Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Man of Steel!

This is a film about a leap of faith. The idea occurred to me early on and was reinforced around the midway point when a character explicitly uses that very phrase. Zack Snyder’s reboot, Man of Steel, is the story of our first alien encounter. It’s about Superman’s difficult decision to reveal himself to the people of Earth. Will they fear and despise him? Or will they embrace him? And I think, on some level, that is the same question that the filmmakers are asking of the audience - Are we finally ready to accept Superman’s cinematic return?

The film has been aggressively divisive, and I think that your ability to enjoy it depends on how large a leap of faith you are willing to take. It’s an earnest, melodramatic film, filled with sincere but schmaltzy moments of melodrama, and I think that if the prevailing angst is all a bit too silly for you, and you think that Henry Cavill in his cape and bodysuit is ridiculous, then it will be very easy for you to roll your eyes and have a cynical chuckle at all that transpires. If you’ve never understood the appeal of Superman then this isn’t a movie that will easily change your mind. However, if you’re interested in the mythology, the character as an enduring icon (75 years and counting), and gloriously grand scale sci-fi/action comicbookery - if you can get past the inherent silliness - then I really think there’s a lot to enjoy.

I’m not going to nitpick costumes. I’m not going to talk about how plausible all of this. If you see a movie called “Smurfs” then it’s going to have smurfs in it. This is Superman so you’re going to see his dorky red and blue costume and everything else that this franchise entails. My two questions instead are: How triumphant is Superman’s return? And what are the main challenges in bringing him back?

Find out what I made of it all... after the jump!

Let’s start by abandoning our baggage.

There is no definitive version of Superman. The core elements remain the same, but the details morph and evolve throughout the 75 year history. Everyone has their personal favourite incarnation and no single film can possibly appease everyone. And I think that’s a good thing. He is malleable like Batman and open to endless interpretation. The Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale Batmans can all exist harmoniously despite being tonally disparate. And Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns proved that modern audiences weren’t really interested in a rehash of Donner’s past. I am ready for a brand new vision and I think it’s only fair to jettison all prior expectations of what Man of Steel should have been, and focus on unraveling what we actually got. And why did it veer in the direction that it did?

If nothing else, director Zack Snyder is the first to give us Superman in a giant, spectacle-filled blockbuster. Don’t be fooled by the slow, whimsical nature of many of the trailers - this thing is huge. Yes, there are ponderous moments as the twin fathers dole out their lofty advice, but an insane action sequence is always within reach. It’s a long film but it jets along at a frenetic pace, metering out the set up mostly through flashbacks, while always streaking towards the audaciously bombastic climax. Origin stories are notoriously slow but he wastes no time getting Clark into the action. Even in the flashback child scenes Snyder manages to find a very visually unique and powerful way of illustrating the (surprisingly frightening) manifestation of Clark's new powers. And Snyder has always been about the money shots, and (unlike other recent films like World War Z) he has plenty of them up his sleeve that you haven’t already seen in the trailers. It starts big and it snowballs.

And make no mistake that this outing is Superman’s first science fiction epic. In the opening scenes Krypton is transformed into a rich, wild, alien landscape - more like something out of Heavy Metal magazine or golden age Flash Gordon. Spacecrafts rain lasers and an extravagantly armoured Russell Crowe rides a frigging dragon! This is finally the film where Superman fights aliens and robots and is able to unleash the full extent of his powers. This is finally the film where you can hit someone with a train. It’s awesome yes, but it’s not without its problems.

To better understand this, let’s look at our villain. Michael Shannon’s cruel and determined General Zod is a powerhouse. 

It’s a deliciously evil and angry performance, made possible by the fact that his motivations are refreshingly simple. He was born to accomplish a very specific task and it is impossible for him to deviate from that path regardless of the consequences. Shannon approaches this with unfaltering commitment and the screen lights up whenever he’s on it. Zod and his Kryptonian cronies are in every way Superman’s equal so the fights are like hyperspeed garbage trucks smashing together. But this is why I feel that it's a tricky proposition...

Yes, we want to see Superman unleash and have the large scale battles that have never before been delivered on screen, but now that Clark is just one of many super-powered beings he doesn't feel quite as special. This is, afterall, his origin story, but we don’t really have time to be in awe of Clark as someone truly unique. In fact I’d argue that he’s kind of overshadowed by Zod who can do all the same things but has a better costume and the freedom to deliver a more memorable performance.

And this is where we get broach the difficult nature of Superman as a character. Because although the movie nails the spectacle, and satisfyingly explores the mythos, by the end of the film I have no idea who Clark Kent/Kal El really is. What’s he like as a person? I just don’t know. He kind of rapidly alternates between being anxious and assured, but mostly feels lost throughout most of it. His fathers constantly ask what kind of man he will be, but I’m never really sure. He lacks the laser focus of Batman, but most of all lacks that complexity. Bruce Wayne is a complicated, flawed, broken, brilliant man. And a total nut. Meanwhile, Superman is space jesus. So how do we relate to him?

I think the character divides audiences because the Superman fantasy is old fashioned. Batman is far more appealing because he’s a normal guy who drives himself to accomplish extraordinary things. His crusade is very personal, and being a playboy billionaire in his downtime is pretty attractive too. Superman is the outsider. He’s apart from us, and perpetually tasked with answering our prayers. Batman does whatever the hell he wants, Superman does whatever the hell we need. Which would you rather be?

But I’d say the biggest competitor 2013 is Iron Man. He fulfils the fantasy of flying, lasers, and super strength, but at the end of the day he can take the suit off and walk away from it. (And probably sleep with a supermodel). Plus he’s flawed, complicated, and a billionaire to boot. And he wears what is essentially an expensive car. As a modern audience member you view that and you think, “I want that. I want to do that. And I COULD do that - if the technology was available and they widened it at the sides”. But, in Man of Steel, when Superman first strides out in his costume, nobody is fantasising about taking his place. We don’t think, “I want to wear that.” We think, “My cat got stuck in a tree last week. Where the fuck were you??”

All superhero films are a leap of faith. No matter how straight you play it, there’s still something inseparably adolescent and silly about the concept. But they are also a great deal of fun. It just helps to have someone like Robert Downey Jnr. running around and speaking for the audience. He’s the Han Solo of comic book movies - the irreverent cynic who openly calls out the silliness (“ Pointbreak!” “Reindeer Games!” “Shakespeare in the Park”), but Man of Steel lacks that. Instead it’s all deadly serious fatherly advice and Jesus analogies. And not every viewer is going to stomach that.

And I do like Henry Cavill as Superman. He’s an engaging presence and I think that he has a lot of depth to give. And I would definitely like to see him continue as Superman, but, now that the status quo has been established, I think he really needs another film to allow him to hit his stride. And more personality would be gained by establishing his dual identity - we still have no idea how he's going to approach that. Man of Steel is merely the set up. The tip of the iceberg. Not a whole lot has been set in stone by the end of it and I think there are plenty of ways that they can move forward and really dig into this character.

Personally, I was onboard for the bulk of the journey and I foster a lot of good will towards this film. I particularly liked Kevin Costner as Pa Kent and was genuinely moved by his interactions with Clark. In fact I loved the origin story in general. It’s a fresh enough take and it lays a very solid foundation. The story only fails for me in that final act which is a massive city destroying spectacle that has little consequence beyond Zod and Clarke’s personal grudge. Has public opinion on Superman changed now that he’s caused countless billions of dollars in damage? The film doesn’t think this is important and completely brushes over it. It’s a missed opportunity too, because Superman is nothing more than a jackhammer here - a blunt instrument that destroys everything in his path. Nothing he does is smart, or resourceful, or even attempts to keep his adopted city safe. This sequence removes all his positive character traits in an attempt to deliver an over-the-top climax that will rival massive money-spinners Transformers and The Avengers. Why they’d embrace Superman after all this is beyond me. (I’m sure that if two super-powered Middle-Eastern characters settled their differences in America’s biggest city, levelling it in the process, that the general populace wouldn’t be quite as forgiving).

But, all said and done, I want to see more. And I want to see DC finally deliver the Justice League film that they keep promising. I’m glad that the difficult first film is out of the way and I hope that things get even better from here. Man of Steel is solid blockbuster entertainment - you just need to be willing to take that leap.

1 comment:

  1. I think the move was very good. I grew up watching the original TV show with George Reeves. I thought the 70's versions were pretty weak compared to this.

    Dwayne Johnston (Limo in Seattle)