Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel (2013)

Filmmakers Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan couldn't be less alike in terms of style and attitude if they had tried. On one hand, Snyder is bombastic and over-the-top, known for his extreme visual style in films like 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch. He crafts beautiful images that could only exist on the screen, often heavily augmented with computer animation, looking like they had been ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. Nolan, on the other hand, favors a grittier, more grounded approach, often eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects and stuntwork. (The rotating hallway fight in Inception? All wire-work.) His Dark Knight trilogy brought Batman and Gotham City into the real world of logic, science, and ripped-from-the-headlines threats like terrorism and class tension, while stripping away the overt supernatural and sci-fi elements found in the comics. The collaboration of Snyder and Nolan on a reboot of the Superman films was bound to be either a brilliant combination of the former's visual flair and the latter's storytelling acumen, or a clash between two wildly divergent styles of filmmaking. Unfortunately, this film is closer to the latter of those two options, frequently let down by thinly-defined characters that I often had trouble caring about. That's not to say that this is a bad film, though; in fact, it is a thrill to watch thanks to Snyder's eye for epic action scenes that stand as some of the best I've seen this year.

Much of this film's problems in the story and character department come from its efforts to shoehorn the Superman mythos into the gritty, grounded style of Nolan's Batman films. It has been said many times, by people with far more interest in and knowledge of comic books than I do, that the problem with Superman as a character is his effective invincibility making it difficult to relate to him and care about the threats that he faces, since we know that he can't be defeated and that he is eventually going to win no matter what. I believe that there are two ways to handle this: create a MacGuffin that weakens Superman (the famous kryptonite, usually), or give Superman an enemy that cannot be beaten through brute strength alone. Of these options, I prefer the latter, as the former often resembles a convenient escape hatch for lazy writers. With the latter, we can get a situation where the question is not "will Superman win?", but rather, "Superman will win, but at what cost?" Indeed, we get shades of this here, with the main villain, General Zod, threatening the people of Earth rather than Superman directly.

Unfortunately, this film does it a third way, by spending about half of its time on Clark Kent before he becomes Superman. Now, this can be done properly -- the TV show Smallville ran for ten seasons focused on Clark Kent's high school years and beyond. We get glimpses of Clark's childhood here, but the film spends more time focusing on Clark as an adult, working as an Alaskan crab fisherman. Now, having Superman work in one of the deadliest occupations in the world was an admittedly inspired and creative choice, but the way this film handles Clark otherwise essentially feels like a retread of Batman Begins. Features from the comic books and prior adaptations, like kryptonite and the Fortress of Solitude, are not present in this film, and Clark spends half the film as a drifter going around, wrecking assholes' trucks, and moving on to a new home once enough people start asking enough questions about "that weird dude". This wouldn't be as big a problem if Nolan and writer David S. Goyer were doing this as a "stripping down" of Superman like they did with Batman, but it butts up against the film that Snyder was trying to make, a "classic" Superman tale recounting his origin story for the modern age. We are frequently told that Superman is destined to be a figure who will inspire the people of Earth, up to and including an explicit shot of him in a Jesus Christ pose with arms outstretched. This is a film that does not know what it wants to be, its two creators' visions clashing and undercutting each other at every turn.

This schizophrenia caused by this results in many of the characters feeling particularly one-dimensional. To highlight the most glaring example of this, I did not get any sense of romantic chemistry between Clark and Lois Lane. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams both do a fine job bringing their characters to life separately, but outside of a few brief moments, I not only didn't buy them as a couple, but I came away thinking that they weren't originally meant to be a couple, and that the film itself only shoehorned in their big kiss at the end because Lois is Clark's love interest in the comics. Laurence Fishburne was wasted as the editor of the Daily Planet, while Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark's adoptive human parents came off as thinly-written "salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner" stereotypes. This is through no fault of the actors, who again do their best to elevate the material. The only one who really stood out for me here was Michael Shannon as General Zod, who managed to be menacing without being overly hammy, and who conveyed the idea that this guy was a zealot willing to commit genocide against humanity to save his people.

I've been very hard on this film so far, but at the end of the day, one major factor helped to greatly redeem this film in my eyes: director Zack Snyder's ability to craft thrilling action with a vivid style. Snyder may not have had the firmest grip on this film's storytelling, but visually, his work here is stunning. Whether the film is taking place on the alien planet of Krypton, in small-town Kansas, or in the big city of Chica- sorry, Metropolis, it looks like a cohesive whole, and it looks beautiful. Fights and action scenes look spectacular, being both well-shot and explosive while grabbing my attention in a vice grip. A note to anybody directing big summer blockbusters in the future: study the style of Zack Snyder, because he is one of the best pure action directors around today. The 3D didn't particularly enhance my experience, but it didn't need to, not when everything in this film was already beautiful to begin with.

Score: 3 out of 5

If you're looking to enjoy this film, do what I did and focus strictly on the action and the visuals. The script here is a mess, but a solid cast and an amazing visual style help to make up for it and produce a very enjoyable trip to the movies.

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