Saturday, July 27, 2013

Man of Steel

Grade: 23/D+

Is it so much to ask for modern blockbusters to give a sense of wonder? Pacific Rim wasn’t a delight just because of the action scenes, but also because of the sense of fun and lightness throughout the film. Man of Steel deals with one of the great figures of wonder in the 20th century, Superman, but it has no time for moments of beauty or grace. Instead, director Zack Snyder wields the man of steel like a hammer, pummeling away at the senses until it’s hard to feel anything at all.

Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), but he is not of this earth. He is the son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist on the planet Krypton, sent to earth after Jor realized the planet’s destruction was imminent. His adoptive father teaches him to hide his powers as a child, but knows that one day his son will change the world. That day comes when General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian tyrant responsible for Jor-El’s death, comes to earth with plans for the rebuilding of the Kryptonian race and the destruction of humanity.

That’s a streamlined version of the unwieldy plot, which also features Superman staples such as girlfriend/reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), a codex/Genesis Champer that contains the genetics of the Kryptonian race, a World Engine that can rebuild it, a Phantom Drive that imprisons Zod and his cohorts, and more.

If it seems needlessly convoluted and boring, it’s because there’s far too much time expended on backstory, gadgets, and things going boom and not enough on the actual story of a man who embodies goodness acting as a guardian for his new home. The film spends a good twenty minutes on a prologue involving Crowe retrieving a macguffin while speaking portentously and riding a giant locust creature, followed by forty minutes of Clark Kent wandering the earth mixed with corny Malick-impersonating childhood flashbacks. By the time it actually gets going, it’s all about explaining away the earlier macguffin, followed by a pair of forty-minute battle sequences.

 There’s no room to breathe, and yet there’s no kineticism. The plot is overloaded, and yet the actual central story is neglected- by the end of the film, Superman, Lane, White, and most of the other supporting characters are still vaguely defined. Adams, Crowe, Cavill and company are all up to task, but the film hasn’t actually given most of them a chance to show any personality. To put it in perspective, imagine a film about Christ (considering how much the film labors over the Christ-figure comparisons) that focuses on the inner-workings of heaven, a few moments of the kid’s difficult childhood, Jesus wandering around the desert, and then the crucifixion. No time for relationships, messages, or messy humanity. Does the story mean anything anymore?

It might be more bearable if the action scenes were at least thrilling, but here too Man of Steel falls frustratingly short. Snyder has a gift for composition, but while his set-pieces are more coherent and spatially aware than those of Michael Bay, he remains inept at constructing a cinematic rhythm. You can’t have forty minutes of punching, throwing, and crushing without it all feeling like the same relentless hammering over and over again. The scale is impressive, and Snyder’s attempts to capture chaos are successful, but it’s hard to care or feel much aside from sheer exhaustion.

Worse, Snyder makes half-assed attempts at political relevance- genocide, environmental disaster, and drones are all brought up- without capturing the weight of any of these. It’s particularly distressing in the final battles, which shamelessly evoke 9/11 imagery in the queasiest way possible. It might work if Snyder gave any actual consideration for human life, but he’s mostly just excited to cruise forward with his “did you say MORE?” aesthetic.

When the film does come to a key moral decision in the climax, the problem is less that it goes against Superman’s character and more that he doesn’t have a character, and that the handwringing feels disingenuous following the wanton destruction. This is not a smart film, nor a moral one. It doesn’t have the weight of the Nolan Dark Knight movies, so the heaviness feels less tragic and more turgid. Perhaps it’s not fair to yearn for a Superman movie with the lightness and fun of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, even if I believe that tone suits Superman. Maybe a weightier Superman movie could have worked under different circumstances. But I miss being awed that a man could fly.
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