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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Man of Steel

I barely even know where to begin with this...

The Background: Why Superman is Super

I am a Superman fanboy. There really is no getting past it. I consider Superman to be not only one of the greatest fictional characters ever created and the Alpha and Omega of superheroes, but one of the few modern day creations that can truly be called "mythical". In terms of pure preference, The Flash may be my favourite superhero - thanks in large part to Mark Waid's (more on him in a bit) take on the character when I first started reading comics on a regular basis - but Superman represents everything that's powerful and beautiful and enduring about superheroes and, as such, has held a special place in my heart for pretty much my entire life.

I know this sounds hyperbolic, especially as there are so many "cooler" superheroes around but - and here's where the mythological part comes in - Superman is as much about what he represents as who he is.

Going back to The Man of Steel's origins, he was created by two Jewish American/ Canadian teenagers who, as the children of immigrants, imagined a character that was a mix of the biblical story of Moses with the then contemporary issues facing waves of immigrants trying to forge a new life in a brave new world. Superman wasn't merely a crime fighter but the very embodiment of hope, empowerment and optimism, all wrapped in the blue, red and yellow of a character that was an alien in both literal and metaphorical senses. Since then, his story has taken on Jesus-like undertones (or in the case of the movies, overtones) and has grown and shrunk in power, married (and, uh, "demarried") Lois Lane and has been a science fiction explorer, super soldier and saviour but, at his core, Superman boils down to one image and one image alone. A mild mannered, all too human Clark Kent, ripping off his starched white shirt to reveal the Superman - the being of empowerment, goodness and hope - beneath.

Superman matters to me and while I'm going to review what does and what doesn't work about Man of Steel as a movie, I hope it's clear by now that I am not going to approach the film with even the little objectivity I can muster for most movies. There are reviews out there by people who don't care either way about Superman for you to check out but, believe me, this really isn't going to be one of them.

Man of Steel: The Verdict (Very light spoilers for those who haven't seen the trailers)

Whatever else one might say about Man of Steel - and there is a lot to say - it is clearly a very well-intended attempt to reintroduce Superman to modern audiences and to explain why he still matters. This is not merely some cheap ploy to sell toys, nor does it feel like it was made by committee, but is a clearly personal and honest attempt to make a great Superman movie for a new generation.

It's just a pity that they couldn't convert those good intentions into anything but a miserable misfire of a movie.

Now, admittedly, if I was somehow able to remove all my personal baggage and somehow forget that this is a Superman film, Man of Steel can be seen as a somewhat decent, if not particularly fun, science fiction movie. Or, at the very least, two thirds of one, But, despite the fact that the film's title seems intent on distracting us from the fact that it is a Superman movie, it is what it is and it would be disingenuous, therefore, to treat it as anything but.

With all that said then, the film's greatest weakness is that it misses, to almost uncanny levels, what it is that makes Superman the icon he is. This is especially disappointing, not to mention perplexing, as both its writers (David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan) and its director (Zack Snyder) seem so intent on not only honouring the  legacy of Superman, but on making a Serious Statement about why Superman is such a big deal. Add to that a very fine cast and you have what should have been the ultimate cinematic take on Superman. What we get instead is a bleak, joyless and utterly humourless superhero film that may talk a good game but seems to forget what game it's actually playing almost immediately.


I say "almost" because the film actually starts off on a very promising note. This being an origin movie, we start off once again on the planet Krypton and, though it's interesting that they have once again gone with the cold, sterile depiction of the place that has been in vogue ever since Superman: The Movie, it is a nicely realized depiction of a civilization refusing to acknowledge that they're on the brink of destruction.  Even more impressively - well, at this point anyway: it becomes a bit of a problem later on - Lara and Jor-El, Superman's birth parents, are portrayed as being something special even on their own home planet as they risk everything to send their infant son across galaxies for a chance at life on an alien planet.

In these early sections, we are also introduced to the film's villain, General Zod, who is presented here as a ruthless warrior but one who at least has some honourable intentions as he tries to protect the legacy of Krypton by creating a new Krypton on another planet - it's just too bad that his vision is of a New Krypton populated only by the most "elite" of the planet's bloodlines, and we all know how well that sort of thing tends to work out.

It's a very good beginning that sets up the Krypton/ Earth conflict that runs throughout the film and it's a great introduction to Russel Crowe's Jor-El who, despite being very dead is still a major player in the rest of the film, and, of course, Michael Shannon's Zod, who unfortunately never lives up to his excellent introduction. Unfortunately, the minute the film cuts to an already grown up Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), travelling the world in search of his purpose and his heritage, things start to go very, very wrong.

Searching for Superman

Now, don't get me wrong, this rather log second act does have plenty going for it and, once again, I certainly appreciate its intentions but its problems are so all encompassing that the good stuff kind of gets lost in the muck. The basic idea of exploring why Clark Kent becomes Superman is a great one and the film borrows rather heavily from Mark Waid's (see, I told you I'd get back to him) fairly excellent Superman: Birthright and the way it intersperses Clark's adult wanderings/ wonderings with flashbacks to his younger self discovering his powers is a particularly smart move.

Here's the problem, though: while Man of Steel cribs the basic idea from Waid's story, it completely misunderstands what Waid was driving at. While we South Africans might quibble with the, shall we say, typically "overly rural" depiction of Africa, those early chapters of Birthright give us a beautifully simple and inspired encapsulation of Superman's motivations. Simply, Superman became this ultimate symbol of inspiration for all of humanity by himself being inspired by the goodness of humanity at a younger age - first by his adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and later by the incredible people he meets while travelling the world. It's a lovely and profound idea and it's one that gets straight to the core of Superman and it's an idea that is entirely missing from Man of Steel.

Starting with his parents, we do get a wonderful performance from none other than Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent but instead of being written as the man who inspires Superman above all others, Jonathan is portrayed as someone who is always standing in the way of Clark's maturation into Superman by constantly pointing out how untrustworthy and suspicious humanity is. Literally every last piece of advice he gives the young Clark revolves around hiding from humanity and not displaying his powers in public - to the point that he even suggests that Clark should rather let a bus full of young school children die (one of the few moments in the film, incidentally, where Superman actually saves someone!) than risk revealing himself to the world. With this kind of parental guidance, the Clark Kent of Man of Steel shouldn't have grown into Superman, but into a weird, people-hating recluse. And don't even get me started on Jonathan's final scene in the film...

Once he gets out into the world things hardly get much better. There is nothing inspiring about the humanity that he meets on his travels and though he does, on occasion, use his powers heroically, the thing that finally turns him into Man of Steel's version of Superman is a very long and drawn out conversation with a computerized replica of Jor-El (long story). Jor-El effectively reveals to Clark that his real name is Kal-El (incidentally, if the first part of the name is read to rhyme with "ball" rather than "shall", Kal-El basically translates as "voice of God" in Hebrew) and that earth's yellow sun gives him great powers and with these powers comes the great responsibility of leading the imperfect humans to ultimately - as Grant Morrison put it it in his masterpiece, All Star Superman - "join you in the sun."

Following this Clark finally dons the suit and becomes Superman but because the events that led up to this point are a classic example of telling, rather than showing, it feels incredibly hollow. Admittedly, it is perhaps easy to overlook Clark's total lack of proper motivation as Jor-El's weighty revelations are followed by the only truly joyous scene in the entire film as Superman takes to the skies with a tremendous grin on his face as he tries to come to terms with flying. Finally, at long last, it feels like a Superman film as those glorious few moments capture the fun, the optimism and the sense of possibility that lies at the heart of Superman. It's just too bad that rather than acting as a turning point, this scene if merely an oasis from the rest of the film's somber joylessness.

It doesn't matter how many good things there are in this section of Man of Steel, including a young Clark coming to grip with his powers, the introduction of Amy Adams as a very good, if far from definitive, Lois Lane and a breathless escape from an alien starship, the film's ceaseless grey colour pallet and its suffocating sense of portent snuffs out every last bit of joy to be had. Making a "realistic" Superman story was always going to be a problem as Superman is so fundamentally a fantastical creation, but that still doesn't excuse how gloomy Man of Steel turned out to be. It really doesn't matter how much else the film gets right during this second act, that the new Superman film is far and away the most downcast of all the recent superhero films - even Nolan's Batman trilogy has more jokes and a greater sense of hope than Man of Steel - shows how unbelievably misjudged the entire thing is.

And then things get even worse.

WHAM! BAM! No Thank You, Ma'am!

The third act of Man of Steel is, in a word, terrible. Loads of fans are, of course, very excited about this section as this is the very, very, very long part of the film where Supes finally gets to cut loose and punch things. Which he does. A lot. Here's the problem: First off, just judging it as a big-budget, extravagant action bonanza, Man of Steel ends up hewing far closer to the noisy, deadening mayhem of Transformers than it does to the expertly choreographed and simply well told climactic set pieces of the Avengers. Many audiences clearly love this sort of thing but I thought it was deadening and headache inducing - yes, both! - to the point that even the better action scenes (say, Superman beating the ever loving crap out of Zod after the latter threatens his mother) get lost in the shuffle.

More than just being boring and annoyingly repetitive, these scenes also hammer the final nails into the coffin of this version of Superman. If there are two things that one should always be able to count on Superman doing is 1) always finding a better alternative and 2) saving people. As Superman battles Zod and his gang of Kryptonian thugs within the crowded metropolis of, well, Metropolis, effectively demolishing an entire city in his wake - and no, the term "disaster porn" is not out of place here - he never once tries to draw the action away from the innocent inhabitants of the city he theoretically has sworn to protect, nor does he try and save a single human being who might still be caught in the crossfire. There is a very controversial scene that occurs towards the end of the battle - a scene that, incidentally, pissed off Mark Waid to no end - but the film had totally lost me long before then.

I kind of hate the idea of Superman as a brawler in general, both because the best Superman stories tend to keep the fisticuffs to a minimum and because I've always loved the idea of Superman using his powers in far more imaginative ways than just hitting things until they fall over, but if you're going to go that route - and including Zod means that they kind of have to go that route, or at least that they wanted to - at least ensure that the battles are written and choreographed to ensure maximum excitement without totally giving up all sense of craft, character and story. Not only did Snyder and crew not do that, they also effectively assassinated everything they were trying to establish about the titular hero along the way.  

Getting to the Point

I really hate to give a new Superman movie so bad a review, especially after having waited with such fevered anticipation for its arrival, but Man of Steel just kinda stinks. It has a great cast who are either underused (Richard Schiff) or whose characters are underdeveloped (Henry Cavill who looks like Superman and may make a great Superman if given the right material but is under-served here) or plain misjudged (the usually brilliant Michael Shannon's Zod quickly becomes a screechingly one-note villain, shockingly quickly) and it has loads of action but most of it is badly edited, badly presented and terribly written. It also has a story that is a major step up from the embarrassingly stupid deadbeat-dad plot of Superman Returns but Man of Steel has even worse characterization and it only wishes that it could capture even a fraction of Returns' tonal "rightness".  

Less demanding cinema goers and Superman fans may well like Man of Steel - as many clearly have - but though Snyder, Nolan and Goyer had a chance to finally get out of Superman: The Movie's shadow and create a cinematic vision of Superman that could stand up to Donner's wonderful, but undeniably flawed, 1978 film, for my money, they have only reaffirmed just how enduring a classic Superman's best known cinematic outing remains. Sure, it would have been tough to beat Christopher Reeve's immortal and untouchable portrayal of the Man of Steel and it was always going to be an uphill battle for a Superman film to do its thing without the benefit of John Williams' majestic score, but Man of Steel had a promising Superman, a top notch supporting cast and CGI effects that could REALLY make you believe a man can fly, as well as the benefit of 50/ 50 hindsight (no more Landgrab Luthor!) and all the right intentions. How did things go so very, very wrong?

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