Sunday, June 16, 2013
It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Man of Steel (2013)
The Superman we need, or the one we deserve?
THE SUPER-FILM: Film is a visual medium; the art of moviemaking boils down to compiling moving images together to tell a story. Traditionally, stories act as delivery systems to share emotions and feelings - which, in turn, is also the sole purpose of art. Film has often relied upon using stories to display its images and impart the emotional aspect upon the viewer, but - being that it is first and foremost a visual medium - makes utilizing a story not entirely necessary. Which brings us to Man of Steel: as a narrative film, it's kind of a failure. But as an emotional experience, it is a stunning, often breathtaking work. The trio of Zach Snyder, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan have crafted a Superman for our super-fast information age - one that tells it’s “story” through the thinnest of characters and the most rudimentary of plots; the filmmakers sweep through all of that as a perfunctory gesture, and are far more interested in finding just the right images to provoke the raw emotions inherent within the content. The last hour or so of the film basically throws any notion of story out the window, instead sending its characters from objective to objective as if they were in a video game. Usually this is the death knell for any movie, but here it works - the visuals are so awe-inspiring and packed with emotional signposts that the film, by extension, becomes a kind of work of abstract art. It’s a painting instead of an illustration; presenting the emotion raw and unformed rather than through a traditional narrative frame.
Of course, this is nothing new for cinema; since it’s inception, there have been abstract films that have gone far beyond traditional narratives. It’s not even all that new for mainstream cinema - Michael Bay routinely cuts together bits of visual nonsense with nary a plot in sight (albeit cold and mechanically). But what Man of Steel achieves is quite extraordinary - a $200 million dollar slugfest that uses the language of blockbuster action cinema to achieve something quite powerful in the end, if a bit confused. The lack of a cohesive storyline and the surface-level characterizations will be unforgivable sins for many, and they aren’t wrong to think so. But viewers willing to meet the film on its own visual, skin-deep level will find a remarkable construction; not your typical light and airy blockbuster that vanishes from the mind as soon you leave the theatre, but something that will leave lingering and quite possibly unforgettable images behind in the mind’s eye.
The film starts at a fever pitch and rarely ever slows down - we’re there at the birth of little Kal-El, the first natural birth on Krypton in years, and then rocketed almost immediately to General Zod’s attempted coup of the Kryptonian government. Head scientist Jor-El is convinced the planet is doomed and they all must leave, which the elders immediately refuse. Tiring of their bureaucracy, Zod takes it upon himself to forcibly remove the elders from power, and although they agree that Krypton is dying, Jor-El is resolutely against Zod’s violent fascism - preventing him from taking control of Krypton and sending his son into the far reaches of space in the process. Zod is tried and sentenced to the Phantom Zone, along with his subordinates, while Jor-El’s theory comes true as Krypton explodes. Little Kal-El is sent hurtling towards Earth, where he’s raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent and struggles to control his blossoming powers.
The Krypton section is arguably the most successful bit of business in the film. The design-work is imaginative and free of logic in the best way possible, making a Frank Frazetta/Metal Hurlant world that is truly alien in the process. This is also where we’re introduced to Superman’s real dad Jor-El, as played by Russell Crowe. There’s no other way to say it: Crowe is fucking awesome as Jor-El, a kind of kung-fu John Locke - riding four-winged dragons and shooting and diving and generally fighting for the right of everyone to have their own tabula rasa. He’s got the warmth, quiet dignity and sheer integrity of character that propels and informs his son, and the scenes between them are some of the film’s very best. Although he dies early on, his consciousness is preserved on what appears to be a Kryptonian thumb drive, which allows Kal/Clark to learn his heritage and history from his birth father.
Also successful are the scenes with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who raises Clark to hide his powers until the world is ready for it. Having Pa Kent suggesting his son not save or help others is rather controversial, but far more truthful; that’s something an actual father would say and do to protect his son. But although somewhat fearful of the outside world, Jonathan Kent still has a fierce morality about him, and raises Clark to be much the same - never preachy or high-and-mighty, instead trying to figure out with his son how they should best handle his abilities. Equally affecting is Diane Lane as Martha Kent, the last real connection Clark has to the world after Jonathan dies in a tornado. She’s equally as important in Clark’s development, as an early scene demonstrates where she helps a young Clark deal with his super-senses. Based on all the performances of his parents both original and adopted, it’s hard to see Clark becoming anything other than Superman when he comes of age.
Which brings us to the main man himself. The role of Superman is obviously the most important in a Superman movie - and living up to the ideal set by the likes of George Reeves and Christopher Reeve is no small task. But this isn’t a story like before where Superman arrives on the scene fully-formed and ready and primed to save the world - this is still very much a Superman-in-training… Which makes Henry Cavill’s performance all the harder to gauge. First of all, dude is huge - he’s the first actor to portray the role who looks convincingly super. As for his actual performance, I think what’s there on the screen is quite good, but there are several mitigating factors. First of all, for most of the film he hasn’t figured out his identity. He’s not Superman, and he’s not quite Clark Kent, either - or at least, not as we know those characters traditionally. We meet up with him as he’s wandering around, working various odd-jobs here and there. The film follows a similar structure to Batman Begins, in that we flash back to defining moments from his childhood. These are some of the best scenes in the movie, but everything feels so rushed it never gets the proper time to breathe. His transformation to Superman happens so quickly it barely registers - he basically takes the suit from Jor-El and is then swept up in the battle with Zod almost immediately. Add that in with the overall rushed nature of the first hour or so, and his character essentially becomes a cipher. There’s so much going on in the script and so many details to impart that the film kind of forgets to take the time to build his character up to get us to care. I do think Cavill is the right choice for the role, as moments towards the end allow him to show off an easygoing charm that feels just right for Superman. I’m eager to see him tackle a more-defined version of the character for the sequel.
The rest of the cast fares about as well, but again the jam-packed and rushed script undercuts them at nearly every turn. Michael Shannon is suitably fantastic as Zod, burning with rage and thinly-veiled insanity, but what I enjoyed most about his portrayal is that he’s somewhat sympathetic; Zod just wants his people to proliferate and survive - the only problem being that the only way to do so, in his eyes, is to wipe out humanity in the process. Amy Adams also makes for a fine Lois Lane, although she’s lacking the hard-nosed quality that made Margot Kidder so much fun to watch. I like that the film gets her involved in the action - Lois is imparted with a bunch of sci-fi babble about how to stop Zod’s world eater engine - but it does so somewhat at the expense of her character. The film does set up an interesting dynamic for Lois and Clark for future installments, but their relationship just sort of happens out of nowhere - they kiss at the end without really developing much of a relationship; once again an example of the film jumping ahead at a rapid pace to get to the good stuff.
It’s a jumble from beginning to end, giving off the sense that there has to be about an hour’s worth of footage that was cut from the film to speed things along to the big action climax. Big emotional moments aren’t earned or set-up the way they should be, and thematically, it’s all over the place. You can see how the filmmakers’ wanted it to be all about Clark’s journey into becoming the titular Man of Steel, but so much happens at such a blinding pace that eventually it all begins to bleed into each other - character arcs and themes begin to contradict one another (ex., Superman doing everything he can to save a family of four after engaging in a knockout, drag-out fight in the middle of Metropolis that would have had to result in the deaths of thousands). What makes it even more frustrating is that these discrepencies could have been fixed in a simple line of dialogue or two, but apparently made it into the film unnoticed. More frustrating than that, the film seems way over-thought out in some regards, i.e. the far too complicated pseudoscience of the Kryptonian world engine, or the ultimately pointless explanations for the Kryptonians getting their powers upon arriving on Earth (it’s explained that Clark doesn’t just get his powers from the sun’s radiation, but has evolved over time to adapt to Earth’s atmosphere, which is why the Kryptonians still wear suits and breathing apparatuses until they get torn off and overwhelmed by the-ohmygodIalreadyhaveaheadache).
But again, the film ultimately works in spite of all this - largely by having director Zack Snyder at the helm. Snyder is a born filmmaker, and here further illustrates his mastery of pure visual storytelling by packing in some breathtaking imagery: Clark undersea with humpback whales, everything taking place on Krypton, and the phenomenal last hour of almost nonstop action that sees truly super-powered characters unleashed upon each other. But even more important is Snyder’s continuing growth as a filmmaker - most of his films to this point have been very staged, green-screen bound affairs, but Snyder abandons all of that for a more natural, handheld verite look. He previous quirks and flourishes of style have either been toned down or replaced entirely - resulting in a film that is very much a Zack Snyder movie, but still unlike everything he’s done up to this point. Helping to accentuate those visuals is the music by Hans Zimmer, who does the unthinkable and manages to create a memorable theme that doesn’t recall or sound anything like the John Williams classic.
Man of Steel is seriously flawed, and yet I felt tears welling up in my eyes at the scenes between Costner and his adopted son. I felt my heart racing towards the end at the sight of Superman donning the glasses to finally become Clark Kent. It works in spite of its flaws to become something quite powerful in the end - a testament to the power of the purely visual in film, one of the most visual of all the mediums. I suppose how much it affects each viewer ultimately depends on what they want out of films - and art - in general.
SUPER-THOUGHTS: So, let’s talk about that ending…
Instead of raising my fists to the air and loudly proclaiming to all who‘ll hear, “That’s not MY Superman!” I’d rather look at the resolution to the Zod battle in a cultural context, and what it says about Western society today. And no, I’m not about to make any longing statements about how far we’ve fallen as a society (although you could certainly make a case for that) - this is merely an observation of how the film rather succinctly captures our culture’s mindset at the present time. The scene plays out as such: after a lengthy brawl, Superman and Zod wind up in a train station, where Zod proceeds to use his heat vision to vaporize a family of four. Superman puts him in a headlock, momentarily preventing the beams from killing the family. But Zod won’t quit (he is in fact genetically engineered to never quit), and Superman can only hold his head in place for so long. With no other choice left to him, he snaps Zod’s neck - killing him to save the lives of the innocent.
For many purists this will be a breaking point: although having done such before, one of the basic tenants of Superman is that he does not kill. He doesn’t have to: he has powers beyond those of mortal men, and thus can often solve dangerous situations without having to resort to lethal force. Of course, Zod isn’t a mortal man; he’s a Kryptonian, with all of Superman’s powers and none of his compassion for humanity. He is the foreign threat personified: a extremist so committed to his goal, he is willing to die and take the whole world with him. There is no bargaining or negotiating with him, leaving Superman with the only option available. This, the film tells us, is the only way the threat can be overcome. In years past Superman could have thought of another way, a better way - but now has no other choice but to kill his most extreme of enemies. And it’s not just the act of Superman killing Zod (he basically did as much in the old films), it’s how he does it: by brutally snapping his neck. It’s ugly and violent and shameful, and Superman - weeping afterwards in Lois Lane’s arms - knows it was the wrong thing to do. But it had to be done, the film tells us. The film presents a world not unlike our own, where horrid acts of violence are carried out in one part of the world in order to uphold peace in another part.
In a way, it feels like a betrayal of the central character. The underlying theme of Superman refusing to kill is the idea that there is always another way; the idea that our imagination can lead us to bigger and better places. That same imagination does not always make it to the real world intact, and indeed may fail miserably when put into practice; Superman doesn’t exist in the real world, after all. But it’s the drive underneath - the yearning of imagining another way to solve our problems that is necessary to propelling us to whatever greatness we can achieve, and what ultimately makes the world a better place, however microscopically. The fact that even Superman can’t find another way means that 9/11 and the War on Terror and the recession and everything else have robbed us of our imagination. Our cultural fears have become so real and palpable, not even our greatest fictional hero can completely overcome them.
All that said, it’s not a choice I find myself passing judgment on. Although I would prefer a Superman who doesn’t have to kill, the filmmakers are merely reflecting the needs and/or wants of modern audiences. And while I ultimately don‘t agree with it, I found the discussion it raises intensely fascinating; that reason alone makes the scene worthy of inclusion.
BEST USE OF POWERS: This film utilizes Superman’s powers much better than any previous film - here Superman feels truly super in a way he hasn’t before on screen. As a result, choosing just one instance is almost impossible - there’s the way the film presents his super-senses, or the way his heat vision feels dangerous and powerful, or when he punches Zod all the way into orbit, or… So on and so on.
THE LAST WORD: Man of Steel has definite, inescapable flaws, yet still delivers an engaging, emotional experience. See it on the biggest screen you can.