By David Poland email@example.com
Review: Man of Steel (spoilers)
I often write non-spoiler reviews of movies because I think the experience of the film is worth preserving for people who might read my comments. Not this time. (But all real spoilers are after the jump.)
If you want the short strokes, this is a movie with little stability. The effects are huge, but as usual, Zack Snyder wants to do everything in close-up and offers little or no context for the visuals. The exception is when a building is about to fall over from the middle (an effect you would have seen done better in Transformers 3 and a minor variation on Inception), so congratulations on that one bit of continuity. You also get to see “learning to fly” by John Carter, babies by The Matrix, speed-fighting by first-person shooters and the Matrix films, production design of Krypton by Dune‘s Anthony Masters, and dozens of other stolen images. And we’ll have to talk another time about the penis-shaped spacecraft and the sperm-y spaceship.
The core problem for many audiences, I believe, will not be lack of CG action. You can gag on it. It’s the lack of pleasure in the film. There are a dozen comic book-based films that have grossed over $250m domestically. They starred The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Men in Black. What did these movies have that others did not? They were very entertaining. Not just loaded with great effects and stuff that made fanboys happy. They offered movie movie pleasure to a wider audience than the ones who know what that side reference was to “Superman” #749 (for the record, I made that # up).
Is an alien creature seen early in the film a reference to a comic book or TV’s “Super Friends”? Don’t know. Don’t care.
I don’t want to drone on about the often terrible dialogue… or the disregard for any reality re: the world of journalism… or the torture of fine actors who were given little to do… or the laughable coincidences that we can’t seem to go 10 minutes without. That is all bad, but it is, to some degree, the premise with which the film was made. I believe (as a rule) in giving a film and its filmmakers their premise.
What I want to talk about is the ideas — or lack thereof — behind the film. And to do that, it’s all spoilers, all the time. So check out now if you don’t want to be thinking about what you are watching before you watch it.
I will push this over to an additional page now to make this easier for those of you who don’t want to be spoiled…
Man of Steel is a classic piece of ADHD cinema. Every idea is the most important idea in the world… until the filmmaker pushes the next idea—also the most important in the world—into your face without bothering to think much about the continuity of the core ideas.
And some people are completely fine with that.
For me, the most extreme example is the death of Jonathan Kent. (This is not the only big disconnect with this character, but let’s start here.) In the one kind of circumstance in which someone with superhuman strength and near-invincibility could survive without people investigating how he survived, a tornado, Both Father Kent and Son Kent decide to save the dog’s life and sacrifice the (ha ha) 46-year-old father’s life in order—in theory—to keep the secret of the son.
WHAT THE FUCK?
Now… the scene is well staged. Kevin Costner is quite good in his final moments on God’s green earth. And it is, or at least reads clearly as, sad. Saving the dog is classic movie movie iconography. The death of a parent is life-changing. Etc, etc, etc.
But this is utter bullshit.
Clark Kent didn’t need to show superspeed or fly or show any great physical heroics. Had he been pulled into the wind as his father was, his living body could have landed a mile away and plausibly been alive in the shelter of a car or something. But instead, he first follows his father’s instructions to go under the highway overpass with his mom and then just stands there, watching his father die.
What does this mean, besides having a dramatic scene in which Pa Kent dies? Well, it means a lot. It means that Pa Kent taught his son to be unheroic and to emotionally disconnect. Paranoid. Not to save human lives. To put himself and his secret above all else.
There is a stunning arrogance and selfishness at the core of this moment that poisons the film… and if it were just this one scene, maybe it would overcome, on the basis of blaming youth. But then again, Clark seems to be about high school age when this happens. People from my planet—Jewtopia—say you become a man when you are 13. But here, at 17 or 18, Clark is still a little boy, so fearful of his father’s paranoid idea of humanity that he—who has the power to change it, and in the design of the scene, has the power for a period BEFORE it would take a superhuman feat to save his parent—watches his own father die while he hides from a storm that cannot hurt him.
And how incredibly selfish is it of Pa Kent, who the movie tells us is heroic because he leaps to saving children and the dog, to choose death, which will weigh on his son and his wife for decades to come?
And this scene taps into the giant overarching problem with Man of Steel. it keeps repeating a core idea that Clark must wait for the right moment to show himself to humans and risk rejection and fear of an alien being in their midst… and then, it NEVER happens.
Seriously… this issue is discussed by PA Kent and Jor-El and Perry White and the military group (who must also have superhuman powers to be everywhere that anything significant takes place through the entire part of the film in which they exist) for a good hour-plus. How would humans react to the knowledge that we are not alone… that other civilizations in the universe exist and have greater technology than earth (aside from video, which can’t be accomplished on Krypton or when broadcasting to the world from a spaceship, even if you have the power to turn off all power except to the TVs… oy). What will happen?!?!
Nothing. Because the movie sidesteps the issue altogether.
The question the filmmakers decided would be more interesting, after wasting our time with sophomoric philosophy for over an hour, is, “What would happen if a malicious force attacked the planet and there was one guy on the planet that might be able to stop the villain, by surrender or a fight?”
Like everything else in the movie, it’s all in close-up. There is no world outside of the United States… unless it’s a stage for another action sequence or kind of a lazy reference to the South Indian Ocean. The Earth is under attack, but there is the US Military—represented by two actors—and a very specific swath of Kansas and Metropolis. Even in Metropolis, presumably with millions just on the isle of Metrohattan, humanity is defined by a half-dozen characters who work at the Daily Planet.
This may be the moment when many are saying to themselves, “Dave… it’s not like you can have 3 million characters. Why are you being so tough on an action movie?”
And I say, “Blame the film, not the messenger.” This is a film that screams at the audience about its moral authority. But really, Man of Steel is like a teenager who knows enough to start a political argument, but not enough to actually have the argument. Before the last 45 minutes of ALL-CG… NOTHING BUT CG!, the pretentiousness of this film is epic.
But by the end, there is no real discussion at all about what this issue means to the people of Earth, other than being grateful that one alien force was able to stop the one that was actively trying to annihilate them. That’s not acceptance. That’s, “Thanks for not letting us all die… We can talk about all that philosophical bullshit you were spewing for the first hour of the movie after we get a shower to get all this cheaply-9/11-referencing soot off of us and an estimate on the rebuilding of midtown Metropolis, half the damage of which was created by your choice to fight in midtown—likely killing thousands of humans in the process—rather than luring him to Long Metropolis Island or something where there are fewer people and smaller buildings.”
And here is where that all comes down for me…
On Krypton, Jor-El argues with Zod about the future of the race. “Who will decide which bloodlines go on…. you?” Sneer.
But let’s be clear. Zod may be wrong. He may go way too far in trying to do his duty (which we later learn he was bred to do, which should have made him a sympathetic character, not a over-the-top villain). But Jor-El has decided that only one bloodline can be trusted. His own. In fact, he is so enamored of his son and his inevitable perfection, that he fuses all future potential Kryptonian DNA into little Kal-El’s body.
If Jor-EL believes that Krypton’s breeding program is inherently wrong because it takes away individual choice, why send it into the universe with Kal-El at all, much less fused into Kal’s own DNA? Why not just destroy the “codex?”
Let’s take it to the next step. If Zod never comes to earth and Kal-El comes of age and the ghost-in-the-machine Jor-El shows him how to extract some Kryptonian DNA from his cells and to create more Kryptonian life… would those be his idea of good Kryptonians? Would they be pre-programmed as suggested? Is this a sequel that I don’t want to see?
But back to my main point…
Jor-El and Zod are not all that different, except one is presumed to be heroic and the other insane. More importantly, Zod was born to be a “mindless” soldier and Jor-El was born to be a “thinking” scientist. This, to me, is a far more interesting poli-philosophical issue than anything that is actually in the film. As with so many ideas, it was dealt out there and then discarded.
The first speech by Zod smells of Tea Party politics. “All you people do is talk while The People suffer” and then references impure bloodlines as though he was a religious fanatic. But then it’s Jor-El who willfully breaks the law of his planet because he knows what is “right.” Then Pa Kent is downright paranoid about outside folks. (Ma Kent seems a little stoned all the time).
Why throw these threads out there if you don’t have a frickin’ point?
Christopher Nolan had some politics in the Dark Knight films, particularly the last one. But in spite of some holes, he stood by his ideas. Batman/Bruce Wayne truly evolved in his perceptions within each film and as the movies progressed. No such luck here. This origin movie leaves us with a Superman as self-involved as his mentors (including Zod).
It’s such a cheap choice to have him smash a drone to the ground. Ha-ha. Liberal audiences hate and fear drones. Great. Meanwhile, he did destroy a $12 million piece of equipment (or however much they say) for no real reason. And who pays for that? U.S. taxpayers. Ha-ha. And his closing words are not heroic. (paraphrased) “I will help you, but only if you do things my way.”
Long f-ing way form “Truth, justice, and the American way.” America may be a long way from that too. But Selfishman is no hero to me, whether he has superpowers or not. My way or the highway is the lesson he brings to his heroism… same as all the great fascists of history. Same as the U.S. invading countries which are not actually threatening us or world peace. We’re going to count on the guy who chose not to save his dad from death at the risk of someone asking him how he did it? Not me.
There is a lot more to whine about, from the immaculate birth by Russell Crowe and a 40+-year-old first time mom to the on-again/off-again powers of Kal-El depending on on-craft atmospheres (I know I always lose my powers when I don’t get an aisle seat), to Lois Lane being reduced to a screaming girl as the capsule that Jor-El failed to protect plummets to earth, to the meaningless inclusion of the U.S. military and the failure of the film to acknowledge its powerlessness, and on and on.
This film felt like none of the players trusted the core ideas… which is the exact opposite of what Nolan brought to the Dark Knight series. No idea was good enough to stand on its own… they had to do it 3 or 4 different ways. And that is also a Zack Snyder thing.
And what is the big close of the film? Superman finally finds the power to break Zod’s neck.
Brav-fucking-o. He murders the bad guy. He cries a little, but yeah… he has learned to murder with his bare hands to defend his turf. What a happy response to his inner turmoil.
But yes… this is a big, dumb, CG movie in so many ways. I don’t like the effects movie much. I’ve seen it all before, albeit not in this quantity and relentless density. But I can forgive people who just want to go with that and simply disregard, the endless convulsed political and sociological posturing of the screenplay. Enjoy!
Ironically, I think there is a box office cap on this kind of movie. As noted before, entertainment value for a broad audience is what gets tickets sold after opening weekend. And New Yorkers coming together to help Spider-man get the bad guy and the girl is, whether you like it or not, a lot more likely to sell tickets in weekend 3 and 4 and 7. Superman/Clark smiles maybe 3 times in this film. Is that what people want?
Meanwhile, the new Superman is not very smart, has been led to the trough of selfish stupidity by his fathers, and just wants things to be his way. He cares about Lois, but only because he has a crush on her (or whatever happens between the end and the coda). He is a manchild who thinks he is smarter than he is. He is a bore, really. But he is a pretentious bore. Maybe he’ll do talk radio in the sequel. Maybe he’ll get blamed for not saving a U.S. Ambassador because he didn’t get there fast enough after Congress pulled protection because, after all, Superman works with us. Maybe he’ll run for Senate and then we’ll find out what really went on in that church his father built and attended.
There are plenty of nits to pick, but I am ready to move on about now.
I would bet heavily that The Wolverine is going to be a lot more modest than MoS (never without sound… the Hans Zimmer score re-defines wall-to-wall, which says a lot about the film), but with a much clearer vision of who the character is. Pretty sure that Pacific Rim will be twenty times more fun and not very political (del Toro being one of contemporary cinema’s great humanists).
I’m not going to guess at box office because who knows what opening weekend (which has nothing to do with the actual content of the movie, but the best two minutes you can pull out to sell with) will bring. But I suspect its final gross will not fare very well versus opening.
You know, the big finale in Avengers, technically skilled as it is, kinda sucks. Lots of aliens in masks blowing NY up. Yawn. But we really cared about those characters, so it was fun anyway. I can’t say that about Man of Steel, no matter how great some of the actors are or how pretty Henry Cavill is.
Final note… Cavill is pumped up like a Thanksgiving Day balloon in the Macy’s parade. Why? Great shape? Sure. Abs? Fine. But he is freakishly blown-up here. Why would Superman need to be that chesty and shouldery? How would he become that way? He can throw trains… not because of his muscle mass. And that is Man of Steel all over. All surface and no heart, no brains, no guts.