Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Man of Steel", Movie of Kleenex

Remember in Superman II, where the three evil Kryptonians led by General Zod show up in Metropolis? They're fighting Superman and they pick up a city bus and are going to throw it at him. Superman pleads with them,"No! The people!" He soon realizes that the only way to keep the city safe is to lead the Kyptonians away by basically making it look like he's chickening out. So he flies keep people from being hurt. It's a great moment where the film demonstrates the core of the character's selfless heroism.

Yeah, you won't be seeing stuff like that in Man of Steel.

This is a movie that takes an approach to comics' first and greatest hero that misses the point of the character entirely, resulting in a film that I walked out of feeling bored and depressed. It's a film that is well-acted, and with action set pieces that are executed competently and with a real sense of scope. But there's no joy in the material. For a film about a man who can soar through the air, it never really takes flight.

I didn't go into the movie with high or low expectations, nor did I want to compare it to any Superman film that went before. But the fact is that this is a Superman film, and he is a recognizable character, with certain qualities that make him resonant, and this approach didn't include those qualities, choosing to focus on other aspects that I think wasted the potential of the characters and setting.

The focus of the film seems to be on Superman's alien qualities, and the setting is similar to what was done with the latest Batman films, namely to land the story in something close to a real-world setting. The problem is that Superman is not Batman. Superman was created as wish fulfillment in more ways than one. We not only love him because of his wondrous abilities, but because he has the moral courage to make good choices. He's an ideal, and inspiring, which is why the character spawned nearly a century of superhero stories. Henry Cavill seems more than capable of handling that type of role. In fact, I thought he did great with what he had. But the story isn't really interested in that kind of a hero.

It's more interested in hammering home the fact that Superman is an alien. Which is fine, I suppose, except that hammering home that he's different from us doesn't exactly breed audience identification. The best thing about Superman is that it's really an immigrant story. It's not just where you start out that matters, it's also about new places that can nurture you. In Superman's case, his journey creates someone who is the best of us. He's funny and kind and can still kick serious ass because he cares for people. Cavill's Superman is shown to kick ass, and he's shown to care about helping people, but he's mired in so much introspection and grimness that he never once feels Super. He's powerful, but he's not  compelling, and he's certainly more one-dimensional than he's ever been.

One of the central plot points in this film is that Jor El (Russell Crowe) sent his son to earth as a symbol of hope, an agent of change for the better. I've got no problem with that, except that the film never really shows Superman acting as a symbol of anything at all, other than as a harbinger of destruction. His presence on Earth is the catalyst for destruction on a huge scale, and the only symbolic act he does is one the general public doesn't even see. Yes, he saves the planet, but he also has several massive battles that decimate several communities and likely cause deaths in the thousands. So the scripts talk about him being a symbol, but they don't show him being a symbol. If I were living in this world, Superman would terrify me. And I know that's a real-world viewpoint, and it's intentional, but it's so much emptier to me.

Another point is that Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), rather than the traditional figure that inspires Clark Kent to help people, seems to want him to hide his abilities for fear of persecution. A father's fear of that is understandable I suppose, but it completely changes one of the key aspects of the Superman story; namely that his small-town values, taught to him by his Earth-born parental figures, made him a good person. It's not replaced with anything that's better or more resonant, Jonathan's world view is not borne out and at its heart it's fundamentally cynical. Cynical is not a word I thought I would ever apply to Superman.

So, what are we left with with Man of Steel? I'm not saying that it doesn't have hugely impressive action scenes. It does. And the cast is good, from Cavill to Amy Adams to Crowe to the always amazing Michael Shannon. I wish they were in a better movie, but they all do fine.

But it's a film without joy, where the level of destruction depicted is massive in order to satisfy a 21st Century audience, but there's no heart at the centre. There is literally one, maybe two moments of levity in the whole movie, and the lack of warmth in the film is almost bizarre. It's a grim engine of a film, driving ever forward, but this lack of heart results in a movie that is Superman by way of Transformers, a piece of business rather than a film.

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