Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Man of Steel Review

A few days ago, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered and the reactions from those in attendance were overwhelmingly positive. The best superhero film ever, they said. Twitter exploded in glee and the world was made whole by the opinions of others. We would soon witness an epic battle between the bat and a God, and it would change cinema forever.

Today, critics were allowed to release their reviews of the film and many were negative. Very negative. An overlong, morose slog, they said. Twitter exploded in anger and the world was shattered because of the opinions of others. We would witness a nauseating, frenetic and ponderous battle between the bat and a God, and it would have the masses reaching for pain relievers as soon as they left the theater.

You know what all of this means? Nothing. At least not until you see the film and form your own opinion of it. Neither the joy nor the sorrow is relevant. Stop relying on a tomato and a number score to guide your own thoughts on a film. If you love it, embrace it. If you don't, criticize it's mistakes and analyze what could have been done to fix them. Either way, see it for yourself and don't allow the exterior noise to pollute what you see, hear and feel.

This isn't to discount the importance of film criticism, obviously, since my passion is watching and reviewing films. It's how we approach and respond to film criticism that needs to be addressed. I share my opinion and if you are so kind as to read these words, I hope you too see the same films and are willing to come back and consider my views and either agree with them or debate me on why you disagree, not with hostility but rather a desire to actively discuss and try to see a new side to cinema. I have extracted very little from a movie upon my first viewing, but rather than discount a critic who felt differently, I will revisit it with their praise in mind and try to see what they saw, and at times it has lead to a rewarding, eye opening second attempt. Even if it doesn't happen that way, even when it again falls flat, the fact that art can resonate differently from one person to the next is something that should be celebrated, not admonished. If we always agree on everything, then what's the point?

With all of this in mind, I decided to sit down and give Man of Steel another look, the film that preceded the madness that is now Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For the past three years, the Superman reboot has proved to be an incredibly divisive feature, with reactions ranging from it being a beloved part of the sub-genre all the way to it being a horrid, abomination of filmmaking. I have never found myself leaning towards either side of the aisle, as I am enough of a fan to own the Blu-ray and give it enough spins to justify the purchase yet also more than willing to be critical of its shortcomings, and trust me, it has plenty. Still though, whether it be the first time or the fifth, a new look at a film can always make or break the perception one previously had for the work, so sitting down in my living room for another round of Zack Snyder's take on Kal-El allowed me to look even closer and dig a little deeper.

Many have been highly critical of the way the character is portrayed in the film, with his behavior being morally suspect and a little less than "super", but I have never quite understand this complaint. Man of Steel is a true origin story, introducing us to a character who has to learn what it means to be a symbol of good in the world, the kind of hero that people can both literally and figuratively look up to during a time of need. What would that be like, to have to learn on the fly (no pun intended) how to be so perfect and pure that any wrong step can be viewed as a chink in the armor? Isn't it only fair that we, as viewers, allow the character a single film to break through these image issues and find his way rather than expect the second coming of Christ from the first frame on?

Bringing up Christ was no accident, to be clear, because one of the major problems I have with this picture is the exhausting need to use imagery to compare Superman to Jesus. The idea of connecting the character to religious undertones is nothing new and it wasn't unexpected, but a little subtlety can go a long way. I had already grown weary of the symbolism used when a scene involving Clark seeking the advice of a priest arrives and he is framed in a way that has him side-by-side with a stained glass image of Christ, and I believe I honestly whispered to myself "Holy shit, enough already" the very first time I saw Man of Steel back when it was first released. My issues with this remain unchanged.

What does work here, however, is the casting. Henry Cavill is essentially the model choice to fill the shows of Clark/Superman both in terms of appearance and performance, and surrounding him with talent like Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Michael Shannon certainly don't hurt the film in any way, shape or form. It's a hell of a cast and they do their best with a script that weighs so much of the experience down. Some dialogue works wonderfully, eloquently written words that stick with you long after the film ends, and for a moment the screenplay deceives you into believing that writer David Goyer pulled a poetic rabbit out of a hat to suit the visual splendor that Snyder is capable of, the type of glorious frames that had me melting when the first trailer for the film was released.

So what does it tell you that I openly celebrated the news that the Goyer script for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was getting a rewrite from the Oscar winning writer of Argo, Chris Terrio? It's my way of saying that for every one piece of dialogue that played like music to my ears in Man of Steel, there were five more that had me shaking my head and cringing. As bad as this might sound, I will be honest, I found myself tuning some of the conversations taking place in the film out this time around because I didn't really give a damn what they were saying. So much of it is irrelevant, overwritten in a failed attempt to make characters and relationships feel more profound then they ever deserved to be, and when the film strives for some sort of warm breeziness like a nice moment between Clark and his mother, it ends up feeling out of place because even under the Kansas sun, the photography and character chemistry always feels so dour and cold.

Also, to finish up the issues with dialogue, have you ever had one specific line in a film that makes you want to literally punch yourself in the face? Man of Steel has exactly that. During a scene where we see the military spotting General Zod's spaceship in orbit of Earth, it is clarified that they are yet to make any contact with the alien craft, so their entire intelligence is based on photographs of something floating in space. That's all they know, the fact that it's there. So when the military man says the following line, even though I knew it was coming as this isn't my first rodeo, I still loudly slapped my own forehead and wondered how it could be. I wanted to believe I had concocted these words in a dream and it wouldn't actually rear its ugly head:

"I'm just speculating, but I think whoever is at the helm of that thing is looking to make a dramatic entrance."

Well thank our fucking lucky stars we have such wise men running the military to drop hot observational takes like that. I'm just speculating? Whoever is at the helm? Dramatic entrance? They literally know NOTHING about the situation at this point except that something is there. Nothing. It's phony, inexcusable dialogue like this that serves entirely as a means to introduce the ominous bad guy talks to people through their television sets sequence but upon reflection, is written like absolute horseshit. This isn't the only example of Goyer's script being drivel, but it is the one moment that makes his inability to deliver all the more obvious. So yes, I couldn't be happier that the mistake of having him write Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was potentially remedied by calling in Terrio, and hopefully the upgrade is noticeable.

Finally, let's get to the real elephant in the room that is Man of Steel, and that is the final action sequence between Superman and Zod, although saying "final action sequence" when it refers to such a large chunk of the film does feel a bit disingenuous. I would hate to imply that one brief moment causes such a stir with heated arguments between fans and detractors, and that implication is important to debunk because the length of the carnage taking place on screen is precisely the problem: it feels never ending, and this is coming from a guy who actually mildly enjoys the film and gets a bit of a thrill from the whole thing (I know, hard to believe I actually do lean positively with Man of Steel, but trust me I do). Between the strange decision by Snyder to constantly do abrupt zoom-ins on flying craft and people, all of which remind me of when I was a child and my family got their first camcorder and I discovered the zoom buttons so I used them incessantly just because I could, the non stop chaos of buildings crashing down and thunderous punches being thrown, and the overbearing score from Hans Zimmer blasting our minds into oblivion until we are tapping out like a boxer who took one too many clean hits to the face, the truth of the latter portions of Man of Steel is that it is an unnecessary assault on our senses. I am all for big action, for an exciting spectacle and for a special effects bonanza, but it's just too much here. I hate to pull the Marvel card right now because I know how fiery people get when they are siding with the different comic properties (why we can't love both I will never understand), but the first Avengers film managed to deliver a 45 minute long final battle set piece without ever making me feel fatigued from the experience because it understood the importance of fitting in some clever dialogue, likable characters and comedic timing to break up the monotony of destruction. Every new fight felt fresh and exciting because it never felt like Joss Whedon was trying to put our head into a vice and squeeze until we passed out. I am almost certain Batman v Superman is going to go full on, rock hard boner with the action sequences, and I wouldn't expect anything less, but I hope they are able to fill me with more joy and less migraines than the epic in scale but absent in heart effort here.

Despite all of this, yes, I am actually a fan of Man of Steel. Seems impossible, I know, but something about it lends itself to being the type of film I like to experience, even if half the time it is to complain about it. Perhaps I am just attracted to the ugliness, but I can both enjoy the movie and yet also understand that it fails on quite a few levels. I actually love the gritty, serious tone found here and I wish more superhero movies would adapt it, but find a better, happier median when it comes to balancing it out with a bit of heart and charm. For example, I will take the super serious Man of Steel over the completely ridiculous Iron Man 2 any day, a film that tries so hard to have fun that it forgets it is supposed to be dramatic and exciting as well. Much of the action here, before it becomes overkill, is worthy of admiration and appropriately handled considering we are dealing with God like alien creatures rather than the limited power of humanity, and one scene in particular that others have taken issue with because of product placement (to be clear, I see it, I just don't care) I actually love. The decimation of this rural area is filmed in a way that means to demonstrate just how overwhelming and scary a battle like this would become for those who couldn't possibly understand their strength. It's when Supes and Zod bring the 9/11 on Viagra imagery to Metropolis that I start to feel numb to it all.

So after a handful of viewings, I think I have come to grips with exactly how I feel about Man of Steel. Could my perspective continue to change in the years to come? Sure, of course it could, but for now I am comfortable thinking of this movie as a totally watchable, enjoyable yet ultimately deeply flawed picture that I would mildly recommend. Being totally honest, because of my pessimistic approach to Batman v Superman ever since the entire crowded, seemingly rushed project was announced, I would be happy with the exact same outlook after seeing that one this upcoming weekend. Perhaps these lowered expectations will serve me well and I will walk out of the theater with a smile on my face having witnessed a blockbuster that improves upon the ills of its predecessor, finds a way to introduce a new slate of compelling characters without becoming muddled and delivers its action set pieces with the concept of quality over quantity in mind. Until Friday night, I will hope for the best, and no reaction leading up to it, whether positive or negative, will change that.



  1. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel and even felt it was better than the first Superman starring Chris Reeve. Did the movie have flaws? Yes, but I don't necessarily pay money to see a comic book inspired movie for its artistic accomplishment. I can see why some would be turned away by the Christ-Superman symbolism, but since I'm agnostic it didn't bother me.

    1. See, it's funny you say that because I too am agnostic with no religion in my life at this point whatsoever and that is precisely why I was turned off by the Christ-Superman symbolism. It felt like pandering to a religious faction of the crowd who could be moved by such symbolism, because like I said, it could be done with subtlety and I wouldn't question it. It's not that I am against religion being used in cinema, in fact for some reason I tend to really gravitate towards powerful experiences invoking God, but what went on in Man of Steel is just too on the nose.

  2. T.T
    This is my third attempt at writing this comment. For some reason I keep getting pushed out and thus my comments are deleted before I can publish them, so I'm going to make this super duper brief.
    -Watched Man of Steel on DVD first, skipped the theater
    hated it the first time, loved it the second time, thought it was good the third time
    I went into extreme details on what I thought of the film, but after thirty minutes trying to put it down I really don't want to write it again, so I'll just say that I agree with you.
    T.T computers you pain me sometimes...

    1. haha I understand Cody...I have typed out long replies to things before only to have it not get posted and it is so frustrating. I don't blame you for not wanting to lay it all out again. Glad to hear we agree here sir.