Monday, 17 June 2013

Man of Steel Review

Hello. My name is Matthew, and I am a Michael Bay apologist.
Most people hate his films at this point but I still really kinda like them. I find a lot to love in Transformers 3 (which honestly isn't that bad) and I even enjoy Transformers 2 (which really is that bad and gets worse every time). Despite everything he does wrong - the lack of characterisation, the terrible and inappropriate humour, the rampant sexism - I've never understood the complaints about Bay's action scenes. The usual complaint is that those scenes look good, but are overlong, unengaging, and even boring; but I always find his action, dare I say it... awesome.
I bring this up not because Bay directed Man of Steel (he didn't), but because I finally understand how other people feel about his films. I felt the same during this one. The action in Man of Steel is spectacular - but that's all it is.

Superman (who only gets called that once, and everyone seems pretty embarrassed about it) can't be hurt. That's his thing. But that's murder to a compelling action scene - things bounce off him and he bounces off things and not once do we wonder if he'll be ok, because of course he will; he's Superman. It's true that you never really fear for the hero of any film - but at least in other films, you wonder how they'll win without dying, and the excitement comes from finding out. There's no wondering about it in this film - he's going to not die by being Superman, so it doesn't actually matter what happens to him.
Despite this, there are ways to make Superman compelling, action wise, and films in the past have pulled it off much better. Since the hero is never in any peril, put other characters in peril - less important characters who potentially could die - and have us worry whether Superman will manage to save them in time. The film does try this once - with Perry White and Jenny Olson (yes, you read that right) trapped in a collapsing street - but it falls flat because, although Supes does save them indirectly, he does so on literally the other side of the planet. He doesn't choose to save them or mean to save them, they just happen to be saved by what he does.
In fact, Superman barely saves anyone in Man of Steel. He saves Lois Lane a couple of times and he catches a falling guy at some point; but when main villain General Zod throws a petrol-tanker at his head, he ducks and lets it blow up a massive multi-story carpark. A carpark which we saw, just two shots ago, is full of people. Superman just lets them die and doesn't even glance back, and that's far from the only time it happens. His final fight with Zod levels buildings and flattens city blocks and, in that fight, the collateral damage must be enormous - thousands of people surely must get killed. That blood is as much on the hero's hands as the villain's, and that's a bit disturbing.

Going back to my Michael Bay comparison, I would say that Bay's action has a better sense of stakes in both of the ways I've mentioned. The heroes are not invincible and frequently get beaten up or killed (Dark of the Moon's best moment is when Bumblebee is about to be executed) and there are human characters that the robots do their best to save. But where the comparison really comes into play is in the variety of the action.
The action in Transformers includes fights with guns, fights with swords, fights with fists, one-on-one fights, one-against-many, many-against-many, fights in one place, fights on the move, fights to reach a target, fights to defend a target, and more. People find the action repetitive because it's all robots and explosions, but the circumstances - the objectives and events of those battles - are all different. In Man of Steel, by comparison, the aim of every single action scene is to break something (be it a doomsday weapon, a spaceship, or Zod's face) and Superman's approach to the problem is always the same: fly at it really fast and punch it really hard. If that doesn't work, he flies at it even faster and punches it even harder! Very occasionally he uses his heat-vision, but you can always be sure that, when his eyes stop glowing, his next move will involve flying. And punching.
Dealing with a squad of Zod's goons - flying fast and punching hard. With a Terraforming machine - flying, punching. Alien gunship - flying and punching! Zod himself - fly, punch, fly, punch, FLY, PUNCH. A lot of this flying and punching goes through buildings and stuff before it hits its target, which is a nice touch the first couple of times, but is wearing thin by the time Smallville has no buildings left. Then we go to Metropolis, where it happens all over again, but with bigger buildings.

There's one tiny scene - a minor beat in one of these huge action sequences - where Supes faces Zod's second-in-command in the wreckage of an IHoP. For a brief moment they have a pseudo-kung-fu fist-fight, where no-one flies through or gets thrown through anything. Some of the punches are blocked or dodged - and you suddenly realise that those are the first punches in the entire film that haven't connected. There's some finesse to this fight - it's tightly choreographed and it has rhythm. Then, as quick as it began, it's over again, and we're back to the flying. And the punching. That tiny scuffle really stood out to me as a great moment - just because it was something different.

The action in Man of Steel is unengaging, repetitive, and tedious - I actually blanked out during some of it and found myself daydreaming (there's a weird scene with robot-tentacles which was either really really short or I zoned out for most of it) which is something that's never happened to me before - but, with that unpleasantness out of the way, now we can talk about what the film does right. Because, believe it or not, I actually quite liked the first half of this movie!

My dark history with director Zack Snyder is well documented, but he does by far his best work here. All his films are great looking, and this one is no different - but this time the direction is steadier and he's finally developed some restraint against his worse impulses. There is slow-motion in Man of Steel, and there is fast-motion to show superpowers, but gone is the slow-fast-slow speed-ramping for which he is infamous. It is not missed.
He can't suppress his tonal problems, however, and there is an arthouse feel to a lot of it that feels out of place. Strange close-ups of buckets in the rain, or the wings of a moth, are followed up by blunt and obvious symbolim (Superman wonders if he should give himself up, backlit by a stained-glass window of Jesus at Gethsemane). It's all a bit confused, but the usually haphazard Snyder at least uses it to make specific points, which is definite progress.
More impressive, though, is that, for the first time ever, Snyder actually makes us care about the characters - though it's unclear how much of that is him and how much is down to the actors.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane is easily the best version of the character I've ever seen - and that's after only a few seconds on screen. She's still an investigative reporter, but here the emphasis is very much on investigative, as she actively chases stories, wrestles information out of people and won't take no for an answer. She still needs saving a few times, but only because she's such an active part of the story. She's brilliant - and she perfectly nails all the film's best lines.
Henry Cavill as Clark Kent and Kal-El (he's not even credited as Superman) is equally great as a subtly different version of the famous character. His Clark is an unformed entity at this point - he hasn't figured out his human self yet, because he hasn't figured out the rest - which is interesting in itself, but it's his Superman that really impresses. He's got an edge we've never seen before; friendly and polite, but at all times it is clear that he's dangerously in control of the situation, and almost everything he says can be interpreted as a subtle threat. He just casually breaks out of handcuffs at one point and quietly terrifies a room full of soldiers. I loved that about him, and I really wish we could have spent more time with this version of the character before the punching started.
The two leads have a really great relationship, too, that we've never seen before. Lois is someone Superman can confide in about his insecurities - she's the only one he can act human around, which is the opposite of the way this usually works. She's his only real friend, and that dynamic works perfectly for the characters... right up until they kiss. They never feel like a romantic couple, and that kiss feels like it's only there because it's expected to be there, not because it's earnt. It's weird. Other than that, though, they are the heart and soul of the movie.

Outside that central couple, the supporting cast do pretty well, but they're underserved by a script that constantly insists on leaden exposition - most of which either never pays off, or just restates the painfully obvious ("Either you die... or I do!" says Zod, helpfully explaining how fights work).
Russell Crowe's Jor-El, Superman's birth father, is swallowed by this and becomes Expositionman - especially in a stunted introduction where every line of dialogue is forcing setup down our throats, and later in an unnecessary scene where he recounts the exact same information all over again.
Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent, Superman's adoptive father, fares much better. He fills the role with love and warmth, and a deep, aching sadness. He's probably the standout - leaving a lasting impression despite very little screentime, awful preachy dialogue, and some monumentally wrong-headed character decisions.
Lastly, Michael Shannon as General Zod has been getting a lot of attention and fanfare and, frankly, I don't see it. He's just shouty. The script gives him decent motivation but, like everything else, spells it out so obtusely - with Zod explaining himself again and again - that it just feels false. He's not bad by any stretch, but I really don't see what the fuss is about.

There's one other character that also deserves mentioning. The true star of the film, in the end, is Hans Zimmer's score. It's fantastically powerful and suitably epic, although it never actually blossoms into the triumphant version we heard in that one decent trailer.
Snyder has a reputation for essentially making music videos (see: Sucker Punch) but in the case of Man of Steel that becomes a strength, as his intense images complement that sweeping theme. However little I may have connected to the action on screen, the music frequently gave me goosebumps - it's a really great soundtrack and perhaps the best proof of this is that you never once feel the absence of John Williams.

So, I'm obviously sort of torn about Man of Steel overall. The first half, despite a very clumsy script, is bolstered by great performances into a fairly compelling and engaging character piece; but that's all quickly undone by the second half's endless sequence of things getting hit by flying things. Zack Snyder is primarily a stylist, and he's undoubtedly made a stylish film. He even manages to craft some interesting characters in the early stages but, come the second half, that's all forgotten in favour of shallow, repetitive visuals. Like all his films, the style overwhelms and obliterates any meaningful depth. It continues to look incredibly pretty but, beyond a certain point, just watching guys punch and fly through stuff again and again, with no variation, cannot get by on "pretty" alone. It is horribly dull.
I suppose I'd still recommend it, though? Maybe? You might have a different experience to me; I certainly seem to be in a minority among my friends, and most people are calling the action amazing. And that's fine - I'm glad they enjoyed it. But, to those people, I'd like to recommend that they check out the Transformers series. If this film honestly impressed them, then the imaginative variety of Michael Bay will surely blow their minds. Or possibly punch their minds. At high speed.

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