Contains minor spoilers for Man of Steel
After the bombastic and eye-straining opening twenty or so minutes of Man Of Steel, it seems like things might finally slow down for a moment. Putting aside the incredibly silly and ill-conceived view of Krypton (I still don’t get why they don’t leave the planet when they have the technology) and the bizarre plan of Kal-El’s dad (He’s a natural born Kryptonian but we’ll still mix him in with the unborn Krypton drones), its tempting to think that perhaps the film might slow down for two seconds and let us get to grip with any characters we can care about.
But it doesn’t slow down. Although it does have the most “Superman” moment of the movie crop up as Clark, who is living as a drifter, finding his way in the world and working on a fishing boat, spots an oil rig on fire and flies off to save the day. He saves the men trapped on the rig with an amazing display of his powers and then realises he can’t go back on the boat and instead decides to stay underwater a while with the whales and reflect on his life.
Its a promising start. As are the scenes that follow where we flash back to his early life, as he deals with his new powers (there’s a hint of autism on the way he runs into cupboard to escape the noise and size of the world) and what people will think of him (when he saves his classmates from drowning, people begin to realise there’s something odd, and his dad goes mental with worry which seems a very human reaction).
But then you realise, this new film isn’t play with time or telling out of sequence, its simply suffering from a very real kind of ADD. We don’t stay with any quiet scene for more than a few moments without some kind of bombast. When Pa Kent goes to talk to Clark about what it means to have his powers, he does so in a very angry kind of way, slamming his coffee mug down and crashing through the screen doors of the Kent home*. The camera zooms in on the sloshing coffee and the door slams loud, and we jump cut outside and... its so dramatic - pardon me, so melodramatic - that it loses all meaning. If a coffee cup can be bombastic, what hope the Superman Punching that will come later in the film?
What hope indeed. The film is desperate to get to the punching. So desperate that it skips over everything (except exposition - - there’s a whole ten minutes of Russell Crowe gently explaining everything that should have been included in the opening prologue over and above Krypton Dragons and an inexplicable civil war). It throws in fanwank at an astounding rate: Hey, they said “phantom zone”.... oh look its an intern called Jenny Olsen (was there any point in including the character at all... no problems with the gender flip from Jimmy Olsen, but the fact is that she does nothing except get stuck under some rubble at some point when we’re supposed to care about this character that’s never said a word)... cool, its The Daily Planet... and so forth. It doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t give us any character development at all. Lois Lane comes in, does a little bit on spunky reporting, decides to tell the world about Superman and then...? Who is she? Why is Superman so attracted to her? Is it because she found him? Is it because she’s cute? God only knows, we’re given no reason to believe that Supes would so instinctively trust her, especially when she disseminates his story across the world when he doesn’t really want her to. If we were take out ten or fifteen minutes of Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) we could have got to know our supporting cast a little more, especially Lois, who is the ideal character through which to tell the Superman story. If we saw things from Lois’s POV, perhaps we could have created a story with tension, mystery and rising action. A story where the Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) moments were emotionally earned.
The best movie superhero fights come from where we give a toss about the wellbeing of the people involved. The Batman/Joker fight in Tim Burton’s Batman was earned due to us really liking the kooky Michael Keaton character and the intense, scene-stealing Joker. The final showdown between Green Goblin and Spiderman was earned through spending time with Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker and knowing what he had to lose. And so on and so forth. Hell, check out The Dark Knight where the final confrontation between Joker and Bats is turned on its head, as the Joker realises he is no physical match for Bats but instead tries to break him down psychologically by showing him how his mission is all a joke. Its a great moment and it has far depth than just Two Chaps Punching Each Other in increasingly implausible ways.
Yes, it does mean you need to spend a bit more quiet time with the characters, but when a film is all one (very very loud**) note, it becomes very dull. Frankly I knew less about Superman at the end of this movie than I knew at the start. Other than he punches things real good.
And its a shame because Superman has a great potential to create a conflicted character. He is super powerful, so powerful that he can be a God*** in the eyes of humanity. He cares for us, he wants to save us. He has a supreme moral core. And yet the movie chooses to ignore this (other than lip service) to get straight to the punching as Zod comes careening out of the sky to turn Earth into a new Krypton at the expense of humanity. As impressively epic as the fight sequences with Zod are, I couldn’t help but feel they betrayed the character (and not in the way that the resolution to the fight seems to imply to certain fans - - another moment they didn’t earn at all) in his attitude. Superman is open to interpretation but if you ignore his sense of morality then he is simply another Big Punching Superhero in a natty costume. Yes, they give him lots of speeches about how Earth is now his home and how he is “American” because he comes from Kansas. But what makes Superman is his absolute and total concern for humanity. He will let the villain leave the scene in order to save innocents (which is why that allegedly controversial final moment is not actually completely out of character even if it is contextually very suspect). He will not allow one person to be hurt. The needs of the few and the many are one and the same to him. One human is as important as 1 million. Which is what disturbed me so much about the final scenes of the movie; the big climax. Superman and various kryptonian soldiers have this massive, insane fight through the city of Metropolis**** (and earlier in the small town of Smallville)during which Things Blow Up Real Good. But the disaster is so epic that when you stop to think about it, no matter how far citizens might have tried to run away, many of them will be left behind and caught up in terrifying situations as their world collapses and Blows Up Real Good around them.
Now, Superman as we know him would try and save these citizens. This would take priority over Punching Zod In The Face Very Very Very Hard, which seems to be Superman’s main response to the situation. But he doesn’t. He just crashes through office buildings and residential dwellings with barely a thought except taking Zod out of the picture. Now, this might be a fine approach to the character if he later comes to a realisation that his actions have consequences. Perhaps a minor character we have come to know dies***** and suddenly Supes realises that he has to make more nuanced moral decisions. Or perhaps Lois gives him an earful about how he has to take responsibility for his actions. Or he has another memory of his father telling him that he needs to realise how powerful he is and how capable he is of destruction as well as good acts.
Or perhaps he realises this in the first place.
But no. Zack Snyder, as usual, uses all the right ingredients but doesn’t know how to mix them. The same mistake he made in Watchment, where he had the right cast and the right look, but not the right tone. Taking a movie about how uncool it would be to a Superhero and making it look supercool. And its the same with MoS. There’s lots of potential here to make a Superman movie with nuance and intelligence and some troubling questions about what it means to be a God among mortals, but instead it becomes about unsubtle Christian Imagery and Punching Things Real Good (which is exactly what Jesus would not have done). In challenging Zod a final time, Superman would try and lure him out somewhere deserted (say, the Indian Ocean where Supes earlier destroyed a world engine that was in the middle of absolutely nowhere) rather than destroying an entire city.
In Nolan’s Batman trilogy there was debate about whether we get the Hero we need or the Hero we deserve. In Man of Steel, despite Cavill’s attempt to imbue Supes with some kind of humanity against the neverending bombast, we wind up with a hero we neither need (imagine the death toll he’s responsible for both through his own action and inaction) not the one we deserve (In this current world, a hero like Superman should be trying to be a guiding light, even if he gets it wrong).
Not only that, but we also get one hell of a headache. Whose decision was it to get every single cinema in the world to turn the volume up to 11?
* This is what Michael Bay refers to as “fucking the frame” - - ie, constantly having things in motion so that the viewer doesn’t get bored. The irony is that it often winds up being very boring indeed. See any and all of the modern Transformers movies
**Both myself and The Literary Critic came out with intense headaches brought on by both the noise and constant camera movement during the never ending fight sequences.
***Oh did I mention the ham-fisted Jesus Symbolism that made Russell T Davis’s attempt turn the Doctor into a lonely God seem positively subtle.
****Which could be any US city; at least in the Batman movies, Gotham had something of a character. Here we could easily be in NYC, Seattle, San Francisco, any anonymous US city
*****This does happen to three characters with speaking parts who are in more than one scene in the movie, but everyone seems to merely shrug aside their deaths and move on, even Lois Lane which is right there when these deaths happen (but is of course saved by Supes).