Friday, June 21, 2013



Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
With Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Michael Shannon (Dru-Zod), Antje Traue (Faora-Ul), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Russell Crowe (Jor-El)

Spoiler alert: severe

Delayed because I evidently cannot write about Superman without using many, many words, and thinking about it very hard. Apologies to any who stumble across this blog. This was not just a movie to me, to be discussed as any other, but an objective reality set against the hopes and dreams of years. I’m still going to pretend I can review it fairly.

Let me ask of you an impossibility: imagine a world where Action Comics #1 never existed. Imagine that the word superhero is not in the dictionary, and that the prospect of aliens that can blend in with us, but are not us, and that possess the powers of superior strength, invulnerability, hypersonic flight, eye lasers and super-breath is not shaded by eighty years of the idea that such creatures are as likely to be our species’ greatest friends rather than the instruments of its extermination. This is the benighted world of Man of Steel. That a world without a Superman cannot, in the strictest sense, really be our world is not relevant. Read those words again: is the prospect not, on its face, still terrifying?

There is an argument to be made that this atypical approach is missing the point of Superman entirely. It’s a good argument, and it may even be true.  But let me offer a counter.

History has shown that writer and producer Christopher Nolan doesn’t have to make such dour movies as were his Dark Knight trilogy, but that's what he and screenwriting partner David S. Goyer go for when it comes to superheroes, and the tremendous shareholder value their partnership has generated for Warner Bros. suggests there’s a resonance to characters serving as vehicles to spout inhuman dialogue, furthering obvious themes against a backdrop of inept social commentary and splosions.

So with no incentive to change their winning formula, it’s no surprise that under Nolan and Goyer’s fun-crushing thumbs, Man of Steel is a gray movie, so serious that when it even tries to joke the results are often as atonal as a record scratch. As a director of fun and spectacle, who showed in Watchmen that he knows how to handle weighty material with a light hand, it’s dubious whether a Superman movie falling squarely within the grimdark paradigm Nolan and Goyer established is what Zack Snyder would have made if left to his own devices

But does it work? Zack Snyder is the savant of the comic adaptation. Of course he finds a way. Nope, this is not your father’s Superman, and I’m not really sure this was anybody’s Superman, but it still is Superman. It takes a lifetime for young Clark Kent to get there; but that’s okay; that’s the journey.  For fans of the Superman films and comics alike, it's a different kind of journey, a much darker onethough the visual and textual allusions to some of Superman's most controversial stories won't be missed by the comics historian with a computer-mind.


About halfway through Man of Steel, there is a moment that signals Snyder's strategy. Hans Zimmer’s heretofore rather forgettable score turns into something else for a moment, into a musical cue recalling nothing so much as Christopher Young’s dread-inducing accompaniment to 2012’s Sinister. The lights go out in Clark Kent's childhood home, as they do in homes and businesses across the globe. The camera zooms through a doorway to a static-filled TV that suddenly takes on pattern and the forms of words, and a face—the distorted image of the Antichrist in black pleather, Superman's nemesis made manifest, General Dru-Zod. In a babel of tongues, the message is received: we are not alone. It occurred to me only later that Zack Snyder, perhaps sneakily, but I believe with some intention, has created here not an action movie per se, and a superhero movie only incidentally, but something like a horror film. It is much the same horror with which we associate with the subgenre that Snyder has decided to evoke here. At least, with the best haunted house films, the fear is not just fear of being hurt, but a stark religious awe, the terror felt by mortal bodies set against the supernatural. This is appropriate. The story of Man of Steel is the story, after all, of a war to determine the nature of our world’s God.

The haunted house scene is brief, but other elements of horror creep in and out, riddling the film with their inescapable influence.  There is a reminder of the Universal horror classic as Zod, like the titular superhuman in James Whale's The Invisible Man, dictates terms to a terrorized government.  When the human authority can bear no more and retaliates, the film becomes a broad-daylight slasher, recalling, if perhaps a little tenuously, The Woman, with Kryptonian speed taking the place of edged weapons.  When Zod's endgame is revealed, the film is colored by unmistakeable shades of cosmic horror, not dissimilar to John Carpenter's Apocalyptic Trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness, as if you didn't know).  The Earth will be remade, without us, to better suit its new masters.  (And let's not forget the part Cronenberg should have guest-directed, where Superman sodomizes Lois' insides through a gaping wound with his eyes.)

The threat the Kryptonians represent is basically Lovecraftian in scope and nature if not in aesthetic (though there is a tentacled beast machine to be dealt with).  It is thus unsurprising that fear of the unknown and unknowable plays such a heavy thematic role in Man of Steel. This fear is given representation in a surprising corner, however, personified in none other than Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent, played perfectly in what is easily the film’s best performance, and the driver of its most emotionally powerful scenes. This guy who found Superman in a field is not the Jon Kent of the comics, who exhorted his son to great deeds with little thought as to what his existence might represent to others, and whose death by natural causes served (in some continuities) as a mere caution to the limits of even his super-son’s great power.

This Pa Kent does know that his son is the most important thing on Earth, and may be a force for infinite good, but unlike any previous iteration of the character, this one is frightened. In part, he is frightened of how his species might respond to a visitor with vast power in its midst; and in part he is frightened of how the visitor he has raised as his own son will respond to a humanity as scared as he is. He loves him but has no answer to solve this quandary, so he keeps him hidden, and impresses upon Clark that he must not reveal himself until the world is ready—without ever telling him how to know when that is. That he was always wrong, and the cost he and his family paid for being wrong, is his great tragedy. They go pretty deep with this: Jonathan sacrifices his life not only to preserve his son's secret, but to keep the supernatural and natural worlds separate.  And it doesn't work.

I bet Bill Paxton would've kicked its ass.

Snyder's endeavor is tremendosly impaired by the commercial necessity of a PG-13 rating. As we all know, PG-13 horror is often ineffective, because the line between the camera flinching too soon for us to feel the impact and showing so much that we can remove ourselves to a clinical detachment is a line that still lies a little beyond the pale from which we feel the need to restrict our audiences. And, yes, I find myself shocked to utter this, in fact almost embarrassed to say it out loud, but it’s true: a Superman movie, this Superman movie, needed a hard R.

See? Horror movie.

There is an awful quality and quantity to the violence in Man of Steel, a physicality that most CGI cartoons of this type fail to rise to. 2005’s King Kong was one of the best of this ilk, but even though the generated objects’ appearance suggested realism, or at least a believable hyperrealism, issues remained. I believe it is the speed of the Kryptonian villains that permits disbelief to remain so entirely suspended: it obscures the defects in the computer imagery that we so readily notice; and it produces results, like the cuts to gore in a good horror movie, that are more felt than fully processed.

That said, there are some flight sequences that frankly look much shittier and infinitely less charming than this.

Yet despite all the human debris there is almost no blood. It is readily apparent that the strength and velocity of the Kryptonians would pulverize humans in extremely messy way, but the PG-13 rating means that even though clever framing and editing means that most of these hits still land, there is something important missing.

Buildings, however, do not bleed. They can fall, and substituting nicely for bodily victims, they do in great numbers, with a great many implied and not a few explicit people inside.

Two important events outside of American cinema have shaped its course throughout the 21st century: first, the maturation of computer technology, and with it the capability of generating fictional mass carnage on a scale previously unimagined; second, the events of September 11th, 2001, that heretofore have kept us from using that technology to its utmost potential.

Man of Steel is the first movie of its type I’ve seen to truly go for the gusto, in not only its devastation of an American city, but in how seriously it does it, devoid of much camp.  Beyond that, it is unusual even for superheroic fare to render human effort as completely useless as the Kryptonian threat does in Man of Steel. It's nothing new that Superman is humanity's only hope, but to so clearly demark humanity as powerless and weak is an interesting choice, and rather novel, perhaps especially for a Superman story.

That's why any analogy to Transformers: Dark of the Moon or The Avengers fails.  There, despite the destruction of Chicago or New York, human actors mattered, whether it was America's Decepticon-busting armed forces or our shadow government's nuclear cruise missile.  This is different.  Sure, humans help, a littleusing Kryptonian technology, given to them freely by Superman.  But their efforts only prolong Earth's destruction, failing to prevent it.  And even when confronted with the microscale problem of freeing Jenny Olsen (Jenny? okay), humans don't do very well.  At best, Lois Lane's gesture of trust, giving up the story after she uncovers his origins, gives Superman a reason to choose humanity, but it's pretty much a given he'd have done that anyway.

 I hope she turns into a turtle in the sequel.

In many of the best horror films, the true horror is the fact that human agency is useless.  I remember watching in 2001 as the towers fell, and, while it was short-lived, the feeling of individual and national powerlessness was very real.  Using that imagery and that memory to not just create a dynamic action set-piece, but evoke genuine cosmic horror is a brilliant stroke, and one, thankfully, we were finally ready for.

So it is in Man of Steel's extended climax that the psychologies of two great directors finally find a magnificent if precarious balance.  From beneath that Nolan scowl shines through Snyder's boyish grin. There's no shame in this not-so-secret pleasure.  Horror films often take great joy in their work, and we get a kick out of being scared—and exhilarated—by them.  And Man of Steel's last hour is nothing if not scarily exhilarating.

It’s not all good news. This movie has enough problems to talk about for years to come.

First, hideous Krypton and all things Kryptonian. Ingest the Engineer’s starship in Prometheus, the human battery fields of The Matrix, the rideable dragons (yes) of Pandora in Avatar, and a ten dollar pin art set. Stick finger down throat. The result is Man of Steel’s vision of Krypton, its fauna, and its technology.

 Volturi minus Michael Sheen equals at least they die soon.

I can appreciate that they took a page from John Byrne’s 1986 book of the same name for the cold, mechanical stagnancy of Krypton’s culture, but mining his visuals as well would have been better.  Better still would have been Curt Swan, et al’s bright and bold Silver Age aesthetic.  Perhaps best would have been giving us a 2013-and-200-million-dollar-plus-budget reimagining of the iconic film Krypton as literally crystallized into existence by John Barry back in '78. One surmises the legacy of (the criminally unloved) Superman Returns militated against the latter. But any of the multitudes of comic and screen Kryptons would have been superior to this ugly planet, and the sooner it exploded the better.

In fact, given that Krypton is an aesthetic failure, and that I doubt anyone above the age of zygote would have been lost without seeing Kal-El’s birth and exodus (which is reiterated later in the film anyway), I’m firmly of the stance that the approximately eight hours spent on Krypton could have been cut.  We could easily be rid of all the scenes of Jor-El punching people, of Jor-El’s immediately-forgotten wife talking basically directly to the audience (I know she’s Lara Lor-Van, but I can’t be very much bothered to care based on this portrayal, and evidently neither can Snyder and company), and of Zod affirming his Space Nazism as if we might not have figured it out (or, that we might have felt some real moral ambiguity about his position later on).  All this could have been cut entirely, not only without detriment, but radically improving the film. After all, Jor-El does come back as a helpful technological phantom; he just doesn’t get to hit people. Big loss; we've got Gladiator if we want see Russell Crowe hit people.

Makin’ babies, makin’ rockets, and fightin’ round the world

Second, and more dire, is this absolute drear of a color palette. Superman, even this Superman, is a bright character of primary colors, but this movie is determined to use a color scheme dominated by bleak grays and dim blues, ill-befitting a man powered by the sun. Even the glaring red giant Rao and the planet Krypton's very molten core bursting through the crust achieve only muted amber under cinematographer Amir Mokri's eye. And as bad as that is, don’t expect such pop again soon. Orange and blue? With few exceptions, that's one too many for Mokri (and, I expect, Color-Hatin' Nolan).  The All-Star Superman fan might be forgiven if they suspected that our star had already been sabotaged and the secret third-act villain was the Anti-Sun—no such luck. There are scenes in the extended climax that are stunning, even phantasmogorical, that cried out for stronger hues.  Were they afraid that too much color would truly blow our minds? Or, and I fear this is the case, did they feel the subject matter was too dark to be filmed too vividly, lest they undermine themselves? If so: what a truly stupid notion that is. There’s formalism and then there’s just being daft.

A blackbody curve of a G-type main sequence star, pre-Solaris.

Third, I could have done without the occasional thoughtless musing courtesy Goyer, including a misunderstanding of the arguments for genetic determinism (Kal-El was naturally born, unlike most Kryptonians, so he can be anything he wants... just like humans, right?) and an application of teleology to evolution (Faora's dreadful dissertation, ending in the eye-roller "Evolution always wins," which is a lot like saying "Gravity always wins," but even more fundamental, since selection for survivability and the resulting change is a logically necessary feature of any dynamic system, and also sort of contradicts the previously-indicated fact that Kryptonians other than Kal are intelligently designed, not subject to natural selection).

Finally, there is a mistimed and risible joke uttered during the climax that is so bad that I dare not repeat it here, but suffice it to say that it dashed any hope of an A. 

Yet, despite the glaring flaws, Zack Snyder did something pretty radical here, and his deployment of horror-spectacle in pursuit of awe is Man of Steel's enormous strength.  It's unfortunate that his film does not quite rise to greatness; indeed, it is a true damned shame that it didn’t because it certainly had the potential to be the finest movie of this century.  But it is an important movie—and a very good one.

Score: 7/10

P.S.: And by the way, the cruel omission of all but the briefest mention of Lana Lang? Well, I was very disappointed. And, despite all those shots of Clark in the ocean, unless she’s gained a lot of weight, no Lori Lemaris either? Whatever.
P.P.S.: Whatever their faults, Zack Snyder, Chris Nolan, and David Goyer deserve the following unalloyed message of gratitude: thank you, gentleman, for not once—not once!—forcing Michael Shannon to speak the word "kneel."  In the summer that brought us Star Trek Into Darkness, the idea that you might reimagine a famous film character without engaging in intellectual regurgitation is truly welcome.

Other reviews in this series:
Man of Steel
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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