18 June 2013

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?

And so, after all the hype and the best trailers for any tentpole of 2013, it turns out that the movie directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer feels like a Snyder/Goyer collaborations. This should be neither surprising nor disappointing, and yet it's both, somehow. Man of Steel is a basically fine movie, when the dust has all settled, but it's was supposed to more than that: a grand pop-opera that would revitalise the superhero genre with a sense of majesty and scope. Which is sort of vaguely does, though not terribly well. The good and grand things outnumber the bad, but the film works as hard as it can to keep that from being the case.

It was also supposed to be a movie that did well by Superman, which it most certainly does not, and that's ultimately the most upsetting part; upsetting enough that I am not at all sure whether to call this a bad movie that does an awful lot of good things, or a good movie that does an awful lot of bad things, and it's only by conceding that if it had any other title and was about any other super-powered alien, I'd feel at least marginally warmer towards it, particularly towards its final 30 minutes.

Still, you don't use the name and iconography of a genuine pop culture legend if you don't plan to engage with that legend's mythology in a respectful way. And while Snyder and Goyer (and Christopher Nolan, who produced and co-wrote the story) demonstrate some idea of what makes Superman Superman, particularly in the first half of their unreasonably long movie, the deeper it gets into the plot, the more that Man of Steel drifts into something generic and unworthy of its subject, until we finally end at a long, noisy, well-animated, but not terribly interesting city-destroying final setpiece that might as well be called The Avengers: Dark and Moody Edition. Screw the big climactic moment that has so many people chattering about whether or not it's in character (not really, but Henry Cavill is stupefyingly good, and he makes the scene play well); it's much worse that Superman should be the source of so much devastation to such a large city as happens so blithely, and while the final ten minutes might raise the question of whether or nor Snyder and Goyer actually understand the character, the half-hour preceding them answered that question already with a resounding, building-crumbling "No they fucking well don't".

But enough prattling about the ending, for it is after all such a short part of such a massive damn movie. Man of Steel is a super-modern take on the Superman origin story (how super-modern? The word "Superman" is only spoken twice, in one scene, with an ironic flair), which means that the action opens on the planet of Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is failing to convince the high council that their planet, abused for its resources, is about to collapse into rubble. One person who did listen was commander of the Krytptonian military, General Zod (Michael Shannon), who uses this imminent crisis as the excuse to launch a rebellion against the government. It doesn't go well, but Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) use to chaos to launch a small ship with their son Kal-El to the planet Earth, whose yellow sun and dense atmosphere will provide their boy with an environment in which his anatomy will leave him the next best thing to a god.

And so it goes: Kal-El lands on Earth, is adopted by the Smallville, Kansas couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and with this being a darker, grittier, more pointedly realistic take on the mythos, Clark Kent ends up being plagued with doubt and worry, and so he goes a-questing. Eventually, he ends up at an ancient Kryptonian vessel buried in the Arctic, and activating it acts like a beacon that brings Zod and his fellow Kryptonian exiles - the only other members of the race to survive the planet's destruction - straight to Earth, to recruit or kill the son of Jor-El.

For such a long movie (143 minutes, which is still less than Superman Returns), Man of Steel has very little actual plot: most of the first hour is strict character-building, in which Cavill's Clark Kent is pensive and full of self-awareness, and yet at the end of it all, it's hard to say with a straight face that much character has been built. Certainly, nobody besides Clark himself ends up emerging as a person: the perfectly-cast Amy Adams is totally wasted on a Lois Lane whose character is dismally familiar from every one of Christopher Nolan's own movies, where women are steely, determined, and very boring, Zod suffers from Shannon's intense but not particularly nuanced performance, and absolutely nobody else is around long enough to make an impression. As the two fathers of Superman, Crowe and Costner are easily best-in-show, but this is not a very people-driven movie, which makes it weird that so much of it moves with the stateliness and sobriety that indicates that it wants to be watched that way.

That being said, at the single task of portraying a deep, complex Superman who isn't just a gung-ho Boy Scout, Man of Steel at least has the sensitivity to make for a character who's going to be pretty great to watch in some other movie, as long as Cavill - whose shallow handsomeness and limited range are a great fit for this character - comes back, and Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan all don't. He is a genuinely introspective, thoughtful figure, wasted on a movie with such a rattletrap plot and lugubrious shift into a very long, very tedious series of battle scenes that resemble every other urban sci-fi action film to come out since Transformers.

Very little about the film is inspired in any way: it's Snyder applying his adoration of flashy violence to the po-faced aesthetic Nolan used in his Batman movies, and this is great insofar as it means that the director has to let up on his wretched slow-motion, but the whole thing feels like it was cranked out of a factory; it's as determinedly impersonal as any summer movie you could name, the result of a magpie copying his producer's style without understanding the reasoning beneath it. The only that keeps it from being entirely mirthless, save for a few very serious jokes, is Hans Zimmer's fantastic score, the best thing he's ever done for a big summer movie, with a plaintive "Young Clark" motif to give the film a stirring emotional backbone alongside his soaring, pummeling action cues that are frequently the only reason that scenes play as exciting rather than morose.

The one thing that absolutely, invariably works are the flashbacks to Clark's Kansas boyhood, roughly crammed into the narrative but always wonderful while they're there: Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry, who play the character at 9 and 13 years respectively, have tremendous chemistry with Costner and Lane, and the film's implication of how the plain middle Americans that raised Superman left him with a straightforward, noble soul works terrifically well, while also being great scenes in their own right. There's a muted sensitivity in the visuals that exists nowhere else in the movie (or in the director's entire career), and some moments are tender enough that, God help me, I got misty-eyed (especially the last flashback, with its casually iconic shots of a young superhero running around at sunset with a makeshift cape).

So what are we to do? Some parts of Man of Steel are absolutely great, a tiny number of things are actively irritating, much of it is totally bland and routine, just one more superhero movie that mostly acts like every other one. Hopefully it will follow the pattern of other superhero origin stories, and lead in to a sequel that can use this character to better benefit, with more excitement and more humanity, the two most important ingredients in any Superman story, and two things mostly missing from the great bulk of this movie. There is much to love about this iteration of the character; just not the movie in which he currently finds himself.

6/10

23 comments:

Chris said...

Definitely agree with just about everything in your review.

For me, I think what it comes down to is that there isn't enough of the selflessness that I think of when I think Superman.

If they were going angsty (and I knew there were), I was hoping for more of a "what are my responsibilities to the world?" and "how do I deal with not being able to save everyone?", but there was really none of that. There was a lot of "where did I come from and why", and "are they going to like/accept me?", both of which are fine I guess, but it -- compounded by the massive destruction -- made him feel sort of callous and self-absorbed. Even a decade+ after 9/11, it's hard for me to see that level of destruction and not feel like disregarding it rings false, especially for someone like Superman.

I mean, his personal curiosity (activating the scout ship) brought Zod there, so he's to some degree personally responsible for the deaths of what had to be thousands of people, and that's never even touched on.

It all felt a little too glib and at the same time serious without touching on any of the themes I was hoping for, so it fundamentally ended up just not being a whole lot of fun. Particulaly once superpunch fatigue set in.

Tim said...

The first Superman movie that effectively engages with your question "how do I deal with not being able to save everyone?" is going to automatically become my favorite superhero movie ever made.

Excellent point about Superman's culpability in bringing Zod, which I hadn't really thought of in those terms.

KingKubrick said...

Well I had very low expectations for this and Goyer's poor writing vindicated most of them but I must say I was actually fairly impressed by a few sequence, primarily the destruction of Krypton. It actually made me realize why some people hold Snyder in high regard and how they can keep touting his potential. I also loved the Malickian vibe of the Smallville sequence it did a lot to compensate for the trite dialogue in many of the scenes. The rest of the picture devolves into a cacophony of graceless action and over-used of CGI but I definitely thought there was some good stuff buried beneath it. I liked Shannon's zod but I'm a pretty big fan of his so I may be biased. There was some unintentionally funny bits though (SPOILERS: supes busting the full christ on the cross pose after Jor el tells him he can be humanity's saviour, " I'm a pulitzer prize winning journalist", and I technically think IHOP and Sears are supporting characters in the film). However, I like parts of it more than I thought I would and maybe a new screenwriter can take the series in a satisfying direction.

hayley said...

Man of Steel, in which Zach Snyder continues to bat a perfect 0.

For a man who is considered a vaunted action director, he seems not to have the slightest clue how to construct an action sequence. His fight scenes have no peaks and no valleys, no building of tension or release of suspense, no escalation and no climax. They start bombastic and end bombastic and are bombastic inbetween.

His heroes have no strategy. It wasn't ever clear what their plan was in 300, or Sucker Punch and it isn't clear what Superman's plan is here. He's what Benjamin Franklin would call a fool, doing the same ineffectual punching over and over again and expecting different results.

When Zod says the line, "I'm born and trained to be a soldier, where did you train, on a farm?" It seemed like they were building toward the poetic justice, a moment where Superman would use something from his farm upbringing to help defeat Zod. Alas, I was disappointed, as they couldn't even follow through with that cliche action scene trope, and instead just like to put random lines into fight scenes like they like to inexplicably put space satellites into fight scenes because, hey...we're being random right?

-20 out of 4 stars.

The.Watcher said...

Dunno, I went to see this movie fully expecting to be disappointed, and I came away very, very impressed. I loved MoS, and think it's, by a very, very wide margin, the best Superman movie ever made.

Certainly better than the god-awful '79 version (which people for some reason love, although I can't sit through it on account of how painfully naive and cute the whole thing is), not to even mention its sequels.

This is the first movie, animated or otherwise, that perfectly captures what it would be like if Superman fights someone equally as powerful. The action sequences were gorgeous - I could watch them all day. The acting, I thought, was certainly passable. Shannon was lacking slightly, I would have preferred it if he took things a little more seriously, but it was decent.

I have no love for the character, in fact I used to pretty much have him on the same level as Aquaman (slightly above Blue Beetle and below Green Lantern), but this film definitely, for me, made him at least somewhat interesting. Though his whole boyscout goody-goody shit still makes me grimace.

Overall, I'd give it an 8. Probably my favorite blockbuster of the year so far, supplanting Iron Man 3.

But hey, I'm also the guy that loves HFR, so what do I know?

Andy said...

Ugh, the destruction-porn bothered me the most, I think. Smashing through buildings, knocking them over(!), planes crashing into buildings (!), yet there's no indication that anyone cares about the potentially thousands of people who almost certainly died.

Sure, it represents what would likely happen if two super-powerful beings fought each other, but it seems strange that Superman didn't at least try to minimise the damage.

"The first Superman movie that effectively engages with your question "how do I deal with not being able to save everyone?" is going to automatically become my favorite superhero movie ever made."

I feel the trailers misled everyone somewhat in this regard, with the scene about how many Clark shouldn't always save people if it's for The Greater Good, but it turned out to be a very minor point in the film :( So yeah, more of the "can't save everyone" questions would be great.

To be (slightly) fair(er), perhaps that lack could be excused by Snyder et al wanting to focus on the other Big Questions first, like "how will humanity react to the presence of a super-powerful alien?", although the film was certainly long enough to allow for more exploration of other things. Perhaps if there was less CLARK SMASH, I dunno.

Chris D said...

@The Watcher: I think you're mistaking a feature for a bug, re: Superman '79. The "naive and cute", "goody-goody boyscout" thing is a pretty integral part of what Superman is and does as a character. His greatest power is not his laser eyes or his strength, it's his ability to serve as an icon, to unite people in a desire to be better than they are. I was hoping that a Nolan-produced/co-written film might be able to tap into that after he demonstrated such a deft grasp of superhero-as-mythology in his Batman films, but it looks like Snyder's finely-honed ability to miss the point when adapting something won out (I haven't seen the film yet, it's another week away here).

I think it's a similar situation to the Star Trek reboot. It's fine to not respond to the more earnest elements of the source material, and I understand the motivation on the part of the filmmakers to excise them, but I also have to wonder if what is left over even really deserves the name any more.

tl;dr: I'm holding out hope for Man of Steel to be good cinema (though I have my doubts), but it seems pretty clear that it's poor Superman.

Vilsal said...

>The word "Superman" is only spoken twice, in one scene, with an ironic flair
I suppose it wasn't sophisticated enough for the cinematic geniuses behind The Crow 2 and Sucker Punch.

javi75 said...

I didn't know I cared so much about this character but reading your review actually made me a little sad.

And now I'll blatantly remind you about your DC-animated-universe thingy that you were going to do.
Maybe you could make a brief, summarized comment on how their Superman (I'm talking about the '90s tv-series, not all the DTV animated movies they've been releasing the last few years) compares with this one.

Fedor Ilitchev said...

I think Chris makes some excellent points - the fact that the film was thematically uninteresting certainly helped make it boring for me. The fact that everybody was super-powered and there was no strategy / thought to speak of in the carnage doubled the boredom. The fact that Kent’s closeness with Lois seemed to come out of nowhere also didn’t help. I also plain out didn’t like the dad-hologram and Costner’s character’s death – it was just absurd… for a dog? Really?

I did like most of the acting though – in total contrast to the plot, I can’t recall a single acting moment that made me cringe.

Two of the film’s scenes did awaken my creative fancy: I thought they could have been truly awesome with a different director. First, there is the scene where Superman’s mom witnesses the destruction of her planet, her world, around her. I would have loved to have seen more of the meaning of that conveyed through the acting and the montage. What does it mean for your whole world to end? In fact, I would have preferred the whole Krypton sequence to have dispensed with the general Zod / action crap in favour of this sort of philosophical introspection, preferably conveyed through images / montage. Maybe scenes of the local flora / fauna, the crypt, the old city… that whole presumably grand history coupled with people’s individual tragedies and ways of confronting the end.

The other scene I felt had more potential was the whales scene. With a different mood and more time to it, that scene could have been awesome. There’s something about Superman’s power and alienness to Earth and the Whales’ power and alienness to daily human life that just works… also the history of his planet’s destruction and the whales’ imminent extinction – a kind of intrinsic sorrow. And just the surprising image itself.

But yeah, the rest of the film left me real cold. Good thing I went to see the awesome ‘Neighbouring Sounds’ a few days later – it was redemptive. Have you seen that one Tim? It may be of interest to you as the director had spent years working as a film critic prior to making it… it’s also quite innovative in its use of sound and editing – I’d be interested in reading your breakdown of it.

Stephen said...

I thought this was a fairly decent sci-fi action movie; a little cold, certainly, but Snyder's best since Dawn of the Dead (not a high bar, admittedly).

As a Superman story, though, it's hot garbage.

It felt to me like someone involved really understood the character, but kept getting overridden by someone who really didn't. Clark saves some workers on an oil rig, and then steals some clothes. Clark almost protects a coworker from a belligerent customer, and then uses his powers for revenge. He saves some people during the fight in Smallville, but makes no effort to take the fight away from the town, into the cornfield that is like three blocks to his left.

And then everything about the final action sequences in Metropolis solidify the fact that, whoever had ultimate control, really, REALLY didn't get Superman. And Apparently, Snyder thought he needed to explain Superman's aversion to killing.

What an awful, awful Superman story.

Thrash Til' Death said...

Opinions have been all over the map on this one. Personally, I pretty much loved it despite its numerous and serious flaws.

A couple of qualifiers; I have no particular history with or affection for Superman (I liked the first two Donnerverse films, obviously, but they don't occupy much space in my heart). Chris D is completely right when he says that it's only nominally a Superman film, and I would have enjoyed it just as much if it had been about some other super-powered alien immigrant. Also, this is only the second film I've ever seen in IMAX 3D, so it's entirely possible that the spectacle left a bigger impression on me than it should have. I was high on the adrenaline buzz for hours afterwards, and any complaints I had were quickly overridden by "fuck me, those fight scenes were incredible!"

One criticism I don't really understand, though, is calling Man of Steel a routine superhero movie. It seems anything but routine to me; outside of The Dark Knight Rises, I don't think I've ever seen a superhero flick strive so hard for that almighty Mythic Resonance. Everything about it is balooned out to gargantuan proportions, not just the action but the themes and the emotional ramifications. We're talking about a film that deals with the extinction of a civilisation and an individual's choice between home and heritage. That's big, weighty stuff, and for all that it's messy and clumsy in putting it across, I think Man of Steel's heart is in the right place. If summer blockbusters are going to routinely spend hundreds of millions of dollars to surround themselves with pomp and circumstance, I appreciate the attempt to do it in service of correspondingly giant subject matter. Some critics have derided the film for not being much "fun." I disagree - it's plenty fun, it's just not frivolous.

Samuel Wilson said...

The urban mayhem still held some novelty for me, but then again, I've never seen a Transformers movie, so I only had Avengers to judge it against. As for the extreme violence, I can see both sides. It seems like the critics want the story rigged so that Clark doesn't have to make tough choices, but the story we have is arguably rigged to force particular choices on him. It may be a genre limitation that a story can't appear not to be rigged one way or the other. But that may be because superhero movies are judged by a different standard than other action movies.

David Greenwood said...

Though I would love to start another Sucker Punch defense / battle royale I will stick to the film at hand.

I haven't seen this out of director loyalty, but I really want to. That said my expectations are muted going in, mostly because it feels like damage control. Like him or not, Snyder's a man with vision, and for his most personal project to die such a flaming financial and critical death left him on thin ice. I'm imagining that this was done in the most "safe" (read: unchallenging) way possible. But I hope it becomes a box office smash so Snyder can get back to making movies I want to see.

Jeremy said...

Very disappointed with this. They spend a fuckin' HOUR on "YOU CAN'T REVEAL YOURSELF SUPERMAN WORLD AINT READY FOR SUPERMAN DONT RUSH INTO THAT TORNADO TO SAVE LIVES SUPERMAN", then the alien ship shows up, the movie switches into generic alien invasion mode, and none of that gets followed up on, 'cept for "the military doesn't trust Superman!" idea, which just wasn't enough for me.

The one-note characters, the bad dialog, the action scenes with no tension or stakes(does ANYONE care about all the destruction in Metropolis? Did you even notice this was suppose to be Metropolis and not just NYC or whatever?), the lopsided pacing, the boring love interest, the dour tone(has a Superman movie ever been THIS unfun to watch?)...all that, plus a highly ineffective Superman story. He proves the bad guy right in the end. Hell, the whole planet would have been safer had he not shown up. I'm sorry, but that's a big goddamn failure to end a Superman movie on.

6/10 seems fair, but goddamn this should have been so much better. So much better.

The.Watcher said...

@Chris D: ""goody-goody boyscout" thing is a pretty integral part of what Superman is and does as a character. "

Sure, and that's precisely why I fucking hate him. MoS doesn't have a lot of that - it's certainly hella minimized compared to the other films, and that's why, in my opinion, as someone who doesn't like Superman, I liked this movie. I can certainly understand why fans have a problem with it, but I was very entertained.

I don't typically hold the opinions of the general movie-going public in high regard (unwashed masses, as they have been known), but I do agree with the A- cinemascore on this one. It's making bank and people seem to love it, so I'm hoping for more sequels in this vein.

mpjedi2 said...

all I can really say about it is that he punches things, a lot. So I guess Warners does read the talk backs. That and Jon Peters finally kinda got his giant spider in the 3rd act.

Really, they could've saved this movie easily with some judicious cuts, and just having Superman TRY to save one of those falling skyscrapers at the end. Alas, we had a creative team enamored with chaos and destruction.

I'm also still of the opinion that Nolan had little to nothing to actually do with this picture. I think his name is on it to help out Goyer, and make Warners feel better. "Story?" More like he spitballed a few ideas with Goyer.

KingKubrick said...

Hey everyone, since this is turning into an epic thread of comments, why don't we way in on the controversy surrounding the ending (SPOILERS).

I definitely think that it's a betrayal of the character as depicted in other iterations of Superman but, even though it left kind of a sour taste in my mouth, I wasn't as bothered by it as much other as A) I don't feel a strong personal connection to the Superman story outside of the Reeves movies B) I think with this new interpretation it's fair game as Goyer and co wanted to distance themselves from previous iterations of the character. I still have issues with the writing and the pacing of this movie but this wasn't one of them. Thoughts?

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Yeah, I hated this. Thought it was the most brain-dead movie I've seen in quite some time and it made me hope Spielberg's prediction about big tentpoles starting to tank comes true, because honestly we deserve better than this.

Thoughtful review as usual tho, I agree that the childhood scenes were the only part that worked for me, but they were so few and far between...

Jeremy said...

For that SPOILERSSPOILERS




thing that happens in the movie, I feel if you're gonna do that, you really have to earn it, and I don't feel this one does. And if you're hammer home this "Superman = Jesus" thing so hard that you make special note that he's 33 years old and spreads his arms out like he's on the cross, just so THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE CAN DIE HORRIBLE DEATHS on his watch and prove the bad guy right with "violence/death conquers all", I think you seriously fucked up your Superman story somewhere along the line.

Better yet, how about you NOT have Superman kill anybody, there's a thought. One more thing that makes him unique and not like every other action hero out there.

Andy Stout said...

I think it's sad when people hate Superman for being too "goody goody". You really need *everything* to be corrupted and tainted? It's been indicated in some Lex Luthor interpretations that this is what drives Lex Luthor, that he just can't handle seeing someone so *good*, as it points out all the bad in himself.

mhtruth said...

This movie is what the dragon ball z movie should have been. Swap superman for goku... Zod for freiza...lois for chi chi... and we have a winner lol! As a Superman movie it was nice that it wasn't spoiled with mushiness, but it felt like it borrowed to much from other movies and scripts.The beginning felt like "star wars" or "avatar" and when he found the ship it felt like "AVP" ... Parts of the end felt like "ID4"

Green Angelus said...

"I think it's sad when people hate Superman for being too "goody goody". You really need *everything* to be corrupted and tainted?"

I completely agree with this sentiment. There are plenty of grim superheroes out there if Snyder wants to make a grim superhero movie (though I shudder to think what he would do with a superhero like, say, the Punisher). In essence, Superman is an ideal to strive for and a sign of hope and optimism even in dark times. I might not be really into Superman, but I appreciate what he stands for. An optimistic, true-to-the-character Superman movie would be a boon, especially in a time like this when a lot of Americans are pessimistic in the country as a whole.

Instead, it was just another grim superhero movie where the character was utterly ruined, especially by the constant, heavy-handed comparisons of Superman to Jesus and that stupid ending, which completely warps and distorts Superman in a way that I haven't seen since Frank Miller went off his pills and wrote The Dark Knight Strikes Again.