Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

Man of Steel

Superman SMASH

Thoughtful and poetic gives way to noisy and destructive in Zack Snyder's ultimately disappointing 'Man of Steel'

Man of Steel
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David S. Goyer, based on a character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Antje Traue and Russell Crowe
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 23 minutes
June 14, 2013
(out of four)

Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer's reimagined take on Superman, attempts to do two really interesting things with the character's mythology, winds up doing neither, and falls back on the easier path of being just another giant summer action movie. At its best, it tries to focus on both his alien-ness and his alienation, elements that could easily be overlooked or taken for granted. It confronts the practical implications - existential, political, theological - of an extraterrestrial openly occupying space on earth; and at the same time it considers what a struggle that very existence might be for such a being. Rather than simply seeing him as a god who just has to come to terms with when and how he can use his powers, the film finds him fearful - struggling to understand these strange abilities and wondering what it says about him.

His origins are an aspect of his character shrugged off pretty quickly in most incarnations. "Oh, he's an alien from a distant planet who crash-landed in a space-pod as a baby? K cool." But here, his existence is seen through a more practical lens - simply, that he's a threat, someone who might be feared more than embraced. There's a reason the film calls to mind John Carpenter's The Thing in a key early sequence (when military researchers discover a massive, unidentified object submerged in 18,000 years' worth of ice). If a different life form were discovered among us, wouldn't the world react with an uneasy combination of curiosity, excitement and terror?

On those grounds, it seems there is a great movie buried within Man of Steel - although it's greatness of a sort not typically associated with successful blockbusters. Then again, the same could be said for Batman Begins (to which this movie has been constantly compared, largely because of Christopher Nolan's presence as this reboot's executive producer and unofficial godfather) and it managed to follow through on its intentions. Man of Steel, on the other hand, has its mind in the right place but winds up submitting to the crassest impulses of blockbuster filmmaking. It wants to be a character journey, but in the last hour it just turns into a Michael Bay joint.

Snyder seems committed to one thing, at least, and that's proving that he can blow stuff up real good. In fact, the second half almost seems less like a movie and more like Snyder's audition reel for future tentpole work. "You remember in that Superman movie when Metropolis got torn to ruins with all those explosions and spaceships? Yeah, that was me."

This is ostensibly an origin story, but don't let that fool you. When it comes down to it, it's a standard-issue alien-invasion movie, plain and simple; and in an alien-invasion movie, lots of stuff gets blown up, cities get destroyed, aircrafts crash and burn, guns fire, missiles detonate, buildings topple, computer-generated effects collide. That just about describes the climactic hour of Man of Steel. In fact, if there's one thing the film - otherwise made up of so many half-measures - has unequivocally, it's an appetite for destruction.

An entire planet is at war, tearing itself apart from within before exploding into pieces like Alderaan. Later it's an oil rig, which sets on fire and explodes in the middle of the ocean. Then it's a tornado, wiping away everything in its path. And finally the city of Metropolis, reduced to wreckage. A city, I might pointedly add, that we have spent zero time in, or with its citizens. The city itself means nothing, and so its destruction means nothing.

Truncating the origin aspects of Kal-El's tale in favor of a barrage of wanton demolition is one of the film's many miscalculations. The biggest one is assuming that it needs to fit in with all the other big-budget action spectacles out there, instead of forging an identity of its own. You'd think that with a property like Superman, the last thing you'd want to do is turn it into an ordinary explosion-fest. Other movies show us the end of the world all the time - and here comes Man of Steel, with two end-of-the-world scenarios. Is this really what the filmmakers found most interesting about the Superman mythology? His ability to engage in hand-to-hand combat while flying around a bunch of burning buildings? As it happens, the relentless action comes at the expense of everything else the film seems curious - but ultimately unwilling - to do.

Snyder and Goyer tell much of the story through flashbacks, going back and forth between the present-day - when Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is coming to terms his superhero identity while an old Kryptonian foe, General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrives on Earth in search of Kal-El, and of a new planet on which to re-establish his race - and certain defining moments of Clark's life, from childhood on. The structure works - or it would work, if it had followed through. Instead, we get snippets of an interesting journey, but not a complete one. One scene where he's working on a fishing boat. One scene from adolescence where he uses his powers to save his classmates. One scene where he's working at a restaurant in a small town. Every scene works, and it suggests a fascinating approach to the character - again, mirroring that of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, but with an entirely different set of existential woes - that got suppressed by the noise and spectacle of the film's second half.

There's also a cursory examination of Superman as a symbol, both as an unofficial human and an adopted American. (It's no coincidence that, while Kal-El's family crest - the iconic "S" - represents "hope," the symbol on Zod's chest bears a conspicuous resemblance to the Communist hammer-and-sickle.) The script tells us on more than one occasion that Clark/Superman is 33 years old, and wants to be pretty sure we get the significance. His placement as a Christ figure is either a deliberate inversion of the symbolism or a backwards reading of it - after all, in this particular legend, Kal-El's people all died for him, not the other way around. (Moses would be the more appropriate parallel for Superman, no?)

But while not all of the ornamental symbols and details pay off, other areas stand out. Man of Steel is superbly cast all-around, from Cavill's quiet, uncertain nobility to Shannon's combination of seething anger and moral anguish. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, as Clark's adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, are perfect, as are Amy Adams as the (dramatically re-defined) reporter/love interest Lois Lane, and Laurence Fishburne as her stern but caring boss at The Daily Planet, Perry White. Russell Crowe, meanwhile, has exactly the right blend of majesty, gravitas and warmth to play Jor-El (a strong performance especially considering he's stepping into the shoes of no less than Marlon Brando).

And while Snyder doesn't always succeed at evoking the visceral qualities of his action sequences - indeed, many of them just kind of sit there on screen, victims of their own sensory overload - he can certainly craft a gorgeous image. Much of the film looks unlike any other Superman film, particularly its sci-fi-heavy interpretation of Krypton and the naturalistic tones and distinctly American iconography we see during Clark's early years, from childhood to his various wanderings across the globe. Due credit belongs to the great production designer Alex McDowell, once again doing stellar work on what is his third comic-book assignment, after The Crow and Watchmen.

But then there's the dialogue, so much of which just drops with a dull thud (what else is Crowe to do with a line like, "This is madness!"?). And the strangely conspicuous product placement ("Hey look, Superman just took off into the sky - and right from this cool Sears parking lot!"). But most of all, Man of Steel suffers from a narrowness of ambition - a narrowness which concludes that a relentless and mindless display of destruction and mayhem is the necessary climax for what is really a movie about two very personal struggles - those of Kal-El and General Zod. In going that route, the movie strips itself of its soul in exchange for a bigger spectacle.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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