Friday, March 25, 2016

Man of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: David S. Goyer
DP: Amir Mokri
Editor: David Brenner
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Deborah Snyder, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven
Score: Hans Zimmer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russel Crowe
Distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 23 min.

Much has been made of Man of Steel's climactic fight sequence, in which the battle between Superman and General Zod effectively reduces Metropolis to a fine powder. It's been criticized for betraying the concept of Superman or making the protagonist look like a homicidal psychopath, but to me it's an effective climax because of what the movie chose to focus on before reaching it: Superman's anxiety over Pa Kent's warning that people might fear him if he revealed his powers. Interestingly, the mass urban destruction of the climax tells us that, yes, people do in fact have every reason to be afraid of Superman; why shouldn't they fear an invincible being who has the power to demolish an entire city in one afternoon?

The film does reinforce this in ways other than the devastation it inflicts on Metropolis. The unnaturally rapid, sharp movements and cessations shown by Superman, Zod, and the other Kryptonians in the final battle is probably the best example, solidifying the inhuman nature of their power.

Man of Steel exposes the dangerous potential of Superman's power, showing just how helpless humans would be against him. It shows how important Superman's idealism and moral fortitude is to his character, and shows him receiving that from people in his life who show him affection. His heroism comes from the human potential for good. Ironically, even though this iteration of Superman was noted for being darker than previous iterations, Man of Steel perhaps does even better to reinforce the notion that Superman has to be a boy scout; if he can't be a boy scout, he'll be a monster.

All that is the extent of what I find engaging about Man of Steel; to me, watching Man of Steel is an awkward experience, because while I think the film functions well, more or less, as I've described, it seems intent on convincing the audience to accept it as something else.  The film's approach to some scenes - specifically, those less uncompromisingly dour than the rest of the film - suggest that Pa Kent's worries were unfounded, that Superman's powers are to be celebrated.

Snyder takes a comic approach (following characters to set up the subversion of their expectations, holding on character reactions, pausing for audience reactions) to scenes in which Superman demolishes an unscrupulous man's truck, or destroys a military drone sent to observe him. While the narrative content of these scenes is kind of interesting, their tone and Snyder's approach somewhat undermines the way other parts of the film depict Superman's power, and has a kind of contempt that opposes the film's apparently earnest (if held back by wooden performances) attempts at romance and familial bonds (though if not for the latter of the two scenes, the former wouldn't have such contempt). Also, the music, contrived narrative circumstances, and excessively affected imagery of Pa Kent's death scene makes his death resonate louder than his warnings; as a result, Superman's adherence to his words becomes sentimentalized. It's born from grief and unfounded guilt, rather than the legitimate concern suggested by the enormously destructive climax.

Maybe all this was intentional, but my problems are not with what was intended. My problems are with what the movie actually is, experientially, and it seems to me that different pieces of it are at odds with each other. On top of that, there are parts that strike me as strangely didactic, including but not limited to Zod's induced dream sequence, or Superman's final reaction to having to kill Zod.  There are other, more common, complaints about the film that I wouldn't try to argue against (the product placement, the blatant and largely pointless Jesus imagery, the general unpleasantness of the desaturated colors), but I don't have much to say about them.

I don't think these issues detract too much from the elements of Man of Steel that interest me most, and it seems the premise of the sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, builds on them. Despite some of Snyder's unfortunate comments about his own films, I think he was at least judicious in choosing a direction for this franchise.

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