Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bigger, Louder and Messier: Man of Steel

Zack Snyder’s new blockbuster Man of Steel is the second attempt to reboot Superman as the hero of his own movie franchise since the Christopher Reeve series went off the rails with Superman III and the embarrassing, Golan-Globus-funded fourth installment. (After that, the character was downsized and farmed out to television in the series' Superboy, Lois & Clark, and Smallville.) The first try, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), didn’t exactly bankrupt the studio, but it’s generally remembered as a disappointment. It took the material very seriously, and many reviewers pointed out that the images of Superman hovering above the Earth, his cape billowing and his head hanging down as if to express his disappointment in us, suggested a zero-gravity Christ. Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, takes the material at least as seriously, and it has none of the leavening of humor that Singer provided; as superhero devotionals go, it’s practically The Greatest Story Ever Told to Superman Returns Life of Brian.

But where Singer was trying to recapture and elevate the spirit of the first two Christopher Reeve pictures, with a “reboot” that was largely conceived as a secret sequel to them, Snyder and Goyer really have rethought the character, the way John Byrne did in the 1986 comic-book miniseries, which was also called The Man of Steel. Byrne’s Superman was a Superman for the Reagan-yuppie era, a cocksure gym rat who, even in his guise as Clark Kent, didn’t see any reason to pretend to be meek. The comics critic R. Fiore accused Bryne of ripping “the guts out of the character,” and today, Byrne’s comics are a dated relic of a time when many people thought that Donald Trump had the makings of a folk hero. Snyder and Goyer go their own way, basing their Superman on the notion that human beings would be deathly afraid of Superman. This idea has been a standard topic of comics-geek bull sessions since before the creation of the Internet. It even predates the period when DC comics superheroes were a going concern in Hollywood and movies based on Marvel heroes were a joke. That’s changed, and it probably isn’t accidental that, in bringing a troubled, potentially misunderstood Superman to the screen, Snyder and Goyer have basically turned him into a Marvel Comics character.

Henry Cavill as Superman
Sometimes he’s a generic Marvel Comics character, and sometimes it gets quite specific. The adult Superman (Henry Cavill) is first seen—pretty far into the movie, after the ritual opening section in which his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sticks his infant son into a mini-spaceship and sends him to Earth before their home planet, Krypton, self-destructs—as a sullen, friendless wanderer with huge muscles and thick facial stubble, running away from his destiny by taking jobs that enable him to keep moving and live off the grid. Then some stupid bastards will need saving, and he’ll go charging through fire, shirtless and barefoot, ripping steel doors off their hinges, and then appear to die—until he wakes up and shakes it off. He’s Wolverine, without the claws. After Superman decides to live up to his potential and journeys to the mystical crash pad that’s been laid out for him in the Arctic, he slips into his double-knit long johns and starts to fly, and the close-ups of his grinning face recall the hilarious expression on Hugh Jackman’s face in the first X-Men movie, when Wolverine jacked Cyclops’ super-powered motorcycle. Then Superman has to learn to land, and he doesn’t nail it the first time; he takes out part of a mountain before crashing, hard, into the tundra. It’s a snow-capped version of the slapstick finish to the first battle scene in the original IronMan movie.

Well, you don’t go to a Zack Snyder movie hoping for originality. Man of Steel may be worst when it strains a little to be original—when it really tries to seriously explore the implications of the Kents’ decision to teach the boy they raised after finding his spacecraft in a field to keep his supernatural prowess a secret. Kevin Costner, who has developed the profile of Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show, plays Pa Kent as a hard-ass Kansas farmer who has fixated on the idea that the world “isn’t ready” for his adopted son yet, and he never lets up on it. Once the action shifts from Krypton to Earth, the film develops a complicated flashback structure, partly for the sake of postponing the big reveal that Pa Kent died in a tornado, after steering Clark and Ma (Diane Lane) and what looks like half the population of Kansas to safety, and then going back to get the dog—and then, in his final moments, denying Clark permission to save him.

My best guess is that this is supposed to be noble, but the way Snyder stages the action, and with Costner playing the character as an unappealing old crank, it almost looks as if he’s gone out of his way to put himself in danger, just for the sadistic-martyr satisfaction of forcing his son to stand by and watch him die. Costner’s only affecting moment, when his voice cracks as he tells the little boy “You are my son,” can be savored in the trailer. (It’s just about the only human moment in the whole movie.) The whole flashback structure is suicidal; before the movie tells you anything about Superman’s arrival on Earth or shows you any warmth or rapport between him and the Kents, it’s overdosing on floridly directed scenes showing his inability to fit in with the other kids at school and how much pain he has to hold inside because of his vow to his father that he’ll take any amount of bullying and never fight back. So the focus is on how screwed up he is. And as the movie, scene to scene, continues to be a drag, it’s irritating that we seem to be getting closer to the end only to discover that, not so fast, there’s more crap from Superman’s childhood that we have to go back and see.
Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Superman

Eventually, he grows up and gets to meet the investigative reporter on his trail, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and they get to have a few quiet moments together before the villain, the Krypton renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon) who murdered Jor-El, re-enters the picture, and everything goes to hell in the noisiest way possible. The soft-spoken Adams doesn’t suggest the drive that ought to be essential to the role, and she seems miscast, but it’s hard to think of any actress who’s played Lois Lane who didn’t seem miscast. (Pauline Kael once referred to her as “one of the more boring figures in popular mythology: she exists to get into trouble.”) Adams doesn’t create much of an impression, but at least she doesn’t look mortified, the way Margot Kidder did in the Christopher Reeve movies, where she acted as if she thought she’d been hired as a body double and only found out at the premiere that it was really going to be her on the screen, doing and saying that dumb stuff. She brings about as much out of Henry Cavill as there may be to get; on the basis of his performance here, he’s a guy with nice eyes and a butt chin who doesn’t trip over lines, but whose many hours in the gym haven’t left him with enough time to develop a personality.

But then Zod appears, and the last hour and change turn into an endurance test of non-stop explosions and sonic booms and falling skyscrapers and actors screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard over the fruits of composer Hans Zimmer’s loins. Michael Shannon is at the head of the screaming pack, and his role is about as ill conceived as Cavill’s. It seems that Krypton, which used to be presented as such a nice place in the movies and comics, was a doctrinal hellhole where everyone lived out a life that had been planned for them and programmed into them since birth. In the Reeve movies, Terence Stamp’s General Zod was an elegant, psychopathic egomaniac who knew that being the most powerful person in the room gave him a license to whisper. Shannon’s Zod is an automaton who is compelled to kill everyone on Earth (by changing the planet’s ecosystem to turn it into the “new” Krypton), whether he wants to or not, because of his conditioning. He’s a miserable, joyless figure, and he can’t stop yelling about it. He isn’t entertaining, like Stamp, and he doesn’t inspire fear or awe, just migraines. In the end, I think the audience is meant to pity him a little, and it’s supposed to be a terrible moment for Superman when Zod’s inability to overcome his innate compulsion to kill anyone he can train his laser vision on forces Superman to draw first blood. But the strongest emotion anyone is likely to feel while watching him is sympathy for the actor.
Christopher Reeve as Superman
Man of Steel is a goddamn mess from stem to stern. The people who like to complain that Christopher Nolan’s action scenes are incoherent are liable to lose their minds trying to follow this thing; it opens with Russell Crowe fleeing the council meeting where Zod and his posse march in, ray guns blaring; he jumps from one flying beastie to the next, goes for a dive in the underwater Matrix-baby incubator of Krypton, then scurries back to his penthouse apartment so that Zod can find him and kill him, and the only thing you can tell for sure is that Snyder thought that all the individual parts of the set piece looked cool. (They actually look airbrushed, like a fantasy comic strip in an old copy of Heavy Metal.) And the endless, ear-splitting climax serves only to show how much destruction footage Snyder can put on screen without developing an iota of human interest. (This is the kind of movie where half of Metropolis comes crashing to the ground, but nobody seems to get killed, and the slow-paced rescue of one minor supporting character who works at the Daily Planet is given the full “Perils of Pauline” treatment.)

The Superman movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s were also messy, even at their best, but they did have one thing going for them that helps to account for how affectionately they’re remembered: Reeve, a real farceur with a boyishly handsome face and a (pre-steroid) bodybuilder’s physique, managed to capture the simple, basic appeal of the character while acknowledging the cornball silliness of that appeal. He never condescended to the role or sent it up, but he enabled you to enjoy the idea that the strongest man in the world might also be the nicest guy in the world, and to do it without making you feel like an idiot. The best screen treatment of the character remains the animated cartoon shorts that the Fleischer brothers made in the 1940s, which had a pure, streamlined look that perfectly complemented the simplicity of the conception. It’s not just that Man of Steel can’t compete with that simplicity, but that it would never occur to him to Zack Snyder and David Goyer to want to. They operate in a bigger (and louder)-is-better film culture that doesn’t reach for simplicity. They may not reach for simple-mindedness either, but that takes care of itself.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club

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