Skip to main content

Can you imagine how the people on this planet would react if they knew there was someone like this out there?


Man of Steel
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Much as I defer to the comic genius of Jerry Seinfeld, I have to differ with him in regard to his favourite superhero. I’ve never really “got” Superman. Sure, I understand that he’s supposed to be the ultimate espousal of American values and that there’s a saviour of mankind Christ metaphor in there (you’d have to be willfully blind to miss, the way it beats you around the head). But there’s something rather bland about him. I didn’t read a huge number of superhero comics as a kid, but my choice was always be Marvel rather than DC and invariably Spiderman. Marvel seemed to be wittier, more vibrant and less self-important.


When it came to the Christopher Reeve films, it was the second that caught my attention. It had a proper supervillain(s), in the urbane form of Terence Stamp’s Zod, replacing the post-Batman TV series larks of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor (okay, Luthor’s in Superman II too). Superman gained iconic stature when matched by one of equal powers and potential threat. And, if it didn’t go as far as giving Kal-El/Clark Kent an edge, the truck stop diner scene(s) volunteered an underdog status essential for someone who, even more than other superheroes, is a writer’s worst nightmare (where’s the threat to someone so invulnerable?) I revisited Superman II a while back, and it remains an entertaining if slightly creaky affair; Richard Lester is unable to inject the sense of scale that Richard Donner brought to the original (and the sections of the second that he oversaw). The best part of Superman III would pick up on II’s recognition of the importance of making Superman more than one-dimensional. It captalised on his whiter-than-whiter morality by letting him duke it out with his Kryptonite-induced dark half. It’s by far the most memorable sequence in an otherwise uninspired sequel, allowing Reeve to have a bit of fun by dirtying up his image.


One thing you couldn’t accuse the Reeves films of lacking is a sense of fun, even if this transfers to screen with varying degrees of success. In the first film this centres of Luthor and henchman and the Lois-Clark relationship; Reeves’ performance is closer to something you’d expect from a screwball comedy and the essential chasteness of their relationship evokes the film’s ‘50s childhood scenes rather than the contemporary ‘70s setting. Donner was keen for to ensure verisimilitude, and to an extent he does (you could believe a man could fly) but the humour was necessary to prick the pomposity of the premise. It’s something, for all its slavish deference to the first two Reeves movies, Bryan Singer’s film missed (at least, as far as I can recall, since the one thing it wasn’t was memorable).

The first two films also firmly grasped that an invincible hero requires plots that turn on moral conundrums rather than just slugging it out. This may be expressed as a choice between saving the one or saving the many, or finding happiness through being human or accepting your fate. When Clark Kent returns as Superman in the second movie, there are actually stakes because we have seen him vulnerable (obviously, a superhero losing his or her powers is now a de rigueur development for any franchise).

Man of Steel sort-of gets the importance of this element, but then decides to forgo it for non-stop special effects destruction porn. Kal-El doesn’t so much wrestle with a specific threat posed as spend the entire film getting to the point where he realises his destiny. That aspect does work well, but it hinges on the compelling groundwork of the first half. The remainder consists of laying waste to as many city blocks as possible. If you’re continually bludgeoned into submission by empty spectacle, there’s a point where it ceases to have any dramatic impact.  


The opening sequence on Krypton is such an overload of CGI world-making that during production it must surely have brought concerned flashes of recent big effects disappointments filled with strange creatures in virtual environments (Green Lantern, John Carter). It also opts for one of the most risky narrative strategies imaginable, by deluging us with straight-faced technobabble, pseudoscience and fantasy MacGuffins. This is the kind of thing Hollywood execs usually cringe at, and would see most fans shaking their heads when it turned up in one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It has the tone and content of Harrison Ford’s “You can type this shit but you sure as hell can’t say it”. So we’re lucky that Russell Crowe and his ever-so-slightly-off English accent as Jor-El is there to see us through. We’ve seen vast planet-engulfing events in another recent franchise reboot (Star Trek; of course J. J. Abrams wrote an unused Superman script a decade or so back), so this kind of thing isn’t unfamiliar. Crowe deserves credit for selling this entire sequence, and his sincerity is crucial to the heart of the film (the device by which he reappears later is a neat one, although it does somewhat undermine his death).


Zack Snyder clearly agrees that the audience needs a lot of convincing, as he adopts a very different shooting style from previous films. Gone are the slow motion and the speed ramping. In are Whedonesque snap zooms (everywhere now; see also Star Trek Into Darkness) and the decision to shoot it all on handheld cameras (interestingly, this is something he specifically didn’t want to do on Watchmen, much criticised by devotees of the graphic novel for stylistically celebrating the violence Moore wanted you to think about). He’s pushing for the brand of “realism” producer Chris Nolan brought to the Batman films, by way of an attempt to evoke Terence Malick’s meditations with the world of nature through use of natural light.


The results are. at times, at odds, since so much of the film is a bombardment of shaking, blurring pixels. We are unable to accept the physicality of the spectacle as we do when watching a Neill Blomkamp or Joseph Kosinski film, yet Snyder absolutely succeeds in bringing immediacy to the proceedings. But I’m not sure he didn’t get his stylistic choices backwards. The visual clarity of Watchmen seems more appropriate to Superman, and the decision feels borne out of fear (look what happened to Green Lantern!) and the example set by Nolan rather than his own instincts. One thing you can say for Snyder, whatever the reasons for his use of handheld, he maintains a clarity of geography and interaction during action sequences that is often absent in work from other directors adopting that style. Perhaps he’s just showing Nolan how it can be done, as the weak spot in the Batmans has tended to be set piece choreography.


If Russell Crowe is a sound choice, Michael Shannon is a dopey one. Yeah, sure, you can justify the decision to make Zod a one-note snarling heavy; that’s how he was genetically engineered. But it’s just not very interesting. And, since Shannon always plays bug-eyed loons about to convulse in apoplectic rage, he’s merely a personification of the hyper-carnage of the final half of the film. There’s no texture or nuance to his performance; he’s all bombast. And it’s not just because Terence Stamp was unbeatably good, it’s because Shannon plays a renta-thug.  


The structure of the first half of the film is surprisingly ornate and is the key to its strengths as a whole (it cannot undo the later damage, but it makes it less grievous). I liked the choice to show Clark on his travels (following the path of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, of course), flashing back to significant events in his youth. The only negative of this is that it fractures the power of Kevin Costner’s performance as his father. Strangely, I found he had far stronger impact in the trailers than the final film. Maybe this is appropriate; the conflicting positions of Pa Kent (keep your identity a secret) and Jor-El (give the people an ideal) find the latter given more weight. Either way, both Costner and Lane have the ability to deliver hokey dialogue and make it sound sincere. It’s unfortunate that Pa Kent’s final scene is so dripping with molten cheese (but hey, at least the family dog was okay!), but there’s something generally off about that sequence anyway. The twister is just rampant CGI, and pacing-wise it’s fails to convey that this is a momentous event in Clark’s life. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a really stupid way to kill his dad.


But these scenes do succeed at building a sense of who Clark is and how he’s come to this place. There’s no doubt that the film is over-earnest in emphasising Kal-El’s destiny. It seems like a scene doesn’t go by without someone forcibly repeating this proclamation. We get it already. But the film in general is afflicted with unselfconscious earnestness, which goes hand-in-hand with the faux-realism. Any propensity for camp is a big no-no, and a sense of humour rarely makes itself known. Clark is obviously 33 years old in the film (like Jesus). At one point he even consults a priest on what he should do. The whole genetic heritage thing evokes less contentious memories of Star Wars’ midichlorian debacle, but I’m not sure what to make of Kal-El’s genetic purity; the tacit implication is that its best not to mess with nature (so perhaps it would have been better for Jor-El not to infuse his son’s DNA with the codex, the genetic heritage of Krypton?) 

The film gets a key aspect unquestionably right; Henry Cavill. We only see a snippet of undercover Clark Kent (the final scene only), but he makes a big splash as Superman. Perhaps even more than might be hoped for, as he isn’t given the most sparkling of dialogue (well, no one is) or subtle of emotions to play. On the few occasions where the film goes for (intentional) mirth, it’s usually coming from Cavill. The interrogation scene, where he speaks to those on the other side of a sheet of one-way glass, stands out. Of course, Cavill is extraordinarily buff so there’s no question that he makes the action convincing. And I admit it; the lack of underpants isn’t a problem (I had felt it was a wrong move, even on seeing the first photos).


Lois Lane doesn’t work quite as well. Not because she isn’t as intrepid or daring as she needs to be, or because Amy Adams isn’t an enchanting presence. But due to the need to splatter her all over the film with insufficient rhyme or reason. Why would the military allow her near a top-secret operation investigating an ancient object in the ice? Why does Zod want her aboard his ship when he has Superman (other than that it affords her some heroine-to-the-rescue gunplay and a vague reason – which I don’t really buy into as there’s a scientist present who proves crucial to the success of the operation – to be aboard the plane making a strike on Zod at the climax)? How come Supes climbs out of a big pile of rubble just as Lois is plummeting to her doom? How the hell does she manage to find, and run in on, Superman and Zod during their final punch-up (and, while it’s gratifying to see that Superman is willing to snap necks like any common or garden human being, the choice between doing this and saving some innocent bystanders from Zod’s death ray was the corniest of moments)? Does she have superspeed? The romance between Clark and Lois never ignites either, but I’m unsure if that’s down to an absence of chemistry or because the film never gives them a chance to breathe together. There should be ample chance to address this in the sequel if it’s the latter. And one positive thing to note about the casting of Adams; how many blockbusters feature a female lead nearly a decade older than her co-star?


My main issues with Man of Steel come once Zod has arrived on Earth. Many commentators have focused on the hundreds of thousands who must have died in that onslaught on Metropolis (and before that, Smallville). And it’s a fair charge that Superman should be the sort to try and lead the fight away from a densely populated area, rather than throwing Zod further into it (looks good, though, and that’s what counts, right?) In that regard, I don’t have a great deal to say as I’m not invested enough in the character to protect the integrity of his conception. No, the big problem is that sometimes less is more. And Man of Steel blows its wad with the kind of city-levelling mass destruction that puts Star Trek Into Darkness to shame.


It doesn’t help that the human element during this terror attack is so utterly clumsily integrated. Laurence Fishburne, Rebecca Butler and Michael Kelly outrun a falling skyscraper (didn’t work for Charlize Theron with a spaceship, but go for it)! Butler’s trapped in the wreckage! They’re covered in ash! We keep cutting back to the same bit of street set while all around the destruction is escalating! All of which only serves to highlight how OTT the scale is. You can’t expect to intercut between massive CGI devastation and a couple of actors and make it play if they are merely passive observers. It looks like exactly what it is; lazy writing to get round the fact that this is really a celebration of annihilation. Joss Whedon made a similar scenario work in Avengers because he had clear, incremental targets for his characters and the plot. All Snyder has is prolonged mayhem.

The movie is also keen to leave the viewer nursing its lapses in logic. One has to wonder about the military’s desire, as expressed in the final scene, to find wherever Superman lays his hat. Why can't they just use Prism to locate him? Or turn up at mom's house? If they mean the Fortress of Solitude, didn’t the scout ship get obliterated in Metropolis? How can Superman have a secret identity when everyone is aware of where he comes from and where his mom lives and he's using the same name to work for The Daily Planet?


Despite my ambivalence towards the character, the trailers for Man of Steel really wetted my appetite. They sold the lie that this might be a searching, evocative, even spiritual, origin story through judiciously cherry-picking moments from the opening sections. Snyder, Nolan and tin-eared David Goyer have succeeded in making the character relevant to the current age but they’ve abjectly failed to make their story as a whole resonate. It’s the same problem we saw in Star Trek Into Darkness (which also reinvents an iconic ‘80s movie villain in an entirely deflated fashion); ever more incendiary spectacle is valued over satisfying plot and character development.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.