Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

By Zack Snyder

                Man of Steel by director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) starts with an impressively strong sequence set on the desolate planet of Krypton that features the birth of Kal-El (Superman), political conflict, and the destruction of a planet and a people.  It is dynamically shot and edited, and Russell Crowe is quite good as Jor-El, the father of Kal-El, who sacrifices everything to ensure that his son is safe, and perhaps can one day flourish.  Unfortunately, this may be the high point of the film, and the first half is stronger than the rest, detailing Clark Kent's past and his own discovery of where he came from.  It also features Earth's introduction to villain General Zod in a fantastic sequence that shows people all over the world glued to their television sets as only darkness and ominous extraterrestrial messages surround them.  It is in these quieter moments that we see the best of Snyder's directorial style and distinctive visuals, where tension is allowed to build organically.
                Unfortunately these moments are few and far between, and Snyder can't seem to help but make this movie a longwinded string of CGI-laden action sequences.  When a whole movie tries to sustain an exhaustingly high level of drama, the sequences that are supposed to be the most impactful don’t work.  There’s no way to increase tension when it’s so high to begin with, and the whole affair just gets tedious.
To be fair, the visuals are very good, and the style distinctive.  The acting by all of the supporting characters was also solid, and I like the idea of trying to “Nolanize” Superman in theory.  However, Man of Steel simply turns insipid.  There can only be so many “cool” fight sequences in a row before it becomes a one-note bore.

**½ out of ****

                I understand that people like Zack Snyder.  I get that.  I have heard many a person (nearly always male) extol the merits of 300.  Yet, to be honest, I have never understood it.  Sure, his films have a dynamic visual punch, but they lack any subtlety, making the stories they carry plastic and uninteresting.  I found 300 to be akin to a high-concept WWE production and while I loved Watchmen as a graphic novel, the film simply cheapened the material.  (I have not seen Sucker Punch, but really, who has?)  Man of Steel is no different from Snyder’s other projects, steadily filled to the brim with the testosterone-laced operatics that have come to define Snyder and now feel tired and uninspired.

Those pecs have gotta be CGI.
                These theatrics simply seem out of place in this film.  While they fit well enough with the darker aesthetics, they fall flat as the film spends a lot of time providing back-story and relies heavily on stilted character development for much of its plot.  For example, while there is nothing inherently wrong with the film using flashbacks to relay character history, one would think that to build an emotional connection, these flashbacks would contain some semblance of normality.  Instead, Snyder elects to (try to) amp up the already highly sustained dramatics by confining these flashbacks to two varieties: grand moral lessons from Clark’s father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) and applying such lessons to high-intensity scenarios involving bus crashes and tornadoes.  As a result, we never get to know Clark outside of these extreme contexts, so he seems pretty cardboard and unrelatable – I simply never felt like I knew the guy, or why he turned out to be so ethically flawless. This all creates a deflating air of contrivance that is only hurt by a detached lead performance from Henry Cavill, who seems to be directed to pose and squint with the same nuance as a Calvin Klein underwear model.  That alone (coupled with Cavill’s pectorals) may be a fine enough excuse for many women to see the film, but it ain’t enough to engage this critic.

** out of ****

              Henry Cavill certainly is a good-looking guy (extremely handsome, really), but you’re right that his performance was stale.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad – it just seemed like he wasn’t given much to do outside of appear heroic and handsome, and voila, that’s all he did. 
In another film altogether, really.
              I love Michael Shannon.  I think he’s absolutely terrific in just about anything he does, and I thought he did his best with the material he was given here, but the problem was his character was written so poorly.  So much of his dialogue is ridiculously corny, which doesn't work at all for the dark visual sense Snyder maintained throughout, and many of his lines spell out things the audience already knew.  He seems to be out of place, in a different, more lighthearted film.  Clearly, Snyder didn’t know how to build tension from the story, and it ends up feeling painfully forced.


Jor-El would make a pretty intense history lecturer.
              There were also an abundance of head-scratcher moments in this film.  Not only were there a handful of instances in which random scientists confidently stated timely solutions to impossible problems with bogus deus ex machina science, but there were also multiple times in which characters show up out of the rubble to share emotional moments with no explanation of how they got there.  With battles seemingly taking place across miles of a city in a full-blown disaster situation, it is an eye-roller for key characters to come out of the woodwork in this fashion.  Yet, these were not the most distracting head-scratchers; that honor goes to how Clark Kent discovers his past.  This scenario involves Clark happening to find himself working as a cargo worker on a crew in the frozen tundra investigating a strange object buried deep in the ice – an object that just so happens to carry not just hints, but entire monologues about his origins.  The fact that Snyder tries to sell all of this with a straight face is off-putting, to say the least.  This many hanging question marks are simply too much to ask for a suspension of disbelief.

                To change gears, I noticed that the film is rife with Christ-figure metaphors.  Kent is 33 when he puts on the cape (the age Christ was when he was crucified), Kent’s mother wears a cross necklace, both Kent’s mother and father seem to believe in a higher power, Superman has been sent here to save the world, etc. etc.  What did you think of all this?

Mary and Joseph, naturally.
                I have read that Warner Bros. actually sent notes to various churches on how to preach sermons using this film.  For many reasons, this is a joke.  Yes, Superman was sent by his father to save the world and create reconciliation, but that is about the end of any parallels.  The main difference is that Christ is God and, with the Father, created the world and everything in it, and knowingly inserts himself into the creation story to redeem it.  Superman, on the other hand, is forced into his role and had no part in designing a redemption plan.  Let’s make things clear – creation was built to fit the reality of God’s redeeming purposes, but Superman enters into a broken world and has to reluctantly be convinced to accept a role his father designed for him.  Furthermore, while Superman may seem kingly in some senses, he has no right or desire to rule over the world, and if he did, he would risk turning to tyranny.  Christ, on the other hand, rightly rules over creation by virtue of being its creator and is immutably the same today and forever.  Also, due to the goodness of the world inherently reflecting Christ’s image by design, his wise rule is what is best for creation – something that Superman cannot boast, and the film prudently does not propose.  Superman is a hero and a helper, not a sovereign ruler.
                This is a problem I see with many Christ figures in films, and it is disappointing to see so many churches jump at opportunities to say, “Hey look!  Jesus is like that!”  The reality is that Jesus is like no one but Jesus.  If anything, I think an effective sermon would be on how Jesus is far better than Superman.  Who knows, maybe this is what the studio pamphlets say, so I could be off base.  What did you think about the Christ parallels in the film?

                Theology notwithstanding (even if he wanted to, I don’t think Snyder could accurately capture the nature of the Trinity on film), I am with you in your disappointment.  I mean, I think it’s interesting to talk about Christ metaphors in films, but we don’t need to jump on the bandwagon of support only when there are obvious references to the Christian story.  Mostly, it seems cheap.  This did, however, at least give me something to think about when I had mentally checked out from the action onscreen.

Seemingly, Superman doesn't not mind destroying entire cities and their inhabitants.
                Let’s take a step back, look at the big picture, and be honest – this is a story about a super hunky alien flying around in a cape; it doesn’t deserve the pseudo-serious, somber delivery Snyder imbues it with.  It all feels so insincere; the kind of Hollywood schlock that simplifies our world into nice categories and clean lines.  Life is not like this, and if there were a Superman, he would be far more complex than the one in this film.  Perhaps if Snyder took the lead of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and made strides to make Superman a darker, more conflicted character, his brooding aesthetic would work.  Alas, Man of Steel is a real disappointment - a misguided and dull attempt to bring viewers to contemplate mostly empty, simplistic themes.

Two-as-One Rating: **¼ out of ****


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