Sunday, June 16, 2013

movie review: 'man of steel'

I like Superman more than Batman.

I'll give you a moment to go find your socks that just blew off, but let me also explain why, because it's key to certain elements of this review and why I don't think the rebooted Superman works all that well (spoilers, I'm not the biggest fan of Man of Steel, if you want the review in a sentence). This mostly has to do with certain misconceptions regarding the character and the mythos surrounding Superman, and I'm going to try and clear some of those up (yes, it's going to be one of those reviews).

To wit, when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they were very much aware of the mythological parallels to the character such as Hercules and Moses, and they created him as a character who fought for social justice, an immigrant from another planet fighting for our world. It's also been theorized that Superman was considered a surrogate father figure, particularly to many of the young boys who read the comics in the 40s and 50s while their real fathers were engaged in the Second World War and the Korean War, not to mention the loss of Siegel's father in a robbery years earlier. Many, many writers who would follow them would take their own stabs and defining Superman, but in the end, a core distillation of Superman's role and values crystallized, as they did with Wonder Woman and Batman. 

Batman was the spirit of justice, Wonder Woman was the spirit of truth, and Superman was the symbol of hope.

I want you all to consider this for a moment. Superman is the symbol of hope, an alien from another planet, yet raised with our values and having a much stronger connection to Earth than he ever would the destroyed Krypton. He is a man who gains the most power not on his homeworld but on Earth, thanks to the yellow light rays of our sun. And yet he chooses not to represent himself as some ubermensch, some titan of power that rules us, but as a figure to which we all can look up. Many, many authors have played with the Christ symbolism in connection to Superman, and while I will argue there's definitely a grain of salt in that comparison, I don't think it quite encapsulates the other elements of his character - namely, his more human side. There's a degree of humility in Superman's choice of a secret identity - an unassuming reporter working for a newspaper, where he could inform the American public and ensure his travels could get him in places of danger that he could stop in his alter ego. His relationship with Lois Lane plays a big part in this story, both as a 'grounding' facet of his character and as a very real emotional link, showing his connection to us and our world.

Now, maybe it's just me, but that's potent material for writing a powerful story - but yet so many people don't see these elements in the character. Many tend to consider him a 'boring', 'stupid' character, overloaded with powers and strengths that make him invincible, and obviously a character without weakness can't have any notable threats. They don't understand why he doesn't just kill Lex Luthor or General Zod or why he doesn't enact the same brand of justice for which Batman is emblematic. Or, in a complete misunderstanding of the character, they point to things like this:

Yeah, it's a load of shit. As I stressed above, Superman is a person who has a much stronger and much more potent connection to his human roots than his Kryptonian ones. He was raised in Smallville, a little farm town in Kansas to be a good, compassionate, altruistic person (which is often where the 'stupid' adjective gets applied in the false equivalency where 'good'='dumb', which pisses me off to no end), and while he is aware his powers make him different from humanity, he does not think they place him above us. And from that, you can sketch out the best Superman stories, where it doesn't matter if he has incredible powers, but the ultimate futility of his task. He can't save everyone from everything, but he's going to try his damnedest anyway. He knows that people look to him as a symbol of hope, as someone whose values they want to emulate, and thus he must balance his very human desires with his chosen duty. He knows that people will look at him with fear and anger and jealousy and distrust, but he rises above that because he believes we all can be better.

It's no surprise kids fall in love with Superman. He's the adult who can fly and fight bad guys and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and he's going to do it no matter what and with a smile on his face once the bad guys are gone - in short, he's the idealized father figure for many of these kids. And yet the funny thing is that once those kids get past the teenager stage (where they all tend to embrace Batman over Superman because Superman 'isn't cool') and become adults, they tend to like Superman again, but for different reasons. They see him as the character who has to balance his love life and his job, who has to face impossible odds and somehow prevail, and who through all of it remains a good person. They don't care about his power set or his less-than-stellar gallery of villains - most can see past that and see someone deep down they want to emulate, an ideal to aspire towards.

That's potent stuff, there's real dramatic material there that has resonated time and time again, with the same archetypes stretching back through history. There's a reason Superman has persisted in the modern collective unconscious for as long as it has, perhaps putting the lie to Lois' first article in Superman Returns, 'Why The World Doesn't Need Superman'. And thus my interest was definitely piqued when I heard Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were teaming up with a stellar cast to retell the Superman origin story yet again. And believe it or not, I immediately thought that while the choice of a director was solid (Zack Synder, despite all of the problems with him, has a gift for comic-book-esque shot composition and 'epic' scale if the script can support it), the problems might come from Nolan and his writing team. They understood Batman (mostly), but Superman's a tougher character to nail down and requires a bit more maturity and careful forethought. Could they pull it off?

No, they don't pull it off. And the reasons why are directly linked to why Man Of Steel is such a disappointing movie. All of the pieces were in place to make a powerful, meaningful Superman movie - from the director to the casting to the score to the jaw-droppingly huge action scenes and stakes required in a Superman movie - but the one piece that doesn't work ultimately cripples this movie. I wouldn't call it a terrible film - enough of the elements work together to make Man Of Steel at least barely passable - but it's definitely not as a good as the original first two Superman movies, nor as good as the criminally underrated Superman Returns.

To explain this, let's start with the narrative of this film, because in broad strokes, it kind of works. It's a traditional Superman origin story with all of the basic beats, with the use of Zod as a general from Krypton trying to recover a plot device Superman was given as a child and then remake Earth into a new Krypton. Like with any Christopher Nolan movie, the plot starts falling apart the second you start thinking about it, but I will admit that Nolan could have made this work. After all, the seeds of a potentially strong idea are here, particularly in Zod's character: he's looking to save his species as he was 'born to do', and Superman must choose between his birth species and humanity, an adoptive family that has seldom treated him with more than mistrust and contempt (which, I will admit, is probably apt considering the modern, more cynical nature of us humans today). On the surface, that's powerful stuff and could prove resonant.

But here's the problem: there's no narrative cohesion to Superman's character arc. Henry Caville is an astounding solid choice for Superman - he looks and acts the part surprisingly well - but he's never given much of a chance to develop a personality or characterization, instead redefined into the 'brooding loner' and 'wandering hero'. Which, once again, could work in the right framework - hell, I'd even argue the majority of the scenes were filmed in order to make it work, even if I'm not a fan of that choice.

The problem is that the narrative immediately jumps to Clark Kent as an adult after being sent to Earth and relies on flashbacks to show Superman's time growing up in Smallville. I'd argue these scenes are all fairly solid (with the major exception relating to a tornado and Clark's father, which I won't spoil here but it pissed me off to no end), but framed as recollections, they don't show any growth of Clark's character in the present and it repeatedly slams the narrative to a halt every time. It seriously hurts the flow of the story and it never gives Caville the chance to give Superman a well-developed character, let alone an arc. There's one scene in a church that comes close to examining Clark's dilemma, but the heavy-handed use of symbolism and the thudding dialogue do nothing to help matters (I'll come back to this).

I mentioned earlier that I'm not the biggest fan of remaking Clark Kent as a brooding loner, and here's where we have to lay both praise and blame at Nolan and fellow writer David Goyer's feet. In short, they get the broad text surrounding Superman's character - being from another world with great power, symbol of hope, all that stuff I talked about paragraphs ago. Hell, they even have Russell Crowe's Jor-El and Kevin Costner's Johnathan Kent repeat large segments of those speeches, often reasonably well. And as I said, it's powerful, potent material all on its own.

But there are a host of problems that prevent this material from really clicking, and I've already mentioned two of them: the broad symbolism and the dialogue. In typical Nolan fashion, neither of these things are all that subtle - the 'show-don't-tell' balance here is skewed even worse than The Dark Knight Rises, and it's all delivered with the ponderous weight of a Shakespearean drama. But without any subtlety, you lose the nuance and the deeper message, and which isn't helped by Zack Snyder's direction, who has an eye for symbolism but doesn't seem to grasp the meaning associated with said symbolism. It doesn't help matters that the dialogue is so badly written and clunky, written completely to service the plot as overwrought exposition and completely lacking any poetic scope or levity, that none of the characters in this film feel much like characters at all. Sure, the actors are trying their hardest to sell this material, but without solid characterization, it's just empty exposition and broad philosophical statements that only resonate on their words alone, not because a character we like or care about is uttering them.

And this is where the problem of shifting the dialogue in favour of the 'plot' of this movie instead of the characters really falls flat on its face, for a few reasons. Firstly, if you want us to care about the plot or machinations of the villains (which seem to have cribbed far more notes than they should have from Transformers: Dark Of The Moon), you have to have characters with motivations and characterizations we can stand behind. Man Of Steel, like far too many modern blockbusters, seems to forget this and assumes that just because the character is a protagonist means that we automatically care about them. Secondly, in comparison to the obfuscation in The Dark Knight series that can disguise all the ways the villains' plots break apart, the Man Of Steel plot is much simpler and thus the faults are far easier to point out (for instance (MINOR SPOILER), Zod learns to adapt to Earth's alternate conditions surprisingly quickly, so why the hell does he want to recreate Krypton conditions so badly, particularly when they would make him less immediately powerful (ie. higher gravity would mean he couldn't fly)? Why wouldn't he just want to rule the planet instead with superior Kryptonite technology and all the benefits his species provides him under the light of Earth's yellow sun?). But most annoyingly, too much time is taken to explain over and over again the plot, presumably for the slower members of the audience, and not only does this become tedious in a hurry, it also gives us many occasions to spot all the points where everything breaks apart.

So, okay, the plot breaks apart, but surely the action scenes can save this movie, right? And you know, the depressing thing is that for enough people, the loud noises and the flashing CGI and the ridiculous amount of collateral damage will be enough to convince them this movie is awesome (seriously, I've seen a Michael Bay movie this year that's less overblown than this film). And in the right context, these scenes could probably work (although I'd argue Superman would never cause so much collateral damage and would have worked to keep the fight with Zod away from populated regions). The problem is that without characters I can truly care about - and I really, really wanted to care about Caville's Superman - so much of the action sequences just seem like well-composed CGI extravagance, pretty to look at but completely lacking in dramatic weight. And considering how damn hard this film is trying to have dramatic weight, that's a real failure.

And now let's return to the character and symbol of Superman. Tellingly, nobody actually calls him Superman until near the end of the film (nice work on the iconography, Nolan!), but even with that, I can't help but feel this film seriously missed the mark when it comes to defining the character of Superman - and considering how much exposition is piled out attempting to define motivations and what Superman 'means', that's a huge problem. Part of the element that really falls flat is the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane - and in my only real criticism of the acting here, Henry Caville and Amy Adams have shockingly bad chemistry and actors. I don't buy these characters love each other, and I have a hard time buying that this relationship (in its sparse, criminally underwritten form) means anything to Clark Kent. 

But then again, I'd have a hard time considering why, outside of Clark's parents, why he'd give a damn about any humans, because they certainly haven't given him any good reason to care. In the flashbacks, Clark Kent is bullied and ostracized because of his weird, inexplicable powers, and whenever he attempts to just be a good person, he tends to be treated with derision and mistrust. Keep in mind this is the character the script keeps trying to hammer into our heads is the 'symbol of hope for humanity' - well, if that's the case, humanity appears not to want hope in the slightest! So then you ask the question why on earth Clark Kent bothers to help a society that treats him so badly, viewing him with paranoia and anger even though he's trying to help them - and you really don't get an answer. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd imagine it's because Clark feels some sort of duty to help humanity despite it all, but this is never elaborated upon or discussed, and given his background on earth, I have a hard time totally buying into it. And this isn't Goyer and Nolan being subtle (because they're not) but because the characterization is poorly defined!

And coming back to Superman as 'the symbol of hope' that we want to aspire towards - yeah, in this film, I don't buy that either. Putting aside the washed out colour palette (which does nothing but leech energy from this film), there's no evidence to suggest that even at the end, Superman isn't treated with anymore more than mistrust. By the end of the film, humanity has learned little to nothing, none of that inspiration to mankind is shown, and I'm left feeling empty and more than a little disappointed (although that might have something to do with Superman doing something at the end of this film that Superman would never fucking do - you'll know it when you see it). And considering how damn hard they're trying to make me care about the symbolism and importance of Superman, it's a failure of the film that I feel nothing at the end. And considering how hard I really wanted to love this movie, that's saying something. It almost seems that the film had two goals - satisfying those who wanted to see Superman kick explosive amounts of ass, and giving the Superman mythos serious weight and power - and in doing one, they completely fucked up the other.

So in the end, I don't think Man Of Steel is a terrible movie, and I do respect that it was trying to go for the meatier themes and messages behind the character (something Superman III and IV didn't even bother to tackle in an intelligent want). But by sucking the levity and humanity and colour and character out of the story, I felt the film lost that spark of passion and hope that a Superman movie desperately needs. Perhaps if the storyboards were shuffled and placed chronologically, or Caville was given more of a chance to develop a character, or the plot wasn't needlessly and pointlessly convoluted (a consistent problem with modern blockbusters), or some of the exposition regarding hope for mankind was actually paid off, this movie could have worked. Hell, I really wanted this movie to work, nearly all the pieces were in place for it to work.

But as it is... I can't help but agree with Lois Lane's article with a slight correction. The modern world doesn't need this Superman - but it does need one.

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