Review: Man of Steel (2013)

Review: Man of Steel (2013)

How can the cartoons get it so right and the live-action movies get it so wrong?

Who is this young Clark pretending to be? Who is his inspiration? This image like a drawing of the sun wearing sunglasses – and it encapsulates everything wrong with Man of Steel:

Man of Steel (2013)
Man of Steel (2013)

There’s obviously so much that’s wrong with this movie (violence that tips over into video game levels of CGI awfulness and inconsequential collateral damage, and a general lack of warmth, humour or even fun), but there are also a couple of moments that Man of Steel contributes to the Superman mythology that I really like and I feel are worth talking about first.

One of these moments happens around the 105 minute mark: Superman takes flight, but he’s tiny in the frame, and the enormity of the sky and clouds around him I found exhilirating. That shot alone would have made a perfect “first flight” moment, but instead it comes much later in the film, and is barely an emotional beat (which is typical of Zack Snyder‘s film-making – more on that later).

The other moment I really liked and had never seen before in a Superman story is the scene of him as a kid when his powers suddenly burst in on him. It’s a kind of lightning-bolt pubescent moment, but with x-ray vision and super-hearing as surrogates for balls dropping and hair cropping up in new places. The moment is full of terrifying new sights and sounds that suddenly overwhelm this poor little kid, forcing him to run out of his classroom and to lock himself in the janitor’s closet, until his mum (Diane Lane, who still looks so amazing they had to age her up to play Superman’s adoptive ma) is called in to talk him down, and only her voice and her words can cut through the kid’s sensory overload and quiet his sheer panic. I found the idea interesting, and its portrayal beautiful (it makes sense that thug-fisted director Zack Snyder can portray clunky things barging in on a person’s sensibilities as no-one else can).

Zack Snyder: a director for whom ‘gravitas’ means ‘smashiness’, ‘intensity’ means ‘coverage’, and ‘impact’ means, literally, ‘impact’

As for Man of Steel within the larger tradition of Superman stories: there is nothing fun about this movie. There’s also little that’s sympathetic about its “hero” (and really, he’s not motivated to defend anyone, even himself, maybe Lois Lane (Amy Adams) by default; and laying on the Christ imagery so thick does not a hero make). I don’t get why Superman needs to go so emo. If it’s a setup for character development in the next movie, then ok, I’ll wait to see how that plays out – but this Man of Steel guy simply doesn’t feel like Superman.

Review: Man of Steel (2013)
Man Of Steel being subtle.

Another thing I don’t get is the revision-for-revision’s-sake of the origin story: it’s unwarranted, and it’s also careless, both logically and thematically. Revising or updating old mythology isn’t inherently bad, and more often than not may even be vital – but if you do it, you better offer something superior. That requires substantial knowledge and understanding of the mythology you are revising. To change things up simply to have done so is a bet destined to lose: it belies a lack of thought, and engenders a lack of substance or feeling of having been lived-in, especially when compared to the thing it’s replacing; it leaves fans wanting, and newcomers lost and incredulous.

Some choices in Man of Steel work: for example, Lois discovering who Clark Kent is right from the start, a move which both finally does away with the fundamentally dopey idea of the glasses hiding his truth from the “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist” in plain sight, and which opens up other narrative possibilities.

An example, however, of where it doesn’t work: the roles of the father figures in Kal-El’s life. His Kryptonian father isn’t really dead, and his human father doesn’t really need to die. What message(s) are these supposed to communicate (to Kal-El, to us)? How is this supposed to inform the development of a superhero? And why on earth does Jor-El know his baby boy is destined to be a superhero? Is he sending him away from Krypton to save his life, or to save Earth’s? If it’s the former: why charge him with making anything more of his life than simply living it? And if it’s the latter: why the computer game-level collateral damage of the film’s final battle? (It is Zack Snyder tho, a director with all the nuance and lightness of touch of a Fox news anchor, for whom ‘gravitas’ means ‘smashiness’, ‘intensity’ means ‘coverage’, and ‘impact’ means, literally, ‘impact’).

This should be much better – or at least more thought-out, more carefully-handled.

The advantage of doing a movie based on an 80-year-old comic character is that there are 80 years of stories to draw from – stories that have been told and retold, refined and revised, often across various “ages” and in a variety tones. You essentially have 80 years of script development. Why do film makers (who often clearly haven’t grown up with these stories, and who don’t love or even really get comics) feel arrogant enough that they can simply drop in on this wealth of material, arbitrarily choose a handful of characters, lift only their names and one-line job descriptions, and from that surface-skim create a new story (hell, an entire world) that will be superior?

Finally (and I’ve said this many times before): how can the cartoons get it so right and the live-action movies get it so wrong? Just when one might suspect that the problem is that it’s based on comics, or that the Superman concept itself is outdated, there’s the wonderful Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, and the more-hit-than-miss DCAU movies to prove that notion wrong – and those are made for a much more niche audience that is already pre-sold on the superhero idea, an audience that has had to deal with short-shrift in adaptations for years and so better appreciates sensitive, skillful handling of the characters and stories whenever they come around. This is a big-budget blockbuster designed to draw a much larger audience – one which presumably includes skeptics who might be converted – and that means such a movie should be much better (or at least more thought-out and more carefully-handled) than this. My theory: cartoon creators (and the Marvel movies) take the genre seriously but have fun within that; the movies don’t take the genre seriously, and therefore feel the need to either “seriousify” things without a whif of fun, or condescend toward the material and its fans by making something ridiculous (see: every post-Burton Batman movie in that run… euhhh).

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