So, Man of Steel eh? It’s been out a few weeks now, but it’s taken that long for me to fully get my thoughts down on it. I’ve never done a film review before either, which probably doesn’t help. I know these things are used mostly as buyers guides as to how to spend your money so I will give a brief summary for those who want that, then go on to talk about the interesting spoilery stuff.
So Man of Steel: Ambitious, slightly flawed, far too indulgent. However a great popcorn action film with aspirations to something higher you can go and see if you are able to turn your brain off that long.
Ok… are those lot gone? Now lets talk about the juicy, interesting SPOILER filled stuff.
I’m even going to put it behind a link so you won’t accidently read details whilst you scroll down the page looking for other posts
One last time HERE BE SPOILERS!
Are the next lot gone too? *Whew*, dodged a bullet there. Anyway, lets get on with this. Because of all the thoughts and moods I’ve experienced and gone through with Man of Steel, the most prevalent one is frustration. How can frustration be an emotion you ask? I dunno, Ask Geoff Johns*.
Man of Steel is, on the face of it, a really, really conflicted film. It wants to be an origin film, but not really, so it fudges it with a few half assed flashbacks of Pa Kent telling Clark he should never reveal his secret, yet hes going to change the world when he grows up to be a good man who saves the world. It wants Superman to be dark and troubled and refusing the Call of the Superhero, but then a guy gives him his suit and away he goes. He doesn’t want a family of 4 to die so badly he kills the bad guy, yet he’s happy to kill thousands whilst fighting same guy less than 5 minutes previously. The film tries to show Superman is all about caring for humanity, yet MoS has scenes where, as Redletter Media puts it “Superman now has uncomfortable associations with 9/11”.
Those are mostly surface details though and I want to get deeper than that. Because at the end of the day, plot takes second place to characterisation and enjoyment. Think about all the films you have excused even though your know it has a wooden acting or dodgy dialogue or special effects and you know its true. That I can pick up those surface details so readily shows that the film has deep problems under its surface and ultimately, is boring me. As Mark Kermode best put it:
“If a film is entertaining me, I can overlook its faults. But if, in the middle of a huge action scene, I’m thinking about the plot holes or what I’m having for dinner tonight, you have failed to grab my attention and engage me”
That’s the key problem with the film for me. Engaging me in any way whatsoever and making be believe Superman is someone I should care about. Now I get what they were going for here. Its clear this film is the first in an arc, meant to validate why Superman is relevant, when the current consensus is that Superman isn’t “cool” anymore. That grasping of cool, of having spectacle and reveling in it to try to wow the audience is the reason this film has so many problems though.
Let me try to explain.
As a society, we use the world cool far too much in everyday life. I know I do anyway. Much like the term awesome, it gets used so much by people that it has lost all meaning as a word. That has left the word being largely useless to convey any real meaning, so its usage becomes entirely subjective depending on the person. Which means that ultimately, you can’t chase an audience who thrive on “cool” because an iron clad, definitive audience like that doesn’t exist. What may be cool to some people may instead be a Poochie to others, or even worse, just completely fall flat and bore them. In chasing that ever elusive word, I think Goyer and Snyder forgot to do the basics.
In Man of Steel, I never got a sense of why I should care for the world or the people who live in it. With a few exceptions, I never got why I should care, or even particularly like, Superman. They fucked up rule number one. Have a clear cause and effect in your film, with linked emotional states so we can empathize with and care for the characters. By generating empathy, stakes are automatically raised because by caring for those characters, you care for what happens to them and their effect on the world around them.
In fact, its fair enough to say that the small moments where we got to see Henry Cavil act, instead of moping, the film truly took off! I’m betting anyone who saw these scene where Supes learnt to fly and was whooping with joy resonated with most of you. Because in amongst a dour film that doesn’t throw any sort of characterization at us beyond brief surface detail told to us (he’s a good person, he will save us all, Zod is evil because etc), to actually feel and experience something Superman does through his eyes was a fucking revelation!
Then the film falls back on surface details again and decides it would rather just show you disaster porn. But when you have no connection to the characters, the fights have no weight to them and instead you have time to think about other things. Which is why people have been complaining about that last 40 minuet fight, how much of a slog it was and the cognitive dissonance involved to ignore the thousands dead due to Superman “saving the day”.
That last dramatic act where Superman kills Zod to save a family has no heft to it, because I don’t empathize with his plight. I’ve just seen Superman kill loads more people, why should it matter if one more family dies? The film never took the time to explain why I should care because it didn’t do the emotional groundwork I’ve been talking about. I felt more sorry for Zod, because at least the film provided him with consistent motivation and enough reasons to empathise with him, even if he was a mass murderer x1000.
Remember the first three Indiana Jones films? Sure, they aren’t high art, but 60% of those films are escalating action sequences. Yet not once was I bored. Because the film takes the time to let the audience develop an emotional connection with Indiana Jones so you care what happens to him. Those films never rushed things either.
By trying to squeeze too much into one film (MoS it’s really two or three films worth of story crammed into one here ‘Krypton civil war’, ‘Superman growing up and finding himself’ and ‘Superman fights the world ending threat’), the chance to pace themselves and organically develop a connection between the films characters and its audience is lost.
But you know, Superman Returns didn’t have enough things being punched by Superman, so now Man of Steel has to be all about punching things.
Which is sad when Marvel can make films where people punch ALL THE THINGS and frequently have massive plot holes yet, you have an emotional connection to those characters so it doesn’t matter.
In a world where Marvel can make Captain America or ‘the boring one’ the best Avenger, its sad to see Warner Brothers fail to do the same for a character with those same stereotypes. Hopefully Man of Steel 2 will be in not so much of a rush to get out the gate and will take its time to set up its premise, its characters and just why we should be invested in them. Then, when the bigger DC universe is introduced, we care about it. I don’t hold up hopes though.
But that’s the world we live in now.
Man of Steel is in cinemas now.
*this is a comic book joke than many of you will not get. I apologise. But look up the Green Lantern Corps and the Emotional Spectrum if your interest is piqued