2013) (Redux)
I’ve talked about Man of Steel quite a bit since it came out. It’s certainly one of the more polarising films of last year. Well, the dust has settled and I felt it was worth another look. Would the fact that my expectations have been tempered actually allow me to concentrate on what the film brings to the table rather than what it doesn’t? I’m completely torn on how to do re-tackle this one. I tried watching the film like I’d never heard of Superman before and had mixed results. Super-spoilers by the way. Don’t read if you haven’t checked out the film and intend to.
“How do you find someone who has spent a lifetime covering his tracks? You start with the urban legends that have sprung up in his wake. All of the friends of a friend who claimed to have seen him. For some, he was a guardian angel. For others, a cipher; a ghost who never quite fit in. As you work your way back in time, the stories begin to form a pattern.”
Very short plot summary. Sent from the doomed planet of Krypton, an alien child by the name of Kal-El lands on Earth and is adopted by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They name him Clark. The child grows up with superhuman powers and struggles to control them. Flash forward and the now adult Clark (Henry Cavill) is trying to live a quiet life, but has become a bit of an urban legend due to his compulsion to save people with his special abilities. After saving her life, he’s hounded by investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Things get much worse when the warmongering General Zod (Michael Shannon) escapes from imprisonment and threatens to destroy Earth unless Kal-El reveals himself and surrenders to him.
I really tried to get my knowledge of the character out of my head. This was a new superhero as far as I was concerned. The problem is that the film is relying on some familiarity to carry you through. Clark/Kal doesn’t really have a personality and therefore is a blank slate we have to project onto. What are his motivations? What does he want out of life? He certainly doesn’t have a character arc. He wants to save and protect people as a youth and continues to do so until the end of the film. Fine, he’s
Superman Powered Flying Man after all- but he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change during the events of the film. A character can totally work without any big emotional journey. Probably the best example I can think of is Judge Dredd in Dredd, but in Dredd’s case, that was the whole point. When it comes to Man of Steel, Clark is meant to be conflicted, having two incompatible ideologies from his two different Robin Hood dads duking it out in his brain. He’ll say he’s conflicted, but he doesn’t act it. Even using the film’s own logic it doesn’t work. Clark can’t help but save people and has a compulsion to do so – fine. However, the big city punch up at the end shows no effort to save anyone, apart from a few in the train station (you bet your fucking arse I’m going to come back to that scene). A little character care could have gone a long way. The film could have even kept its 9/11 allegorical ending if it wanted, but imagine how tense it would have been if Clark is punching the crap out of Zod just to put him down long enough to go and rescue people in peril/caught in the collapsing buildings/whatever. It’d be like spinning plates. He saves people from a burning building and has just managed to put them safely on the ground before WHAM! Zod slams into him at a terrifying speed, tackling him and sending the pair of them a mile away, fighting in a whole new part of the city.
The first 20 minutes of the film show a complete lack of restraint. The opening is just disjointed action, filled with noise, explosions and stuff. It’s basically the “Bayhem” Michael Bay is often criticised for. We have an action packed opening on Krypton. We then cut to bearded Clark on a boat which spots a burning oil rig. More extended action. There isn’t time to digest any of this. There’s little breathing room – it’s just an assault on the senses. After Clark saves people on the rig, he’s knocked into the ocean. To me, this little bit sums up Zack Snyder at his worst. It’s a nice, big, empty shot but Snyder fills it with two CGI whales for some on-the-nose reason for Clark to have yet another flashback to his schooldays. Somebody needs to slap Snyder’s hands away from the storyboards on occasion, because when he’s unleashed he creates an OTT shitstorm like Sucker Punch. Writer David S. Goyer and his infamous “Goyerlogue” also proves that he needs one or both Nolans to rein him in before he makes the Most Serious Film Ever and becomes a depressing singularity, sucking in joy and natural sounding dialogue with him and blinking them out of existence. There’s too much exposition and too many moments of a character saying “I’m sad/conflicted” without ever showing us.
I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to nail down Clark as a character is the film is almost embarrassed to be an origin story. I does everything it can to disguise the fact with the multiple flashbacks and the like. Listen, I’m wary of origin stories and I’m sick of reboots, but that’s because they usually fall into the same traps time after time, not because of the very fact that they’re retelling the same story. Batman Begins was refreshing because it was finally a decent take on the Dark Knight’s origins and removed all that crappy “Joker killed the Waynes” shit from the filmic canon. Origin stories aren’t inherently bad. Dressing shit up and pretending you’re not starting afresh is dumb. Own that shit. If you have to reboot a franchise, make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Telling a linear story from when Kal crash lands in Kansas wouldn’t be the worst thing. We could still have all the well-done school stuff, but there would be more connective tissue, some flow to it all and, most importantly, a stronger sense of character.
Look, I get that this isn’t the Superman I watched in the animated series. I understand that. My issue is that this barely seems like Superman at all. Sure, he’s got the powers an’ shit, but where’s the crucial humanity to him? It has to be said that one of the most important characters in Superman lore, Jonathan Kent, has been royally fucked up. He’s a goddamn sociopath, When a young Clark asks, somewhat rhetorically, whether he should have let a schoolbus of his classmates die just so his identity is kept secret, there’s a short pause and Pa Kent says “…Maybe.” OK, he doesn’t have the answers, but what an odd lesson to teach a child. In common Superman lore, one of the saddest moments is when Pa Kent dies of a heart attack. Why? Because it’s the one thing Superman can’t stop. He can fly at supersonic speeds and punch clean through mountains but he can’t stop his loved ones from dying. It’s the total embodiment of mortality and the cruel chaotic way nature works. In Man of Steel, we have an unnecessary tornado sequence where Pa Kent goes back to his car to save the family dog and gets caught up in the storm. He purposefully stops Clark from saving him as some sort of grim ultimate proof that Clark should take his shoe-shittingly mental lessons about secrecy to heart. It’s really stupid and completely undermines the character, at least from my point of view. It’s a shame because I think Costner does a great job as Jonathan and given the right material could have been the ultimate father figure.
Lois Lane is another wasted opportunity. Amy Adams is usually the best thing in anything she’s in. Lois Lane is a tough character to get right, but one that Adams is more than capable of nailing. Lane starts off all promising an’ shit (she gets a sweet line about military “dick measuring”) but the film loses interest in her and she ends up just being there. When the Kryptonians take Clark on board, they also state they want a human, so Lois accepts. Why do they want a human? For collateral? Wasn’t the deal “give up Superman and we won’t blow you up”? OK, they were going to go back on that anyway, but surely they wanted people to think they were holding up their end of the bargain. It’s not explained and smacks of contrivance. The romance between Lois and Clark is rushed as hell and completely perfunctory. There’s no meat to it at all. It’s there purely because of audience expectation. It’s pandering bullshit.
Shannon’s Zod is a weird one. I like his angry take on the character, but like Clark, his motivations are muddled. It’s only just before their final battle that we learn that Zod was genetically engineered to protect Krypton’s interests. He can’t help the way he’s acting. It’s a decent idea and actually makes you feel empathy for him, but the revelation is so oddly timed. Why all of this now, just as Superman’s about to beat the super-shit out of him? This coming to light at an earlier point in the film would have fleshed out his character considerably.
It’s frustrating because there some really decent elements and cool “bits” in play. The performances are all solid, especially Cavill, Adams, Shannon and Crowe who all bring their “A” games. The action beats are all exciting and give us the kind of superhuman megafights we haven’t seen before, especially in a Superman film. The scene where Clark, suited up in the iconic red and blue, learns to fly for the first time is joyful. The bit where Jor-El tells Clark the history of Krypton through the medium of an animated metallic mural is awesome. Lois being let in at the ground floor when it comes to knowing Superman’s identity is a smart move (although I get the feeling it was only included to sidestep the shit and insight-free “Clark’s disguise is rubbish, it’s clearly Superman in glasses” schtick). Superman’s final reveal being tied into humanity’s first contact with aliens. It’s all good stuff. There’s a really smart take on the whole Superman thing in here somewhere, buried underneath the origin embarrassment and leaden writing.
So, the big controversial ending. Superman breaks Zod’s neck. He just fuckin’ kills the guy. To be honest, I don’t really have a problem with this. It makes sense. He was backed into a corner and Clark had no real other option. Zod wins in the way that Kevin Spacey’s John Doe “won” in Se7en. It’s a dark ending. If you needed proof that the film was relying on previous knowledge of the main character, this should be it. It assumes you know Superman doesn’t kill people. It’s never addressed in the film. Afterwards Clark is torn up about it, screaming in anguish. It’s powerful stuff. If they use this as a way of cementing his moral standpoint in future adventures and having Clark vow to never kill again, then it’s worth it. The film can’t help but ruin this moment by tacking on some bullshit scene about drones (ooh, topical!) and a female military captain finding him “hot”.
“Hi, Lois Lane. Welcome to The Planet.”
“Glad to be here Lois.”
Man of Steel is a frustrating mess. It messes up a chance to properly introduce a great character and confirms peoples’ biases a thousand times over when they say Superman is boring. He is boring in this film. Fucking boring. There’s nothing to him. The film refuses to stick to its guns when it comes to anything. It’s a turgid clunker with delusions of grandeur and a sense of pomposity that’s really unappealing. So, explain to me why I actually don’t hate it with the same passion that I do something like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure, really. Maybe it’s because I can see the potential here. It can be a great series, it wishes to be. It only lacks the light to show the way.
P.S. Right, I’m done talking about Man of Steel, I promise. However, I found the video below by Chronicle writer Max Landis to be informative and on the money: