Looking Back at Man of Steel

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Its been a year or so since Zack Snyder’s epic reboot of one of my favourite comic book characters and now the dust has settled and we’re a long way off from the sequel still, I wanted to take another look at it from a safe distance.

I liked Man of Steel when I saw it at the cinema and seem to be in the minority in this opinion but re-watching it again recently for the umpteenth time I am still curious as to where the backlash came from. It is very clearly not a BAD film at all. It meets a good standard in all points, matching a lot of the much drooled over Marvel offerings in recent years. Yet the vitriol aimed at it on release was astonishing. I admit I am a fan of the character and as a comic book reader I still volunteer myself as a DC and not Marvel supporter (despite the fact Marvel’s comics and films are vastly superior today) but I’m not wholly biased. Green Lantern was an unmitigated disaster, very similar to Iron Man 2 so there’s never a perfect formula but I genuinely feel Man of Steel’s hate was misguided and unnecessary. Why? Well let’s look at the main criticisms people had first of all:

The first thing that people trumpeted high and low as the films most pernicious message and damning fault was its ‘Christian Imagery’. Okay, well spotted, there is a lot of christian imagery in it. My riposte to this is: “So what?” As anyone who knows their comic book theory,  or even Nietzsche, or just cultural theory should realise the Ubermensch or Superman theory. The notion is dealt with best in ‘Watchmen’ and the sublime ‘Kingdom Come’ but also a lot in X-Men, essentially it is the notion that all Superheroes are Gods themselves. A jump of evolution to God-head. An aspirational notion that makes us question our ideas of God and who we are as beings. A noble and valid theological query. Superman himself, taking the name directly from Nietzsche’s theory, is the emodiement of that. In the fantastic Superman comic series ‘For Tomorrow’ Brian Azzarello looks at similar themes questioned by Watchmen and has a priest as a main secondary character, set after a Rapture-like ‘vanishing’ of the world’s populace. Superman and the Priest have numerous theological discussions on the idea that Supe himself is in fact a God. As such, damning Man of Steel for utilising christian iconography that is hardly subtle or hidden to make its point about aspirational attitudes is slightly redundant in my view. Its actually quite an interesting sub-text and lets not pretend these do not exist in other superhero films. I wrote an entire post about the deliberate and various political subtexts within the Dark Knight trilogy right here, not to mention the wild and varied sub-texts in the numerous Marvel universe films. That kind of additional iconography adds a certain amount of depth to a film but if people are for some reason worried it is trying to push a christian agenda: Fuck off. Doctor James Smith discusses Man of Steel’s atheist message much better over at Everyday Analysis (they have a book out now by the way) but even in blunt terms, Jonathan Kent is clearly an atheist. He laughs cynically at the notion of “divine intervention”, there is no sign of religious ephemera at his home, in his car, etc. Also why is no one tubthumping about its scientologist agenda? Aliens occupying other planets? Old spaceships before the birth of man? Or why does no one complain about the blatant facist ideology? Zod AND Jor El’s notion of eugenics is the main theme. Zod is even pictured in a Stalinist relief when shown to Clark. Or what about the environmentalist imagery? Jonathan makes the argument that being a farmer is enough to aspire to, the destructive force of those oil rigs, the constant imagery of nature (Whales beneath the sea, stills of butterflys, etc) should it not be lauded for that? No, people picked up on a theme that is practically unavoidable in superhero stories (assiduously avoided by Marvel thus far and outright refuted in Thor) and had a knee-jerk reaction to it. I am no christian but do not feel its imagery was in anyway pernicious, if anything it added to its depth.

There are, I confess, numerous plot holes in Man of Steel too. The iffy science of the Kryptonian and Earth atmosphere is a bit of rubber band reality that doesn’t quite square at times (how can he breathe in outerspace then?). There are numerous other inconsistencies but in truth I can overlook them, in the same way the Joker needs to be omniscient for his plan to work in the Dark Knight and why on Earth did Loki need to be captured? All pretty stupid but that’s movie logic. Read ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ where Goldman rewrites a scene as if it happened in real life and you’ll see what I mean. Additionally problematic is the film’s pacing. It is overstuffed and the plot makes substantial jumps in time that are not noted and commented on. The Nolan-esque flashback/flashforward editing technique does a lot to make it lucid but it is tightened to an almost emaciated level and has very little breathing room. Avengers, despite its whizzbangs, had a very steady pace to a grand finale, Man of Steel rushes to cram everything in. But to that end Snyder tries his hardest to fit in tonal shots and character beats. The odd gag goes a long way in it and occasionally harks back to the fun of the Christopher Reeve originals, but those shots of nature, the chats with Dad, the chats with Mum, the hitchhiking, all add up to a well rounded film. If they had simply cut some of the action towards the end and made a few scenes longer and shots stretch by a few seconds it would not have felt as rushed as it does.

The one problem that I concur with and I struggle to get over is its somewhat callous preoccupation with destruction and mortality. A LOT of people die in this film and a LOT of buildings and private property is destroyed. In itself this is not necessarily awful but it misses out the depiction of people’s safety that other superhero films go a long way to point out. The Avengers takes great pains to rescue the citizens of New York and the police are constantly pictured rushing people to safety and the public are shown afterwards safe and jubilant at their rescue. For reasons best known to itself, Man of Steel will show people in peril but never shows them rescued or saved. Superman rescues but one soldier – catching him in the air, so when asked if he wants to join Zod his passion for humanity being saved doesn’t ring that true, especially after questioning whether they can be trusted or not. Christopher Reeve wonderfully delivers the line “Stop! The People!” in the Superman 2 and that was almost all you needed, instead Cavill’s Supe is so desperate to save the family in the station at the end he breaks Zod’s neck, murdering him and we see him briefly tortured by this murder but we don’t see the family alive and grateful of rescue and nor does SUPERMAN’S CHIEF MOTIVATION FOR NEVER KILLING get dwelled on beyond his pained scream. Having said all that Man of Steel did have the fight scenes I’ve always wanted from a Superman film. With Gods flying around the cities I’ve long wanted to see some mass and epic destruction in a film such as this and Snyder delivers. But just the briefest shots of people surviving and the notion of mortality would have allayed a lot of criticism. I don’t think it was deliberate however, merely just pressure for time and squeezing stuff in.

Those being the main criticisms why do I love it more and more? First and foremost its a beautiful film. It is shot with a very keen and earthy eye. Snyder makes great use of the natural beauty of this world and Krypton’s. Every scene is beautifully lit in high contrast with lush filters and lots of saturated grain. It is a visually arresting film, probably why the iconography is so eye-catching. The CG is also wonderful, Snyder if nothing else is much better at getting the right look for his CGI. Marvel’s take is big bold and bright, Snyder manages to seamlessly integrate his CGI into the naturalistic camera style and colour palate. Clark’s flight round the world and ascent to the skies is particularly energetic and thrilling. The CGI punch up in the streets is also what I’ve been waiting for in a Superman film since I was 4.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The Man of Steel is a big set of Red Boots to fill especially after so many have done it so well (I thought Brandon Routh was an excellent Superman in a dogshit awful film) but Cavill absolutely nails it; soft enough but tough enough, firm and confident but shy and diffident, confused yet sure of himself he manages the full range and has a great chemistry with the equally great Amy Adams. The Kents are a master stroke of casting, Costner is perfect as Jonathan and steals every scene he is in. Shannon steals it for me though. Zod is a frankly preposterous villain when it comes down to it, even his name is dumb but Shannon gets right into the skin of an unhinged general that’s gone ‘Full Kurtz’ in the reaches of space. The worst villain is the one who makes sense and Shannon puts a lot of effort into making his arguments convincing but equally does the shouty aggression well too. He is a constant and growing threat after his appearance halfway through and is genuinely frightening, more than a match for the Man of Steel. The fantastic line toward the end “Where were you trained? On a farm?!” making him all the more threatening.

The music was never going to be a match for John Williams’ utterly faultless Superman theme which will forever be indelibly linked to the big S but to Hans Zimmer’s credit he doesn’t try. Film scoring has long since dispensed with the symphonic characteristics of its forebears, something I mourn personally, where a film used thematic music for characters and events and places which was a hangover from Opera and the like. Instead today in a postmodernist world music scores for emotion in less Romantic fashion and utilises noise and sound in a modernist way. Zimmer has been honing this skill for decades and has brought this full force to bare in recent years, unlike say Danny Elfman who has simply been repeating himself. With Dark Knight, Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Man of Steel Zimmer has found percussion, synth style noise and the odd key hook to be most effective and whilst he never burdens anything with a ‘Theme’ as such he finds the right key sound for every moment. Relying more heavily on all American military brass sound he captures the Big Blue Boyscout perfectly but equally undermines Zod with the same synthy brass by crashing him about in a Montagues and Capulets way. The finale is particularly rousing.

Also Snyder just gets the tone right. All of these things add up to a film that has real world feel, obviously pushed by Nolan’s Dark Knight popularity, but equally has that slightly high key, pastoral old-cinema effect you want from a comic book film and certainly from a Superman film. Donner nailed this too and it shows, subsequent attempts to revive Supe have never had the deliberately nostalgic, slightly dreamy and yes RELIGIOUS aspect to them. Snyder proved he was a comic fan with Watchmen and Man of Steel is further proof he knows the medium extremely well. Marvel benefit from having an entire studio set up from the comics themselves so cannot help but fall into the comics being a major influence. Warner Bros overall disgust with the fact they have to make Superhero films and DC’s inability to market anyone but Superman and Batman is a massive hinderance but Snyder is proving his passion for the source is just enough to get a truly faithful adaptation to the screen.

The Man of Steel suffered from a backlash of over marketing, bad timing and public and critics jaded by Superheroes in general. Behind the, lets be honest, minor quibbles people level at it, is a decent and enjoyable movie. No its not for everyone, no its not perfect but I am hoping in time it will be seen as more than worthy successor to the original two, which lest we forget were high camp, flared trouser waring, time altering, silly messes of movies too. What you want from Superman, and all superhero films/comics is simple. Clark Kent is a lost soul who struggles with who he is and turns out to be an incredibly powerful being. In short, Clark is all of us. Far from being christian or religious the message of Superman is totally humanist. We don’t know who we are or where we are going. The reason superhero films and comics continue to hold such cultural value is because they speak to us. Theses are written on this topic everyday but at the root of it Superman is the original and the ultimate and Man of Steel nobly addresses this fact. Whilst it doesn’t pose those questions itself it leads us to ask the questions which are tough for anyone. But equally the notions of family, love, isolation and growing up are themes we all understand. Give Man of Steel another try. It really is super.

And Krypton was awesome!

Curt-Swan

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