Man of Steel: Why and How It Fell Apart

So let’s talk some Supes.

I’m going to split this blog into two parts: The quickie review. And the discussion. It’s best if you’ve seen the movie before reading the discussion.

Quickie review:

A thoughtful, fully realized, emotionally powerful, beautiful film that continues to get itself run over by trying to outdo the action and destruction in the Avengers. That said, if you’re not particularly concerned about the emotional and intellectual powerhouse that the movie tries and fails at being, it’s still a BIG, action-packed, beautifully filmed summer blockbuster that finally does Superman right.

I loved Henry Cavill. I loved the way that it at times felt like an alien invasion movie instead of a superhero movie. I loved the beautiful moments.

Like everyone else, if you dig epic action movies; go see it.

But I have to agree with the critics. This movie, despite its list of successes, still fell apart in every emotional and intellectual way it could.

* * *

Let’s talk about this trailer first.

This first trailer was everything that was working for Man of Steel on the most beautiful and emotionally-driving level. Every time the movie went to one of these moments, it was easily the strongest part of the movie. What was working here was on the thematic level. With the help of Christopher Nolan (who worked on the story with David Goyer. Goyer then went on to pen the screenplay), we have again the Batman effect that made the Dark Knight Trilogy (emphasis on the second installment) so brilliant.

This effect is not, I need to point out, the dark and gritty nature of the superhero movie. The effect is infusing the emotional and intellectual themes of the movie into the very characters themselves. (FilmCritHulk discusses this idea–and how the modern blockbusters are failing at this–far more in depth in his recent review of Star Trek: Into Darkness over at Badass Digest, which I’ll be drawing on as I consider Man of Steel. Read it. It’s astounding).

The fully realized and beautiful nature of the Man of Steel was in the way that Nolan and Goyer decided to hone in on Superman as an outcast, as a god-like power who can either be accepted as one of the people or taken away, studied, treated as, well, alien. This point, to be sure, was browbeating us for the entire movie. The overt nature of it did detract, but I still adore thoughtful and thematic movies, so I was willing to let my suspension of critique go for a bit longer.

But the problems come in the manifestation of these themes. What worked for The Dark Knight was in how the very essence of Batman infused his every action. His dramatic and emotional dilemmas came from his thematic and moral stance. And his nemesis, the Joker, stood for the exact opposite, locking them in a morally and thematic tension throughout the movie.

Here though, with Man of Steel, these themes that are stood for are lacking in follow-through. Do we ever see a moment in this film in which Superman must make a decision? Even his decision to turn himself in to the government and General Zod was so underplayed it didn’t even seem to be very important, despite the entire thematic build-up of the first act depending on it. How will the world accept him? Will they reject him or throw him to the dogs?

Um. We’re not really even sure. The only perspectives we get are Lois Lane’s and the occasional high ranking military official. For the entire dramatic tension of the first act, the brilliance underlying Superman’s very character, it’s forgotten, completely overwhelmed by threading General Zod’s plot in to make some sense of the epic destruction to come later.

My biggest letdown keeps coming around and around again to the execution. The themes were there (to which I suspect we have Christopher Nolan to thank). But after that… the script falls apart in the second act. And the filmography?

Director Zack Snyder is a man who loves beautiful filmography on the most epic of scales. And it’s his working of the camera that makes this movie so heartbreaking. In the scenes where we settle down, where we study Clark at his moments of insecurity and confusion, the film work is beautiful. Cranking in with the shallow depth of field and the sunset studies and the way the water crashes and the Alaskan lighting. It was perfection.

It was perfection in every sense. The dialogue was loaded with thematic and philosophical questions that spoke to the heart of our character’s natures: consider Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) in his encouraging of Clark to make the hard decisions to protect himself as an outsider. (Terrible advice, but deeply consequential and realized). The way the characters were driven by these motivations was genuine and tragic. The moment where Jonathan holds his hand up to Clark to keep him back was a true success. It was when inaction in the most tragic of way was met with the deepest emotional drives of a person. That’s dramatic movie-making on an EPIC scale.

Not crashing through buildings.

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But it seems that these moments were rushed through as quickly as possible to get to the action, especially being presented as snappy flashbacks.

People who love a great action film will disagree with me that this movie fell apart here because, for them, this film was crescendoing.

But seriously. After the flashbacks and the character building seemed to be enough, Superman slapped on the cape and it was all wonton destruction and action footage and how hard two aliens can hit each other. The entire movie got lost in watching Superman rip through skyscrapers.

The core heart of this movie (the emotional tenderness of an alien individual protecting a society he loves, who has rejected him even before he’s revealed himself) is utterly eclipsed by useless, meaningless violence. Now, we can consider the violence as meaningful. These are two GODS fighting it out, right? Humanity will see Superman as a God. That dynamic, of sharing in the human condition and being godlike? That’s equally as ripe and easily piggy-backs off the themes of acceptance discussed earlier. And what a wonderful presentation of this nature of these two gods clashing it out if not with violence so BIG that it dwarfs humanity below it.

Which I’d be on board about, except, well. It went so big that it forgot about humanity at all. The only glimpse we get is Perry White running about down below.

Not to mention, the emotional core of this movie–how much Superman should or shouldn’t care about these people–is totally forgotten as we watch him angrily hurl himself and General Zod through skyscrapers for thirty minutes, killing unknown hundreds–if not thousands–if not hundreds of thousands–in a matter of minutes. And Supes barely bats an eyelash at this until Goyer remembers to put another nod at the end to his human struggles as Supes tries to keep Zod from lazer-eye-cooking a couple folks at a museum.

Now, the scream that followed: oh, that scream was perfect. But so brief. And so overlooked. In that scream, his frustration and his sorrow at the loss and the destruction, his realization of never being included even as he’s the savior, it was all there. But all tacked on. Hardly an afterthought. And it was rushed to get to a moment of romance with Lois Lane (which, let’s be honest. Where did that come from? Love at first sight? They had no back story together. I couldn’t believe any of their romantic moments).

But what most astounded me was the utter obliviousness Snyder as a filmmaker had to the very imagery he was working with. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him that he’s dealing with imagery that’s DIRECTLY the deepest and most culturally resonant for our generation of Americans (if not many other places in the world): the image of the burning buildings toppling.

9/11 was the most horrific thing our country has experienced in half a century, and that was in watching only two buildings burn and finally topple.

The work that can be drawn upon from such a simple image as that, for a filmmaker, should be rich. To take such a simple image and play with what that means to our hero and the cultural zeitgeist. But it’s as if Snyder and the writers said, oh, 9/11, that’s SO ten years ago. Let’s bring down the fucking city

Was it only a few short years ago that masterpiece The Dark Knight made us care about two ferries full of people on a harbor?

In Man of Steel, the destruction was on levels so vast, so mindless, that there was never a moment in which the movie stopped and considered the horror of what was happening. Perry (Fishbourne) was running around, covered in white dust–imagery so resonant that it was hard for me to watch at times–and what does the film do with this image? Nothing, really. They outrun falling buildings and get lucky. There was no emotional resonance there at all.

It was borderline sickening. To so obviously take these images and then give zero consideration to where they came from and what that MEANS is a disgrace.

But let me back up from my rant.

It’s a superhero movies. Stuff blows up. Destruction happens. Somebody had to go bigger than the Avengers, right?

Fine. I’ll let that go, given its genre.

But what bothers me most in terms of filmmaking was that the movie utterly lost itself in such meaningless destruction. It could have worked. If Supes had for more than a second considered the damage. If he’d looked out on the destruction and been overwhelmed by what happened–or worse! that it in many ways ties was because of his very existence–if he’d for a moment had some kind of choice, or realization, or emotional experience other than the one scream, far too late and far too overlooked, I’d have felt more satisfied with the destruction.

To think what could have been done, too. The themes were there. The plot was there. To give Superman a true decision, to encapsulate this idea of saving the very people who rejected him all his life, to put him in a position of godlike power over the people who might not even deserve salvation… I’d argue that such a decision was what the entire movie was building to. And the fact that they overlook this? 

Lazy filmmaking.

Superman just hugs Lois and knocks a drone out of the sky with a chuckle, in a cheap play on recent headlines.

Superman went through a change in this movie. He started as a child who couldn’t handle himself in the world. He couldn’t handle himself against bullies and those who were cruel. And then he went to Alaska, learned of more bullies, and somewhere in between there and putting the suit on, he became peaceful and confident and Zen. He had a journey up there, and it was the truest heart of the movie, and we skipped it. It was about finding his place in the world. But the revelation was that he found his place on another world. How he came to find his place on our own? That was the other core of the movie. And it, too, was utterly overlooked.

I don’t want another Batman Begins. But if we’re rebooting Superman with an origin story, I’ll tell you what: THAT was the story. That change. That need to find his place? That was the heart of this film. And they let it go.

Would it have been so bad–would it have been rejected by audiences–to have in Superman’s origin movie his very enemy being mankind itself? And his victory over it, instead of tearing down buildings, in becoming accepted as the symbol of the truest essence of humanity?

What dialogue! What emotion. What ripeness!

But no. We needed to blow shit up.

SO:

Even as the dust clears on my own rant, I don’t want to hate on this movie. I said the b-word. I called this movie beautiful, and even amidst the clunky, rushed, convoluted pacing of the first half, the beautiful moments were deeply so and spoke to the heart of the film, and that’s more depth than most superhero movies ever achieve.

It just so utterly lost itself in a way that went so big, it squashed the very premise of the movie entirely.

Now, that all said, they finally did Superman right.

Henry Cavill was a WONDERFUL Superman. He stood for everything he was supposed to stand for and didn’t make it cheesy. He was sexy and confident and symbolic and Superman. (And he looked like the perfect Hollywood-levelling-up of Tom Welling–anybody with me on this?)

After the movie, there was a smattering of applause. I very intentionally didn’t join in. But I was glad that there was applause.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, but you made it this far, go see it. You’ll probably like it. Just don’t think too much.

B-

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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