Man of Steel
Much as I defer to the comic genius of Jerry Seinfeld, I have to differ with him in regard to his favourite superhero. I’ve never really “got” Superman. Sure, I understand that he’s supposed to be the ultimate espousal of American values and that there’s a saviour of mankind Christ metaphor in there (you’d have to be wilfully blind to miss, the way it beats you around the head). But there’s something rather bland about him. I didn’t read a huge number of superhero comics as a kid, but my choice was always be Marvel rather than DC and invariably Spiderman. Marvel seemed to be wittier, more vibrant and less self-important.
When it came to the Christopher Reeve films, it was the second that caught my attention. It had a proper supervillain(s), in the urbane form of Terence Stamp’s Zod, replacing the post-Batman TV series larks of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor (okay, Luthor’s in Superman II too). Superman gained iconic stature when matched by one of equal powers and potential threat. And, if it didn’t go as far as giving Kal-El/Clark Kent an edge, the truck-stop diner scene(s) volunteered an underdog status essential for someone who, even more than other superheroes, is a writer’s worst nightmare (where’s the threat to someone so invulnerable?) I revisited Superman II a while back, and it remains an entertaining if slightly creaky affair; Richard Lester is unable to inject the sense of scale that Richard Donner brought to the original (and the sections of the second that he oversaw). The best part of Superman III would pick up on II’s recognition of the importance of making Superman more than one-dimensional. It captalised on his whiter-than-whiter morality by letting him duke it out with his Kryptonite-induced dark half. It’s by far the most memorable sequence in an otherwise uninspired sequel, allowing Reeve to have a bit of fun by dirtying up his image.
One thing you couldn’t accuse the Reeves films of lacking is a sense of fun, even if this transfers to screen with varying degrees of success. In the first film this centres of Luthor and henchman and the Lois-Clark relationship; Reeves’ performance is closer to something you’d expect from a screwball comedy and the essential chasteness of their relationship evokes the film’s ’50s childhood scenes rather than the contemporary ’70s setting. Donner was keen for to ensure verisimilitude, and to an extent he does (you could believe a man could fly) but the humour was necessary to prick the pomposity of the premise. It’s something, for all its slavish deference to the first two Reeves movies, Bryan Singer’s film missed (at least, as far as I can recall, since the one thing it wasn’t was memorable).
The first two films also firmly grasped that an invincible hero requires plots that turn on moral conundrums rather than just slugging it out. This may be expressed as a choice between saving the one or saving the many, or finding happiness through being human or accepting your fate. When Clark Kent returns as Superman in the second movie, there are actually stakes because we have seen him vulnerable (obviously, a superhero losing his or her powers is now a de rigueur development for any franchise).
Man of Steel sort-of gets the importance of this element, but then decides to forgo it for non-stop special effects destruction porn. Kal-El doesn’t so much wrestle with a specific threat posed as spend the entire film getting to the point where he realises his destiny. That aspect does work well, but it hinges on the compelling groundwork of the first half. The remainder consists of laying waste to as many city blocks as possible. If you’re continually bludgeoned into submission by empty spectacle, there’s a point where it ceases to have any dramatic impact.
The opening sequence on Krypton is such an overload of CGI world-making that during production it must surely have brought concerned flashes of recent big effects disappointments filled with strange creatures in virtual environments (Green Lantern, John Carter). It also opts for one of the riskiest narrative strategies imaginable, by deluging us with straight-faced technobabble, pseudoscience and fantasy MacGuffins. This is the kind of thing Hollywood execs usually cringe at, and would see most fans shaking their heads when it turned up in one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It has the tone and content of Harrison Ford’s “You can type this shit but you sure as hell can’t say it”. So we’re lucky that Russell Crowe and his ever-so-slightly-off English accent as Jor-El is there to see us through. We’ve seen vast planet-engulfing events in another recent franchise reboot (Star Trek; of course, JJ Abrams wrote an unused Superman script a decade or so back), so this kind of thing isn’t unfamiliar. Crowe deserves credit for selling this entire sequence, and his sincerity is crucial to the heart of the film (the device by which he reappears later is a neat one, although it does somewhat undermine his death).
Zack Snyder clearly agrees that the audience needs a lot of convincing, as he adopts a very different shooting style from previous films. Gone are the slow motion and the speed ramping. In are Whedonesque snap zooms (everywhere now; see also Star Trek Into Darkness) and the decision to shoot it all on handheld cameras (interestingly, this is something he specifically didn’t want to do on Watchmen, much criticised by devotees of the graphic novel for stylistically celebrating the violence Moore wanted you to think about). He’s pushing for the brand of “realism” producer Chris Nolan brought to the Batman films, by way of an attempt to evoke Terence Malick’s meditations with the world of nature through use of natural light.
The results are. at times, at odds, since so much of the film is a bombardment of shaking, blurring pixels. We are unable to accept the physicality of the spectacle as we do when watching a Neill Blomkamp or Joseph Kosinski film, yet Snyder absolutely succeeds in bringing immediacy to the proceedings. But I’m not sure he didn’t get his stylistic choices backwards. The visual clarity of Watchmen seems more appropriate to Superman, and the decision feels borne out of fear (look what happened to Green Lantern!) and the example set by Nolan rather than his own instincts. One thing you can say for Snyder, whatever the reasons for his use of handheld, he maintains a clarity of geography and interaction during action sequences that is often absent in work from other directors adopting that style. Perhaps he’s just showing Nolan how it can be done, as the weak spot in the Batmans has tended to be set piece choreography.
If Russell Crowe is a sound choice, Michael Shannon is a dopey one. Yeah, sure, you can justify the decision to make Zod a one-note snarling heavy; that’s how he was genetically engineered. But it’s just not very interesting. And, since Shannon always plays bug-eyed loons about to convulse in apoplectic rage, he’s merely a personification of the hyper-carnage of the final half of the film. There’s no texture or nuance to his performance; he’s all bombast. And it’s not just because Terence Stamp was unbeatably good, it’s because Shannon plays a renta-thug.
The structure of the first half of the film is surprisingly ornate and is the key to its strengths as a whole (it cannot undo the later damage, but it makes it less grievous). I liked the choice to show Clark on his travels (following the path of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, of course), flashing back to significant events in his youth. The only negative of this is that it fractures the power of Kevin Costner’s performance as his father. Strangely, I found he had far stronger impact in the trailers than the final film. Maybe this is appropriate; the conflicting positions of Pa Kent (keep your identity a secret) and Jor-El (give the people an ideal) find the latter given more weight. Either way, both Costner and Lane have the ability to deliver hokey dialogue and make it sound sincere. It’s unfortunate that Pa Kent’s final scene is so dripping with molten cheese (but hey, at least the family dog was okay!), but there’s something generally off about that sequence anyway. The twister is just rampant CGI, and pacing-wise it’s fails to convey that this is a momentous event in Clark’s life. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a really stupid way to kill his dad.
But these scenes do succeed at building a sense of who Clark is and how he’s come to this place. There’s no doubt that the film is over-earnest in emphasising Kal-El’s destiny. It seems like a scene doesn’t go by without someone forcibly repeating this proclamation. We get it already. But the film in general is afflicted with unselfconscious earnestness, which goes hand-in-hand with the faux-realism. Any propensity for camp is a big no-no, and a sense of humour rarely makes itself known. Clark is obviously 33 years old in the film (like Jesus). At one point he even consults a priest on what he should do. The whole genetic heritage thing evokes less contentious memories of Star Wars’ Midichlorian debacle, but I’m not sure what to make of Kal-El’s genetic purity; the tacit implication is that it’s best not to mess with nature (so perhaps it would have been better for Jor-El not to infuse his son’s DNA with the codex, the genetic heritage of Krypton?)
The film gets a key aspect unquestionably right; Henry Cavill. We only see a snippet of undercover Clark Kent (the final scene only), but he makes a big splash as Superman. Perhaps even more than might be hoped for, as he isn’t given the most sparkling of dialogue (well, no one is) or subtle of emotions to play. On the few occasions where the film goes for (intentional) mirth, it’s usually coming from Cavill. The interrogation scene, where he speaks to those on the other side of a sheet of one-way glass, stands out. Of course, Cavill is extraordinarily buff so there’s no question that he makes the action convincing. And I admit it; the lack of underpants isn’t a problem (I had felt it was a wrong move, even on seeing the first photos).
Lois Lane doesn’t work quite as well. Not because she isn’t as intrepid or daring as she needs to be, or because Amy Adams isn’t an enchanting presence. But due to the need to splatter her all over the film with insufficient rhyme or reason. Why would the military allow her near a top-secret operation investigating an ancient object in the ice? Why does Zod want her aboard his ship when he has Superman (other than that it affords her some heroine-to-the-rescue gunplay and a vague reason – which I don’t really buy into as there’s a scientist present who proves crucial to the success of the operation – to be aboard the plane making a strike on Zod at the climax)? How come Supes climbs out of a big pile of rubble just as Lois is plummeting to her doom? How the hell does she manage to find, and run in on, Superman and Zod during their final punch-up (and, while it’s gratifying to see that Superman is willing to snap necks like any common or garden human being, the choice between doing this and saving some innocent bystanders from Zod’s death ray was the corniest of moments)? Does she have superspeed? The romance between Clark and Lois never ignites either, but I’m unsure if that’s down to an absence of chemistry or because the film never gives them a chance to breathe together. There should be ample chance to address this in the sequel if it’s the latter. And one positive thing to note about the casting of Adams; how many blockbusters feature a female lead nearly a decade older than her co-star?
My main issues with Man of Steel come once Zod has arrived on Earth. Many commentators have focused on the hundreds of thousands who must have died in that onslaught on Metropolis (and before that, Smallville). And it’s a fair charge that Superman should be the sort to try and lead the fight away from a densely populated area, rather than throwing Zod further into it (looks good, though, and that’s what counts, right?) In that regard, I don’t have a great deal to say as I’m not invested enough in the character to protect the integrity of his conception. No, the big problem is that sometimes less is more. And Man of Steel blows its wad with the kind of city-levelling mass destruction that puts Star Trek Into Darkness to shame.
It doesn’t help that the human element during this terror attack is so utterly clumsily integrated. Laurence Fishburne, Rebecca Butler and Michael Kelly outrun a falling skyscraper (didn’t work for Charlize Theron with a spaceship, but go for it)! Butler’s trapped in the wreckage! They’re covered in ash! We keep cutting back to the same bit of street set while all around the destruction is escalating! All of which only serves to highlight how OTT the scale is. You can’t expect to intercut between massive CGI devastation and a couple of actors and make it play if they are merely passive observers. It looks like exactly what it is; lazy writing to get around the fact that this is really a celebration of annihilation. Joss Whedon made a similar scenario work in Avengers because he had clear, incremental targets for his characters and the plot. All Snyder has is prolonged mayhem.
The movie is also keen to leave the viewer nursing its lapses in logic. One has to wonder about the military’s desire, as expressed in the final scene, to find wherever Superman lays his hat. Why can’t they just use Prism to locate him? Or turn up at mom’s house? If they mean the Fortress of Solitude, didn’t the scout ship get obliterated in Metropolis? How can Superman have a secret identity when everyone is aware of where he comes from and where his mom lives and he’s using the same name to work for The Daily Planet?
Despite my ambivalence towards the character, the trailers for Man of Steel really whetted my appetite. They sold the lie that this might be a searching, evocative, even spiritual, origin story through judiciously cherry-picking moments from the opening sections. Snyder, Nolan and tin-eared David Goyer have succeeded in making the character relevant to the current age but they’ve abjectly failed to make their story as a whole resonate. It’s the same problem we saw in Star Trek Into Darkness (which also reinvents an iconic ‘80s movie villain in an entirely deflated fashion); ever more incendiary spectacle is valued over satisfying plot and character development.