Saturday, June 15, 2013

We Shall Try to Find the Answers Together

Zack Snyder's Man of Steel just opened on June 14.  I've been looking forward to this movie for a year now (see two posts ago).

So what did I think; how is the first new Superman film since the divisive Bryan Singer project of 2006?

In short, not very good.  While Man of Steel has a ton of action and some of the most impressive special effects ever put in a movie, it lacks the heart of its predecessors.

After the break are my myriad thoughts about what Snyder got wrong.

the following is spoiler filled

I would like to begin by making it clear exactly what Man of Steel is.  This is literally an alien invasion movie.  The prologue is over-long and over-loud, showing the destruction of Superman's home world of Krypton and his launch into space.  This section is pure space opera, borrowing Avatar's (2009) sense of exotic grandeur.  From then on, the rest of the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time is confined to Earth, and most of it rests on the idea of alien life on Earth, with all the worldwide drama said idea would entail politically, religiously, militarily, etc.  Interestingly, the plot of Man of Steel mimics that of another recent blockbuster directed by a man with no filmmaking restraint: Michal Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011).  Evil aliens (Michael Shannon as General Zod in Snyder's flick, giant robot Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy, in Bay's) are coming to Earth to brutally convert it into a copy of their own destroyed-by-war-and-greed home world.  The United States military tries and fails to defeat them.  Another alien (Henry Cavill as the titular Man of Steel, Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime in Transformers) decides to stand against them and save the puny humans.  Said hero has a human sidekick (Amy Adams as Lois Lane in Steel, the much less watchable Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky in Moon) to help in the struggle and raise the stakes.

Superman: The Movie (1978) was Richard Donner's version of this origin story.  Donner hit plenty of touching moments with Superman's birth parents, surrogate Earth parents, coworkers at the Daily Planet newspaper, and love interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).  Snyder wants us to feel the same affection for these peripheral characters that Donner did (and Singer after him, with 2006's sequel, Superman Returns), but he never gives us a reason to.  Superman, using his Earthly guise of Kansas farm boy Clark Kent, doesn't even work at the Daily Planet in the new movie; the minute-munching scenes in Steel where Planet editor Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) and his compatriots are in danger of being crushed by tons of C.G. rubble have no weight (pun intended).

This is a remake that fails to justify its own existence as such.  It stands on the crimson-caped shoulders of Donner's film (and Singer's for that matter) way too much, borrowing the most powerful aspects of this wonderful mythology without showing us enough of anything new.  Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) dies in Clark's youth in Donner's film, and even though that is not a dogmatic part of Superman's mythology, Snyder went the same route, albeit to a different thematic note.  Both films contain clear allegory of Superman as Christ-figure, (although, admittedly, this idea was almost mute in Donner's story until Singer went a little crazy with it in Returns) something else that Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer simply should have avoided.  In both, we see Clark as a child, learning to control his powers and seek for a healthy way to use them.

Snyder edits by association here, much as he did in Watchmen (2009); the scenes with child Clark are not set chronologically near the beginning of the running time but sprinkled artistically throughout, utilizing the thematic meaning of the context of the surrounding scenes.  Steel's best scene is one such flashback, a quiet mother-son scene between Clark and Ma Kent (Diane Lane) set in Smallville's elementary school.

As appreciated as these (generally) subdued moments of mentoring, love, and formation are, Snyder's take just doesn't make enough room for them amidst all the cartoony destruction.  Even the violence without literal explosions contains room-shaking noise and bass; Superman and Zod's cronies beat the living kryptonite out of each other at super speed, so every punch and tumble results in the displacement of so much air, earth, and concrete that a megaton bomb may just as well have gone off.  Snyder can't help himself.

For Man of Steel to work, Snyder and Goyer needed to find a note that Donner and Singer had missed, but all of the best ones were clearly taken.

And speaking of notes, the iconic John Williams score has been left behind.  In an effort to separate this film from its predecessors, Snyder has included entirely original music for the first time in Superman movie history.  Hans Zimmer does what he can here, but he simply can't compare with Williams, despite presenting probably Williams' biggest competition in the realm of Hollywood composer supremacy.  While pretty, his music is completely forgettable.  * main themes here and here, music for Krypton here and here *

Bryan Singer knew he couldn't best Donner at this; he didn't try.  Superman Returns was a pensive, slow, measured love letter to the Dick Donner original.  Instead of exploring something new in the Superman universe, Snyder has retread old ground, throwing in just enough twists and improved special effects to make this fly for general audiences.  Despite the monstrous marketing machine that is Man of Steel, more imposing and clamorous than any Kryptonian terraformer, you'll be amazed how quickly you'll forget this movie.

Also of note:

The film was post-converted to 3D, and I honestly forgot I was watching 3D for half of it, so limited was the depth.  Skip that.

There is one spectacular action sequence in which Zod and 'Supes punch each other around the skyline of downtown Metropolis.

Environmental abuse by its inhabitants is now the cause of Krypton's destruction, but this is forgotten when the alien tentacles start squirming.




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