Man of Steel (Redux)

 
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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:

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angsty: Why it’s time to stop copying from Batman’s notebook

Man of Feels

Like many thousands of other people, I went to see the new Superman flick Man of Steel the other day. Whilst I quite liked it, I had my problems with it. Chief of which was the fact it was the same type of joyless, po-faced, sullen comic book adap we’ve been seeing ever since Chris Nolan reinvigorated the Batman series. I know I can’t be the only one getting sick of how ridiculously seriously these films take themselves.

I’m not saying that I would prefer a Superman film that undermines the comic at every turn, pointing out how silly things are. Not at all. I love it when films have confidence in the comics and strive to make what worked on the page work on screen. Films used to take the attitude of  looking at comic series and seeing what they could salvage, but now they’re mostly interested in being faithful to the source material. I’m also not against dark and gritty adaptations. The Dark Knight trilogy is fantastic and I love stuff like Sin City, Road to Perdition and Dredd. Thing is, dark and gritty worked for Batman because Batman was all downbeat and moody to begin with. The washed-out palette and realistic approach worked because it suited the character and world that he inhabited.

Comic books are renowned for having a multitude of takes on their characters. Spider-Man alone has had so many different iterations ranging from a futuristic 2099 version to a cartoon pig known as “The Spectacular Spider-Ham” it’s hard to keep track of them all. Practically every time a new artist/writer is hired, the series is technically rebooted and some new blood gets a crack at taking on an established character. Whilst 1997’s  Batman & Robin can go drown in a bucket of piss, this is one of the reasons why I don’t mind Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever as much as most people do. As long as the core character traits are kept the same, you can remix the tone, characters and world as much as you want. It’s like Shakespeare- as long as the essence is kept the same, people don’t give a fuck what you do.

What I do have a problem with is when filmmakers artificially grit up a franchise to appeal to the emotionally stunted moody teen demographic out there. It happened with The Amazing Spider-Man and it’s happened again with Man of Steel. Both films were tasked with rebooting a franchise and making the hero relevant and cool again (the necessity of which is debatable). Both films took the “darker” route and I would argue they both sold out their characters to do it.

I’m not the biggest Superman fan ever, but I like the character a lot and have enjoyed my fair share of the comics,  films and TV shows. I even played the craptacular Superman 64 back in the day. When I bought my ticket for MoS, I expected a grittier take on the franchise, but for the basic character to remain the same altruistic saviour figure he always has been. What I got was a mopey, brooding bellend in a skintight suit. Superman’s sincerity and earnestness doesn’t have to be cheesy. They could have made it work. But no, they washed out the colours and sucked out the joy.  Where’s all the protecting and inspiring good in people? Abandoned in his own selfish quest to get to know just who he really is.

This grittification reminds me of comics in the ’80s when many heroes were like huge steroid-abusing bears, muscling their way around swearing, killing and being “mature”. Looking back on them now, it’s funny how juvenile they are. Comics have thankfully got through that awkward phase and are now more diverse and legitimately adult than ever. The film adaptations need to do this too. At this rate, the much-talked about Justice League film will be Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman et al sitting in a room chain smoking, cutting themselves and looking for “deep” pictures to put on their Tumblrs.

I think the reason that people are supposedly connecting with the Nolanised breed of films is an overall weakening of audiences’ imaginations. People just can’t suspend disbelief like they used to. Nowadays you have to explain the fuck out of everything and meet audiences three-quarters of the way. People like to think they’re too cynical and clever for the older, cheesier superhero flicks, but they really aren’t. They’re too fucking stupid to get caught up in the escapism of it all. The Nolan Bat-films worked because Batman isn’t superpowered. All his tech is plausible and only slightly science-fictiony. When you present a realistic take on Superman who, may I remind you, can fly and has laser vision, you’re forced to really think just how he can achieve flight, rather than just buy the concept. I want to believe a man can fly, not just be told it. Same problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Using the film’s own logic, explain to me how a teenager with no income can afford to bulk-buy crates of a commercially available web-like fluid and isn’t tracked down by any competent law enforcement agency once they find out there’s an outlaw swinging around using the stuff. Over-explanation is a killer. Think of Toy Story. Did you need an explanation as to how the toys could talk and became self-aware to enjoy the film? Would it have been better if you were told that an accident at a toy factory had caused all the voice chips in the toys to work at 40,000% capacity, granting motor skills and AI? Fuck no. The toys talk when people aren’t around. Boom. Done. Let’s get on with the story.

Some people are grumbling about reaching a saturation point when it comes to superhero films. I tell you what, I’m nowhere near. However, I’m not sure if I can take another dour, shoe-gazing version of a favourite hero of mine. Films need to be confident enough in the unique charms of their chosen properties and not paint over everything with the angsty “mature” brush. Basically, they need to be adult enough to have a little fun and not do something because it worked for Batman.

Man of Steel

Hey guys, I went to see one of those “super hero” movies everyone’s been talking about!

Man of Steel (2013)

2006’s Superman Returns has a bad rep. I would argue that most of it is ill-deserved too. For one reason or another, audiences didn’t really connect with it and here we are. After pretty much dining out on Batman for the past 8 years, DC knew they had to step their game up to catch market leaders Marvel. Pre-release, I went back and forth on being excited for Man of Steel, but eventually settled on getting hyped. I rationalised it thusly: DC can’t afford for the film to suck. They still have eyes on a Justice League film and it’s not going to happen if people don’t like Superman. The script is by David S. Goyer, who has  had great success with the Dark Knight trilogy. Speaking of ol’ Bats, director Chris Nolan had taken the producer role this time and had a hand in the scripting.  All the elements are there. Director Zack Snyder has a great eye for visuals, but tends to get a bit carried away with himself (see the visually arresting but offensively shit Sucker Punch) but the down-to-earth duo of Goyer and Nolan would keep him grounded. All the time though I had a niggling voice in the back of my skull. The trailers certainly pointed towards a gritty, more realistic take on Superman. I hate this “grittification” of superhero films. Just because it worked for Batman, doesn’t mean it’s suitable for everything. We learned this lesson with the pandering, shoe-gazing The Amazing Spider-Man, which took all the fun out of Spidey and left us with an angsty chore of a film.

“My son was in the bus! He saw what Clark did!”

Despite everyone and their dog knowing Superman’s origin story, Man of Steel tells the tale of Kal-El (Henry Cavill), an humanoid alien who was shipped off the dying planet of Krypton as a baby by his parents and sent to Earth, where he was raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Whilst on Earth, Kal-El (named “Clark” by the Kents) discovers he possesses superhuman abilities, like super-strength, laser vision and with enough practice, flight.  After keeping his identity semi-secret for decades, it all starts coming undone when intrepid investigative journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) starts digging around following various urban legends about a mysterious man’s superhuman feats. Clark is forced to come out of hiding when fellow Kryptonian and war-mongering bastard General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his group of thugs threaten to commit planet-wide genocide unless Kal-El gives himself up. Reading that back, I realised Man of Steel‘s story is solid. It’s a fresh take on the familiar and it works. The cast are all great too. Cavill is a brilliant lead, Adams nails a tricky role and Shannon is a fantastic villain. Star of the show for me though was Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. The Kents are integral to the Superman story as they give him his morality and understanding of the human race. Costner gives some wonderful speeches to the young Clark that manage to be genuinely affecting. I want him as my dad.

The film’s opening didn’t give me a lot of hope for the rest of it. We see Supes’ dad, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) arguing with the council over Krypton’s future, then a takeover attempt by Zod. Jor-El takes it upon himself to steal this thing and blah blah blah. There’s an awful bit where he calls a big CGI dragonfly/bat thing and rides it amidst explosions and all sorts of shit. It was a CGI nightmare akin to Attack of the Clones-  just packing the screen with as much CGI as it can handle. It all goes a bit Avatar with the flying beast, then a bit Matrix as we see babies in pods. I felt my heart sink. Was this it? Thankfully, the film pulls it round, but it was a scary 20 minutes, I tells ya.

I suppose the two main criticisms of Superman Returns were its retro cornball approach to the mythos and lack of action. Both of which are answered here with varying degrees of success. The film takes on Superman’s origins as a course of solemn duty more than anything else. It takes itself very seriously and I think that’s my main problem with it. I also think by taking this approach, DC are just confirming the misconception that Superman is a boring hero. Yeah, he’s practically invulnerable and has nearly all the powers, but he has the weight of humanity on his shoulders. He can punch a meteor into dust, but he can’t stop the people he cares for from being endangered or dying. None of that really comes through in the film. Superman’s just another introspective hero douche. I think they rushed the Lois/Clark thing too. I didn’t buy the love angle for one minute and I wish they’d held off until a sequel.

In action terms, things have been kicked up a fucktillion notches. The film can barely go 5 minutes without some big sequence happening and I loved it. The superhuman smackdowns between Zod’s crew and Superman are incredibly well done and injections of much-needed fun. I never got tired of watching people getting punched with the force of a freight train and flying backwards through debris and various shameless corporate tie-in buildings. Superman’s final fight with Zod is a proper climax too. Metropolis gets leveled and it’s genuinely thrilling stuff. I was exhausted and deafened by the time it was all over, but I was still pretty content.

“He will be an outcast. They’ll kill him!”

“How? He’ll be a god to them.”

Man of Steel is an odd one. Instead of a bold step to try and bring DC up to the Marvel benchmark, it’s a strange case of trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Putting the all-American bastion of good through the dark ‘n gritty filter doesn’t work. It’s all a mite too cynical for me. Levity isn’t a bad word. You can have earnest without being corny. The Captain America flick is a great example. In this film, characters are almost embarrassed to call him “Superman” and that’s part of the problem. Man of Steel certainly isn’t bad. I liked a lot of the elements, but it didn’t hang together as a whole. The tone is also all wrong. For fuck’s sake, it’s Superman! Let’s try and have a little fun when sequel time rolls around, eh?