Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Man Of Steel

Bombastic and ambitious, Man Of Steel creatively re imagines the Superman mythos for the modern audience. It lacks in acting, pacing and story, but makes up for it in sheer spectacle.

In response to the massive success of Marvel's Avengers franchise, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. have unveiled their plans to create a Justice League film, featuring iconic comic book characters such as Superman and Batman.

While Batman has found great success on film recently, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight series was heavily grounded in reality, delving deep into the psychology of its central figure. Not the stuff of science-fantasy franchise building. But in the wake of Batman's success, Nolan was brought on board (along with Dark Knight writer David Goyer) to develop Superman into a story that could not only resonate with today's audience, but could also form the foundation for a whole series of DC-universe blockbusters that could intersect and expand.

The two super-powers of the comic book film franchising realm are clashing, and in the glorious carnage, we the audience are about to reap the benefits. Or endure the consequences. It's hard to say, really, whether this kind of film making is good for the industry or not.

"New" Hollywood tactics - of throwing as much money as possible at a film, and having it appeal to the widest audience possible - have been around for well over 30 years now. Has anything changed? Today's industry, it seems, is exacerbating the trend started by Star Wars and Jaws, with bigger budgets, bigger marketing, stronger branding, deeper pockets to be emptied and refilled. What do we call films like The Avengers, and the Justice League project? Mega-blockbusters? AAAA movies?

They're really big, is the point I'm trying to get at. And whether this trend continues until absolutely everything we see in theaters is a part of one mega franchise or another, or whether one of these massive projects bombs out and topples the major studios... Who knows?

Alright, I suppose I'd better get to the film. Hopefully my ranting about the state of the movies has given you some idea of the context in which this film appears (I haven't covered anything about previous Superman films though, so if you're interested you'll have to look them up yourself).

Man Of Steel is... well, mediocre I suppose.

Which is an absolute shame because there are so many great ideas in here - especially in the way the story unfolds, and the way classic Superman tropes have been re purposed for this film. You can see the fingerprints of Nolan all over the place; in the non-linear storytelling, in the grittier atmosphere, in the way he avoids more tired tropes like Kryptonite, and Lex Luthor.

You can also see the hand of Zach Snyder all over the place. The film is about as bombastic and overblown as you would expect - but the style really works when dealing with super-humans clashing into one another.

The special effects are wondrous. Krypton is fantastically realized, especially in the way its technology is presented. Scenes on earth are shot very nicely, with a lot of moody close-ups and nature shots that inspire a nice sense of connection to the earth and nature - a sharp contrast to late-game action scenes.

Boy oh boy, those action scenes. When General Zod finally arrives on earth, and Superman is called upon to protect the planet from him, all hell breaks loose... and it's amazing. Clashes between the human military and the Kryptonian super-soldiers are elegantly done, evoking the terror and the awe experienced by the humans. Clashes between Superman and the Kryptonians are insane, with two or three mighty beings pummeling at each other, hurling one another through buildings, and leveling cities in their wake. One moment they're tossing cars around Smallville, the next they're out in space, battling upon the arms of an ill-fated satellite.

There's a lot of variety in these battles, so they never seem to get boring. The contrasting settings, characters, objectives, and moods in each smaller scene make the final two acts a smorgasbord of great action beats strung together. The film lives up to all expectations on the action/spectacle front. Man Of Steel is a sight to be seen, preferably on the big screen, in 3D.

So what's wrong with it?

There is something I can't quite put my finger on; something in the pacing that probably comes down to the writing, or the editing. For starters, the transition from Superman in hiding to announcing his presence to the world felt rushed. A lot of the character development felt rushed to be honest - Superman's was mostly well-done, as was Lois Lane's, but some of the side characters seemed to have no arc - or worse, an incomplete one. The acting is hit-and miss. Most of the main actors do a great job, but again the supporting characters suffer on this front.

Finally, the fight scenes didn't always gel together very well either. There are moments when the super-humans Superman is fighting just give up and leave. There's an explanation for this in the story, but it feels pretty contrived and inconsistent; like the writers just needed a way to make the fighting stop, so they implement this whenever the feel the need to. But the breaks between the fights aren't very long - it feels almost as if much of the middle action should have been woven together into one long fight scene, without the arbitrary pauses that just confuse.

There's also the glaring issue of collateral damage in this movie. Both as it functions in the story, and as it is present to us on screen. (Note: there are some minor spoilers here)

I'll start with the story problem: Superman does not kill. Superman does everything in his power to save people. This is exemplified quite well in a few instances when he sees a stray civilian falling, or something like that: he rushes out of his way to catch them, and saves them from a messy end. This logic doesn't seem to hold when considering people in buildings though, or planes. The number of buildings collapsed by Superman flying into them - or throwing Zod at them... it's just unbelievable. A spectacular sight, to be sure, but after a while one starts to wonder what Superman's kill count must be up to - directly, or indirectly by allowing the fight to remain in the city, surrounded by people.

Then there's the way all of this is shown to us in the film. Countless buildings are destroyed, true. But how many people do you suppose we see inside those buildings? I haven't watched closely, but at a guess I would say the answer is none. Every wall the brawling titans obliterate reveals an office block completely devoid of precious human life that might have been squashed by the catastrophe. It's almost as if the film is actively avoiding making us watch people die.

Indeed, I think this is the case, and a sad side-effect of the way blockbusters are made nowadays. Everybody loves seeing wanton destruction - it's all a lot of fun. Seeing cars crushed by a gravity beam, seeing invincible characters hurling each other through walls, seeing buildings collapse and gas stations explode... It's cinematic gold. But not a lot of us like to see the human consequence of what might happen if these events did take place in a crowded city. A lot of people would die, and we don't like seeing innocent civilians die anywhere near as much as we like seeing a good fiery explosion. To make the film appeal to the largest possible audience, the studio has downplayed the effect that those explosions may have had on the random passers by.

This problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned motivation of Superman: to save everyone. The film tries to raise the stakes by staging its fights within the city; around people that Superman wants to protect. But the stakes are artificial; they ring false because Superman makes no effort to stop buildings from falling on people, and because there aren't any people in those buildings as far as we can see anyway.

The ending particularly suffers from this effect - and I can't get this across without spoiling a few things (not that they would surprise you). In the climactic moment, Zod suddenly raises the stakes on Superman, by aiming his laser vision at a cowering family of civilians nearby (who have conveniently appeared). Superman is forced to make a choice. As he tries to wrest Zods head away, the laser beam inches ever closer, almost consuming the family - until Superman suddenly snaps Zod's neck. Zod collapses, dead, and Superman falls to his knees beside him, tears in his eyes.

Why is Superman crying though? Is he crying because he was forced to kill Zod? That didn't seem like such a big deal before - he was really brutal to him in those fights. Is he crying because the civilians died? Ah, that's the million dollar question, because the film doesn't show us! The final shots are framed in such a way that we never catch a glimpse of that corner of the room - which would reveal either a gory sight, or a sense of relief. In its most crucial moment the films artifice is most obvious. We know that in reality actions have consequences, but the film doesn't want us to really feel them. It tries to convince us they aren't there, undermining the challenging issues that it does grapple with.

So I've beaten up on it a bit for being the most egregious example of conservative blockbuster film making in recent memory (I don't think Iron Man 3 suffered from this at all!). I've also praised its creative choices, and spectacular special effects.

I haven't even mentioned the amazing score by Hans Zimmer. That's worth mentioning. It's amazing.

It all adds up to pretty much standard popcorn summer movie fare. It's definitely worth seeing, and my hopes are high for the future of this franchise. I think the foundation laid by this movie is solid enough to stand on. If DC can up their game, Marvel may have their work cut out for them in the years to come.