Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel

Alternate Title:  Clash of the Titans

One sentence synopsis:   Superman fights the forces of the genocidal kryptonian, General Zod, who has arrived to wipe out humanity and restore Krypton.

Things Havoc liked:  2006's Superman Returns was a tremendously disappointing film for a large number of reasons, but one scene in particular from it remains etched in my mind. Early on in the film, as Superman flies about the Earth, righting wrongs and saving lives, he encounters a maniac who has bolted a minigun to the roof of a building, and is raining fire down on helpless police below. As Superman lands to confront him, the enraged madman turns the minigun on Superman, firing thousands of rounds into him uselessly, moments before dismounting the gun and firing a pistol at point blank range into Superman's face. We are then treated to a slow motion shot of the handgun bullet bouncing off of Superman's eye. A stupid, throwaway moment of no further consequence? Yes. But it was also a moment (the only moment in that wretched film) wherein I got the sense of grandiose wonder that should come from the titanic, unbridled, raw power of Superman.

So now I'd like you all to imagine a movie comprised entirely of this.

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan's take on the flagship character of DC comics, is a thunderous film, in the literal sense. I thought myself no longer capable of being enthralled by pure action any more, not with the man-weeks worth of fights I have seen on the screen, but I was simply wrong, for I have never seen something quite like this movie's unrelenting pace of violence and punishment. The action in this movie, and there is so much of it, is precisely what I think most people missed from Brian Singer's failed version of Superman, action which defines Superman as something utterly alien to this Earth, irreducibly above men, and with villains to match. Every scene, every combination, every single blow of the dozen-odd combats that fill this film is filmed and delivered with such raw force as to jackhammer into the viewer a sense of scale I've rarely if ever encountered in an action movie. Cities burn in this film. They are crushed beneath the forces of the universe itself, as Olympian Gods stride across the world bringing death and ruination to their enemies. A sequence midway through the film where Superman and another Kryptonian engage in a crust-shattering fistfight while under the active fire of tank-killing attack aircraft, or one later where they do not even bother to bat the flying cars raining down on their shoulders out of the air, in favor of bringing skyscrapers down onto one another, are truly like nothing I've ever seen before. There are many films who seek to have an epic feel for their action, generally by self-awarely highlighting one "signature" moment for the audience. No such thing here. The film rains titanic, mythological-scale action down upon the audience in a relentless torrent, drenching us in its sense of scale, and leaving us (or me at least), half-stunned at the revelation, always buried in the back of my mind, of just what this version of Superman is.

And who this new Superman? Why he's Henry Cavill, of 'the Tudors', 'Stardust', and the surprisingly underrated 'Immortals'. Unlike Christopher Reeve, Cavill does not portray two different characters in Clark Kent and Superman, as Superman does not exist when the movie begins, and Clark Kent, like many young men, doesn't even know who he is yet. He certainly looks the part, and if the movie surrounds him with better actors given weightier material, then it is only in keeping with the traditions of the franchise. One better actor is Russell Crowe, playing Jor-El, whose role (for obvious reasons) wanes as the film progresses, but who receives much more material than I expected, including a backstory that ties fairly convincingly in to our villain (more on him later). Another (astonishingly enough) is Kevin Costner, who still doesn't know quite how to deliver a line naturally, but manages to sell himself as Johnathan Kent quite satisfactorily by simply playing an older version of his stock Field-of-Dreams characters from long ago. As this is roughly how Pa Kent is supposed to sound, I'm quite all right with it, and his (surprisingly limited) scenes with the younger Clark actually manage to be downright moving. Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, hits just the right note, as someone long-since used to the odd nature of her son, having made the adjustments necessary to keep going. Standouts among the rest of the cast include Christopher Meloni (the third consecutive movie in which he has strongly impressed me) as a military officer trying desperately to contain the damage the invading Kryptonians are causing, and Lawrence Fishburne in a completely pointless, but still effective role as Perry White.

But the meat of a superhero film is often its villain, in this case General Zod, played by Michael Shannon (of Mud and Boardwalk Empire). I admit, I wasn't fond of his take on Zod at first, not because he failed to live up to Terence Stamp (whom I adore, but was admittedly camping the hell out of the role), but more because he seemed too wooden, his acting style too shallow for the role. But as the film progressed, I must admit, he grew on me, especially as his later appearances (as an older, wearier Zod) took on more of a patina, as it were. The film does give Zod some legitimate background, mad though it might be, and Shannon's screams of Dune-style vengeance notwithstanding, the character is actually fairly restrained, at least most of the time.

I mentioned the action before, buttressed as it is by effects, both visual and audio. The visual effects are seamless, of course, but the design is something to be seen. Kryptonian ships and technology are distinctive and very alien, employing strange, three-dimensional pinforms in place of screens or projectors, and presenting a strong sense of cohesiveness for a world we barely get to see. As to cinematography, Zach Snyder (oddly enough) chose this movie to put down the slow-motion controls, and pick up instead the Firefly-style tracking shots and foreground-background focus switches for his effects shots, a decision I don't pretend to understand, but can't deny the effectiveness of. But of all the various crew elements, it's the music, composed of course by Chrostopher Nolan's pet composer Hans Zimmer, which really drives this film. The soundtrack, particularly the main theme of the piece, is, if anything, even more evocative than John Williams' famous Superman march from thirty+ years ago (yeah, I said it!), and perfectly captures the tone and feel of the film as presented. Indeed, this film might well be Zimmer's strongest work, and given that Zimmer scored (among other things) Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the freaking Lion King, that is not a statement I make lightly.

Things Havoc disliked:  I've always held that it's fair game to criticize a film for being bad, but not for being something other than the perfect film you had in your mind. Movies exist on their own, and it is not reasonable to object because they are not some other, different movie, which may or may not exist. For this reason, I have long rejected criticisms of Superman movies in particular based on nitpicks of setting or plot ("everyone would recognize Clark Kent despite the glasses!") as having missed the point. The premise of a Superman film must be accepted in order to appreciate the film at all, and to do otherwise is the same as objecting to a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony because it did not have pretty graphics.

But... all that said... this was not the movie I wanted.

I know, I know, I'm a huge hypocrite. Bear with me. This movie had, when the marketing campaigns began, the single most effective movie trailer I can remember seeing, one that instantaneously put this film on my radar as one to not miss. It wisely took several of the strongest elements of the film (Zimmer's score, Crowe, Costner, the pre-Superman life of Clark Kent), and brought them front and center, resulting in a film I could barely wait to see. This is a terrible mindset to walk into a film with, as the movie in your head is almost always (Avengers is one of the only exceptions) going to far exceed the one on the screen. I recognize this, and yet at the same time I can't overlook the major flaws that stood out as I was watching the film. Not details of costuming or physics, for such things are irrelevant, ultimately, but the simple nature of what this film was and what it was not.

Despite the trailers, this movie spends nearly no time at all on characterization, and that, ultimately, is the decision I cannot understand. Batman Begins and the Dark Knight (to cite only Nolan's films) knew that superheros are interesting only insofar as they can be characterized properly, and that action, no matter how tremendous, does not sell a film. Nolan and Snyder here not only seem to disagree with that analysis, but actively sought to disprove it, by providing mountains of the finest action I've seen in a decade or more. And yet the shortchanged characterization, mostly told in flashback, makes the film seem highly unbalanced. We gloss over Clark's search for his origins, in favor of plunging directly into the conflict with Zod, pausing only periodically to show us retrospective scenes of Clark and his parents dealing with the inevitable problems that a Kryptonian child would have on Earth. None of these scenes are badly done (an early one showing a young Clark's inability to handle the sensory overload of his own Kryptonian body was particularly creative), but they are not the central focus of the film, and given that all of the great comic book films of the last seven years or so (Iron Man, Avengers, Thor, Batman) understood the need to make such things the central focus of their respective films, I'm baffled as to what these great filmmakers could possibly have been thinking.

Yes there are other issues I could point to. Amy Adams is simply not up to the task of replacing Margot Kidder from the original Superman films, although she wasn't as bad as Kate Bosworth. Several lines, particularly early on, do not land softly, and fall into the category of "obvious expositionary scenes". The Jesus-metaphors for Superman (always an element in his mythology) are a little thick here as well, from details like his age to shot construction at various points. But honestly, none of that matters to me as much as the missed opportunity to give Superman the character weight that many comic readers erroneously assume he is not capable of bearing, the sort of weight the trailers for the movie appeared to promise, and that never was forthcoming.

Final thoughts:    What do you do with a movie like this? A movie made with such consummate skill and sure-handed direction, that you cannot help but stand in awe of the production, whose flaws, major though they may appear to you, are less mistakes, and more active decisions on the part of the filmmakers to focus on this thing and not that one? What is fair here? To condemn the film for not being some other, wholly chimerical movie, that you imagined it might be? Or to forgive the film its flaws despite the fact that there were large sections of it that had you shaking your head and even cringing? How do you represent being simultaneously disappointed and awestruck by a movie? I don't know the answer. I've gone back and forth on this film since the moment I walked out of it, willing at times to give it a five and council against getting one's hopes up, willing at other times to give it an eight and praise it as an superbly-executed film which does precisely what it sets out to do. These are my reviews, yes, that represent my opinion, and yet I've always sought to separate out my own biases from the actual qualities on-offer. Maybe that's impossible here. Maybe it was always impossible.

Ultimately though, I suspect that most people's reactions to Man of Steel will be as intensely personal as mine was. I've spoken to many so far who watched the film, none of whom pointed to the same things as either flaws or moments of genius as anyone else. Things I glossed over as unimportant stood as towering bastions of rage-inducing tyranny to others, while matters I considered vital to the understanding of the film's qualities were utterly irrelevant to others. I strongly feel that most of those who have raged against this movie because of some flaw in logic or physics have missed the point entirely, and are engaged in nitpicking, but I accept that those people probably think the same of my analysis, and with good reason. As such, I'm left after all the song and dance with my original reaction to the film. Almost every aspect of the characterization the film did try worked flawlessly. I simply felt there wasn't enough.

And in the end, you can complain about any number of things in a movie, but if a film leaves you wishing there had been more of it, then honestly, how bad could it really have been?

Final Score:  7/10

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