Archive for June 19th, 2013

June 19, 2013

Bulletpoints: Man of Steel

(Spoilers, obviously)

Look, I’m a reasonable person. Ideally I’d like movies to be thoughtful and deep and beautiful and surprising and interesting, but on a summer afternoon with my friends I will settle for pretty people + stuff blowing up. Man of Steel is by a director whose previous work I haven’t liked, but it still promised to feature planetloads of explosions and Henry Cavill’s face. In the event, there was even more destruction than I’d anticipated and I’d forgotten just how impressive Cavill’s face was. I ought to have been satisfied, but I spent most of the movie either bored or actively unhappy.

  • I have no investment in Superman. I’ve never had a particular fondness for the character, I haven’t read that many of the comics, I don’t really care that he kills someone in this film. Or I do care, because if you’re going to make a movie about a particular character you might as well get the details right, but this is not an angry comics fan rant because I’m not really a comics fan.
  • The early scenes of MoS take place on Krypton, whose technology and interior design appear to have been designed by H.R. Giger (with added tentacles to draw in a modern, cephalopod-loving audience). I thoroughly approved of this. The design stuff is gorgeous, and there are weird flying beasties and underwater baby farms and important Kryptonians appear to be wearing headgear stolen from Immortals and so far things are going well.
  • Apparently Krypton has seen no natural births in centuries, which must be their excuse for not having contrived less painful ways for women to give birth. So the first thing we see of this movie is a Hollywood birth scene with the writhing and the pain, and the fortunately being over quite soon with no complications. Already I’m rolling my eyes. And trying to work out backstory that would excuse this situation–perhaps Superman’s mother didn’t know (since it’s been so long since anyone did this) how much it would hurt. Perhaps the people of Krypton did contrive a less painful way for women to give birth and the underwater babygardens were it. But the way the movie had chosen to fall back on unthinking cliche already set the tone for pretty much everything else.
  • A few minutes later Jor-El/Russell Crowe jumped off a building and fell a few floors before being picked up by his flying beastie. And it was … nothing, there was no sense of danger; the audience had seen this scene a million times before and the film knew it. Going through the motions. It was almost genius in that it not only managed to depress me about this movie, it managed to make every other summer blockbuster in which I’d seen that scene feel less meaningful (which is hard, considering summer blockbusters) as well.
  • To be fair, there’s not much variation in how you can depict a planet collapsing in on itself, but the end of Krypton looked a lot like the end of Vulcan in 2009′s Star Trek (a film which also had an annoying birth scene). After this we started seeing echoes to other big blockbustery movies everywhere. Lois falling backwards with blue light crackling behind her? The Avengers. Smallville fight scene? Thor. The leaping and crashing before Superman learns to fly? John Carter. I think there was a moment in there that looked like Looper. And collapsing buildings that looked like what feels like every big Hollywood movie of the last few years because everything must be about 9/11 forever.
  • I’m sure if I was more well-disposed towards this film I could say something here about the universality of the superhero story (and Superman is in so many ways the first superhero) but I’m not, so it just felt derivative and dull.
  • Flash forward to adult Clark Kent on Earth, shirtlessly saving people on a burning oil rig, flames all around him flickering on his lovely torso. Did I mention that he was shirtless? And has a lovely scruffy beard? And lovely chest hair which somehow (like his hair and beard) is not singed by the fire raging around him?
  • He then falls backwards, arms flung out, to look like Jesus. The Superman = Jesus imagery is not subtle. There is a scene with Clark in a church, with a stained glass representation of Jesus behind him. Not subtle. Lots of people have objected to this imagery–it’s not cleverly done, it’s not original, and as Chris Sims points out here, it’s particularly ineffective if your Jesus figure ends up taking out an entire city and then killing a guy.
  • But if there’s one thing this movie does well, it’s the gorgeous, stylised tableaux. Superman in Jesus pose, Superman against stained glass, Superman closing his eyes and turning his face to the sun in a moment that is straight out of classic comic book art. Superman in a ballpit of skulls when we discover that the inside of his head looks like a BeksiƄski painting.
  • These lovely tableaux all put together make the most dysfunctional, whiplash-causing flipbook imaginable.
  • What if Man of Steel had abandoned any pretense of being a mainstream summer superhero movie and had gone with some sort of daring, beautiful, religious film? Okay, it would probably still have been pretty bad.
  • Michael Shannon is pretty good. Amy Adams is pretty good and her Lois is more active and competent than I’d feared (Neither Nolan nor Snyder have impressed me with their ability to depict women in the past). Henry Cavill looks beautiful and would possibly have been good if given anything to do.
  • I feel like most of the second half of this film could have been dispensed with. This is probably true of most of the first half.
  • There’s one gorgeous minute in space where the camera manages to suspend gravity (and not in a showy, look at the 3D way) that I really liked.
  • At one point the scientist character says “Oh My God. They’re terraforming” and one of the military people who is hanging around says “what’s that?”
  • The movie manages to resist the emotional beat of letting the dog die.
  • I guess everyone on Krypton is white? And most people on Earth? There’s a bit where Superman has to fly to the other end of the planet and there’s a fisherman throwing a net and he’s probably brown but he’s in silhouette.
  • Everyone has already talked about the sheer, senseless violence of it. The last half-hour or so (was it longer? it felt longer) of the film has an extended fight sequence in which people fly in and out of buildings punching one another. There are no people, and at no point are we faced with the horrible idea that all this stuff going boom can in any way be affecting the people caught up in these battles. That people might die, lose things or people that are important to them.
  • The sheer consequenceless of the action is something other people have written about: see here, for example. I don’t know if there’s a conscious attempt to make films more palatable; I think we’re all just drifting into seeing violence as pure spectacle and that is terrifying.
  • Also this.
  • Having said which, I wasn’t awed at the spectacle at all. I was prepared to switch my brain off and embrace the adrenaline rush of the explosions but it never came. It felt like even here the film was going through the motions. I longed for Michael Bay, who at least blows things up with conviction.
  • China Mieville’s Embassytown has aliens called the Ariekei, who cannot understand language unless, as the words are being spoken, the consciousness behind them means them as well. I felt like one of the Ariekei. Or like someone not fluent in English was ve-ry-sl-o-w-ly-re-a-ding-or-sp-elling-out-a-sen-ten-ce.
  • The last time I was this unhappy watching a movie I was in a plane and the only movie they had was Bride Wars.