Saturday, June 15, 2013

Superman Deserves Better: Man of Steel is a Loud and Obnoxious Film Signifying Nothing

Man of Steel is an exercise in exhaustion and tedium.

When a superhero movie about an iconic character makes the viewer wish it would end then something is wrong. Man of Steel is big on spectacle; it is weak on character development.

The movie hits all the obligatory points. Man of Steel alludes to Superman as an allegory for Jesus Christ. The film also deploys the visual lexicon of September 11th.

But ultimately, Man of Steel works better as a series of exciting movie trailers than a 143 minute film.

The central problem with Man of Steel is that its creators--Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, and Zack Snyder--offer few if any reasons for the audience to care about Kal-El, the son of Krypton who we Earthlings know as Superman, or the relationship he forms with Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) in the movie.

Man of Steel contains many great possibilities--for example, Snyder's exploration of Superman's home is a revelation for the film franchise. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, as Superman's biological and adoptive fathers respectively, are also bright spots in a bloated screenplay and script. Although Costner is given too little to do, and the relationship between he and Clark Kent is too little developed, Costner's sincerity and warmth transcend the shortcomings in Goyer's writing.

Michael Shannon and his lieutenant Antje Traue are also positives in the film. Shannon, to his credit, does not try to channel the earlier version of General Zod as portrayed by legendary character actor Terence Stamp.

Michael Shannon is General Zod. However, he is a General Zod who comfortably exists in a different film universe.

Henry Cavill lacks charisma in the title role. He is a chiseled mass of flesh, a walking human statue. But, Man of Steel does not allow his personality to shine through. Consequently, Cavill is a human prop in a joyless role. As David Carradine ingeniously explained in the movie Kill Bill Volume 2, the character known as Superman is supposed to be a critique of the human condition. In Man of Steel, Henry Cavill is a two dimensional character who happens to fly and wears the uniform of the guy known as Superman.

Because of poor writing, he is never given a chance, unlike Christopher Reeve, to truly embody the part.

Superman's origin story is part of comic book lore. As such, it is familiar to most viewers because Superman has become central to global popular culture. Man of Steel's writers take a risk here by returning to such well-trodden terrain. They easily could have alluded to Superman's origins and began the movie in its second act where Kal-El had already been raised on Earth by the Kent family.

Man of Steel is a stronger movie because of its creators' decision to return to the beginning in order to establish their version of the Superman mythology.

The film's story arc is a familiar one. Superman must learn to grapple with being, quite literally, a god among men. He learns humility, patience, love, and kindness from his parents, while also being taught by them a sense of obligation and loyalty to humanity. Kal-El is an alien outsider. Man of Steel is at its best when it explores those struggles. Inevitably, Superman learns of his origins and is tutored by the "ghost" of his dead father in the film's version of the Fortress of Solitude.

Inevitably, General Zod arrives, and offers an ultimatum to the people of Earth. They must surrender the alien refuge and fugitive Kal-El. Chaos ensues. Metropolis is devastated. Lois and Superman develop the first hints of attraction and love. Superman wins over the people of Earth. Kal-El becomes the bespectacled Clark Kent who works at the newspaper The Daily Planet and the movie ends, leaving the audience to wait for the inevitable sequel.

The familiarity of Superman's story is not a weakness for Man of Steel.

Superman is a modern fable that resonates precisely because of its familiarity. Thus, the challenge for the story-teller is to maintain the core essence of a legendary epic, while improvising around its themes in compelling and interest ways.

Unfortunately, Synder, Nolan, and Goyer are not up to that challenge in Man of Steel.

Man of Steel's second act held particular promise for the great Superman movie that otherwise could have been.

In the movie, Lois Lane is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has been tracking down rumors of a man with extraordinary powers. He is a hero, a protector, and a friend to those in need. Kal-El lives in the shadows. He is a ghost. Yet, Kal-El appears when we, those he watches over, are most in need.

This poses an interesting possibility for Man of Steel. Why not explore what it would mean to be an alien from another planet with extraordinary powers who is trying to hide from the global media, figures like Julian Assange, domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, and the social media blogosphere Facebook Twitterverse that is the Internet? The cat and mouse game between Lois Lane and Kal-El could propel the narrative forward until our hero is forced to make the conscious decision to become Superman, thus revealing himself to the world in a moment of crisis and its most dire need.

In all, the transition from the man known as Kal-El to the icon and hero we know as Superman is too quick and easy.

When Kal-El puts on the iconic red and blue tights and cape that moment should mean something to the audience. Such an instance should be full of pathos and melodrama (in the best sense). Our hero has to earn the costume, one that in this case is not a disguise, but rather a birthrite and a legacy from his parents on Krypton. Snyder's version of Superman just sort of falls into the role (and the costume) in an interesting, albeit rather convenient, way.

Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer chose to create a Superman origin story: They complicated their task by creating a bloated film which introduced an iconic villain such as General Zod much too early.

To point. There are any number of crises which could have necessitated the public outing of the Kryptonian known as Superman and this necessary question: how does humankind respond to 1) the knowledge that they are not alone in the universe, and 2) that an alien protector, who looks like them, is living on Earth...and is also an American?

The domestic and geopolitical implications of such a discovery would add much needed color and context to the Man of Steel.

Given the following and necessary question explored by many comic book series and their fans in the aftermath of September 11th, how do we reconcile such an event, with an imaginary where any number of heroes could have stopped the horrors of that day?

In exploring some of the range of possible answers, Man of Steel's Superman could have prevented a terrorist attack, stopped the launch of nuclear missiles, or saved millions from a catastrophe of some other type.

In this alternate version of a Man of Steel that could/should have been, General Zod is a final exam to be taken by Superman in the movie's sequel.

The movie ends, we the audience wait for the anticipated after credits surprise reveal, and the "You are not Alone" trailer announcing the arrival of General Zod then plays. Such an ending would not constitute (what has derisively come to be known in some circles as) "fan service." Rather, such an ending would make for a better movie and allow time for the Man of Steel to develop a set of characters we actually care about for the future sequel.

Man of Steel does not appear to be a film that was derailed by a process of writing and directing by committee and focus group. The principals involved--Goyer, Snyder, and Nolan--willingly and willfully created this movie; it does not appear to have been hijacked by others.

Man of Steel is serviceable and adequate. It is not great. Man of Steel will also make many hundreds of millions of dollars in box office. But, how many people will ever want to watch Man of Steel again?

Superman is one of the greatest and most iconic characters in contemporary popular culture and literature. He deserves much better than the Man of Steel.


Mo_Downs said...

Spectacle, like pornography, doesn't need a lot of words.
And, spectacle fits IPad viewing better than any film that involves lengthy character development. It's hard to get into words when you're nodding on a commuter train.

A more interesting film might have been the sequence of events that led up to the final cut being shown to the studio head. The producer's notes would have been far more melodramatic, and therein more screen worthy, than any "reimagined" director's cut of this film. Art, is for a select few. Spectacle, is for everyone.

chauncey devega said...

"Art, is for a select few. Spectacle, is for everyone."

And popular culture is for the definition. What would you dream a Superman movie of being?

Shady Grady said...

148 minutes??? Yikes. I was thinking about seeing it today but now I'm not so sure.

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grumpyrumblings said...

On NPR the director said his original cut was over 3 hours and he couldn't cut it down past 148 min.

Personally, I think so many movies around the time of 1939 were so very great (even today) because there was a guy there saying nothing over 2 hours, and keep stuff close to an hour and a half. There's something wrong with any action movie longer than 2 hours. Save it for dvd extras.

Vic78 said...

Some of the plot's inspiration came from Earth One. What I didn't like about the plot is Lois finding out about Clark at the beginning of the movie. It would've been better had he done a better job covering his tracks. I wished Cavill's Clark was a more convincing Clark at the ending. It looked more like a disguise than the real deal.

I like where you went with how he deals with the world and always has to hide. There's no telling what his senses picked up. The costume should've been more relieving than it was. He can finally follow his instincts and give people a hand.

There are plenty of threats for Superman that were a little more vicious than Zod. You have Brainiac, imp from the 5th dimension, Darkseid, and Lex's potential. They can make excellent sequels as Cavill grows into the role.

It's difficult to find the right guy to play Superman. He has to have a specific look and the acting talent of a Harrison Ford. They're just gonna have to work with Cavill. He'll get better. It was pretty neat watching the ass whuppings he put on Zod and the troops.

chauncey devega said...

The movie borrows from a few of the Superman stories and has quite a few Easter Eggs for die hard Superman fans. Those were cool. One of the other issues I didn't allude to here was how this could have been a generic movie about an alien wanted by his home world. Nothing really felt like Superman.

I don't mind the bad disguise that is one of the conceits of the character. Urban legend Superman was one of the good things about the movie. If they kept acts one and two and developed them more, Man of Steel could have been something great.

chauncey devega said...

3 hours. Goodness. We could have lost an hour here and been fine.

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Vic78 said...

I meant was how Clark carried himself compared to how Superman carried himself. We'll see how they handle it in the sequels. It was a competent retelling compared to the last Superman movie. I think the sequels will be an improvement.

Dlo Burns said...

While I don't agree with you about 'maturing' Superman (so many attempts at making the classic heroes GrimDark have been atrocious [see Jason Todd as Batman or the time Nightcrawler was made pope to induce a fake rapture]), he is the archetype of being a superhero and twists on his stories can make for great ideas, like Superman: Red Son

chauncey devega said...

Red Son? Awesomeness. The anime/cartoon is due soon. What other Superman stories do you like?

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Dlo Burns said...

For The Man Who Has Everything, (canon comic book & cartoon) written by Alan Moore and is the only adaptation Moore likes. Basically shows the deepest desire of Kal-El. I'd say it's a strong PG rating.

Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow (elseworlds) Another Moore penned story, basically it's a 'finale' for silver-age supes. PG, Gets kind of dark toward the end.

Superman: True Brit (elseworlds) by THAT John Cleese, similar to Red Son, a what-if Supes crashed into a tiny british hamlet instead. A G-rating, there might be some bawdy jokes but it's been a while.

JLA: The Nail (elseworlds) A what-if the Kents got a flat tire and never found the baby that fell to earth, and how the rest of the 'world' might of turned out differently. A G if I can remember. [there's a sequel I never read]

What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?/Superman Vs The Elite (canon comic & cartoon) by Joe Kelly, basically a group of thug-heroes decide to teach Supes 'the new-way' and accidentally deconstruct Dark&Edgy. Hilarity Ensues. PG-13

[I only got around to reading part of it] ""Hel On Earth: A crossover event with Supergirl and Superboy, where the three go up against H'el: a mysterious powerful Kryptonian who wishes to resurrect Krypton at the expense of Earth."" Takes place in the current new-reboot (ugh), and seems pretty much more like what the new movie wanted to be/should've been. IIRC it's a wide X-over so you might have to hunt down some books (another ugh).

And of course the ever classic Kingdom Come, THE big deconstruction of the 90's grimdark, but that veers of into broader JLA territory.

I can't recommend the Dini driven DCAU enough, and there's no bad new-Supes cartoon I could think of, hell even the old 40's Fleischer & Famous ones are good too.

Dlo Burns said...

Reminds me of the rumor that there's an 8-hour cut of (Lynch's) Dune .

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Mickey Bitsko said...

I suspect this bloated bore is a ploy by Mister Mxyzptlk to make us hate Superman. I miss the days when Superman foiled bank robbers and imagined Bizarro during a Carl Jung and peyote binge.

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