Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel

Superman was the first of the costumed superheroes. Despite the character's otherworldly backstory, he is generally seen as a symbol of morality and the American Way. In the early days, he was used to recruit troops for World War 2, and tie-ins for this movie support recruiting for the National Guard. Again despite his alien origins, the essence of Superman as a character is Clark Kent, who was raised by humble, hardworking farmers in Kansas. He is the Everyman, but with incredible abilities. Spiderman has the catchphrase, but Superman has more power and more responsibility.

Each version of Superman is different, but each deals with these things: Krypton as the origin of his powers and his weakness; Kansas and the morality of the Kents which directs his power; Lois Lane, who disappointingly has no K's in her name. Film versions of Superman also have a tendency to portray him in a messianic manner. On all of these counts, Man of Steel is definitely a Superman movie, but it manages not to feel like a tired retread of old material.

One of the reasons for this is purely visual - the color palette of this film bears no resemblance to previous films or TV shows. Superhero movies have gotten noticeably darker over the years, in palette and in tone, and this one follows the trend. There are other reasons, but that way lie spoilers. Suffice it to say that while there are a number of plot elements and characters that will be familiar to Superman fans, they are frequently used in ways we have not seen before, sometimes drastically so.

The movie has a number of flaws. The camerawork is frequently distracting, edging on nauseating. Shaky-cam has uses: in the big action sequences, it heightens the sense of chaos, and that's fine, as long as we're not meant to focus on details. But when all we're looking at is a character or two standing and talking, the camera should be reasonably steady. There is a second cinematographic problem as well. Battlestar Galactica introduced a particular kind of camera movement which has been adopted by a number of filmmakers since: a focus-zoom-focus on a moving ship. It very much fit with BSG's cinematic aesthetic, but did not here.

The rest of my complaints are with the execution of the action sequences. I understand that the film needs to communicate the power of the forces involved in the struggle, and some amount of destruction should occur so as to demonstrate the cost of losing, but the collateral damage in this film is ridiculously huge in scale, gratuitous, and meaningless. It's not an exaggeration to say that millions of people would have died in the destruction shown on screen, many thousands of them because the heroes couldn't be bothered to move the action elsewhere even though it was in their power to do so, and those deaths are never mentioned. For a film which takes pains to show the personal cost of taking a single life in a reasonably moving scene, no weight is attached to the deaths of those faceless thousands in the background.

Despite these things, this is a good movie, though maybe not a great one. I'm not sure how well it will stand up over time, but it certainly deserves its place alongside the better installments in the Superman franchise, and possibly among the better superhero movies. Henry Cavill, whose previous acting credits are pretty thin, does a fine job in the lead role. Amy Adams is lovely as always, though she is saddled with a mediocre role. It was nice to see Kevin Costner back on screen, and he does well with Jonathan Kent. The acting standout for me, though, was Russell Crowe as Jor-El. He brought an impressive dignity and gravity to a role that was more substantial than I was expecting.

Also, despite my critiques of the technical aspects of filmmaking above, the movie was otherwise well constructed. The plot was solid enough (though it was nothing special), and the structure and editing of the narrative flow was positively artistic.

I suppose it deserves mentioning that if you are looking for realism, a superhero movie is the wrong place to look. The pseudo-scientific explanations for Superman's powers have never actually made any sense, but the writers are stuck with them. The movie tries to be sci-fi, but is really fantasy.

1. Much Ado About Nothing
2. Now You See Me
3. Star Trek: Into Darkness
4. Oblivion
5. Man of Steel
6. Iron Man 3
7. Jack the Giant Slayer
8. Beautiful Creatures
9. Oz the Great and Powerful
10. Epic
11. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
12. Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters
13. The Great Gatsby
14. This is the End


  1. Yeah the body-count as high, and it was odd that it wasn't really addressed.

    But I will say that even if Supes had relocated the battle, Zod made it pretty clear that he was intent on killing some folks. At best he was apathetic towards humans - we're just collateral damage. At worst, he had genocide on his mind, to the man. To see this tug-of-war between outskirts and downtown Metropolis play out would work against the pace of the movie and the run time. Not to mention Metropolis was conveniently at the other end of that World Engine.

    Also, while I liked Zod (yay Michael Shannon), I couldn't help but imagine big chunks of this movie originally written for Brainiac or Doomsday, then just folded them back into Zod. Still waiting for a Brainiac movie....

  2. "was high"**

    Wheres the edit option?