Punching, Science and the American Meh: A Review of “Man Of Steel”
As a movie, Man of Steel is a great trailer.
Noted feminist and visionary director Zack Snyder has taken David Goyer’s clunky Man of Steel script and turned it into CGI. Goyer co-wrote the Dark Knight trilogy with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan – a fine pedigree. On the surface. But when you examine Goyer’s other work – Jumper, FlashForward, Blade Trinity – a pattern begins to emerge. The words are all terrible. The mouth-speaking is dumb. Human people saying things in his films sound like bad-face language wrongs. He can’t write dialogue. He can squash a superhero into a textbook triumph tale but when he makes the characters in these stories speak, my ears hurt.
And boy, does Man of Steel make my ears hurt. There is a line in one of the trailers — “You are the answer to ‘are we alone in the universe?’” — that makes my face bleed. It’s so clunky, so oddly-put. No one would ever say that sentence. It’s indicative of the movie as a whole; the concept is expressed fairly simply, but there’s no skill in the form of expression. Words are dribbled out of talented actors mouths while intricately-drawn worlds explode before our eyes. An almost 30-minute prologue depicts – SPOILERS – the destruction of Krypton in gorgeous detail, but did it need to be 30 minutes long? No. It did not. Look to Star Trek – it introduced a villain and a mother and father in half the time it took Man of Steel, maybe even less.
I mentioned Goyer so early in this piece because I believe the blame for this film’s flaws is to be placed – largely — at his feet. The movie is visually stunning, if a little washed out at times. The visual effects are amazing, the shot composition engaging and artful, the performances as good as can be expected and the score is deep and dramatic. But none of it hooked me deep in my belly like the Batman films did, and I think it’s because of two factors: the dialogue was so poor that I never felt like any of these characters were real enough to be interested in, and the action scenes were so indulgently over-the-top that I was unable to care about anything else, either. Cities collapsed as Superman flew around punching Michael Shannon, and aside from one minor character, the film didn’t seem to want us to care about anything, to feel like anyone or thing was in real peril. And do not get me started on the superficial allegories layered over the top. Superman as Jesus? Come on. Superman as the American military? Give me a little more credit, please. If Goyer’s characters were written to be more interesting, more engaging, more human I might have overlooked the whole “All of this was made in a computer so how can I connect to any of it?” thing.
What does Man of Steel actually do well? Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman — nice, muscled as all get-out, almost too bland to be charismatic but just charismatic enough to avoid being too bland, and a reasonably good actor. That’s all you need. Amy Adams is wasted as a Lois Lane who has no agency whatsoever — she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, damn it — who seems to have the power to teleport to wherever exposition is required, but at least she delivers everything she’s given with charm and tenacity. Michael Shannon, one of my favourite actors, is almost fun as General Zod. Almost. He’s certainly serviceable, but capable of so much more. Russell Crowe as Supes’ Kryptonian father, Dances With Waterworld as Earth-dad, and Diane Lane as hot, older Earth-mum are all fine. Larry Fishburn gets a paycheck for turning up to set dressed correctly, because his role asks literally nothing else of him. Just after I lay my head down for a moment he pointed into the camera and said “You. Are. The One. Neo. I mean, Superman,” and walked away. Maybe. In my imagination-dreams.
Like I said, Snyder knows how to pretty-up a movie. He also knows how to ugly it up. He does both here. The visual effects are gorgeously done, but also overdone. Have you tried to eat an entire mudcake? Well, look, yes it was great, and no I don’t regret it, but I did feel very sick for several days afterwards. I feel brainsick after Man of Steel. So many computer-generated things exploding. So many.
How does Man of Steel treat science? Does it ask you to think too much about the fact that Superman can fly on Earth despite supposedly only being stronger here due to the less crushing gravity? Would that actually be possible? A glance at a list of Superman’s various powers (largely drawn from comics) seems to suggest that due to a different molecular structure and the ability to absorb radiation, Superman essentially becomes a god on Earth. Because he is an alien, and in reality we have not encountered any aliens, Superman’s powers seem to get a pass. Is that fair? I suppose not. But Superman isn’t very fair — no one can fight him unless he’s weakened by Kryptonite, or they are also from Krypton.
This has always been the biggest problem with the character — how can you beat God? The film sidesteps Kryptonite with a planet-changing atmosphere-generator that doesn’t even try to sound realistic, and avoids a key question — sure, Zod and Superman are both super strong and pesky Earth rocks and buildings and such don’t hurt them, but why don’t they hurt each other? Why are Superman and Zod able to punch each other around a city without getting all bloody and broken after two or three punches, like real people? They’re as strong as each other. It doesn’t make sense. If anyone has a scientific justification for this, please comment below. Seriously.
The film contains several beautiful sequences, and one or two lines of dialogue that aren’t cringeworthy, and thus it makes an excellent trailer. As a Nolan-produced Superman film, Man of Steel was a disappointment. Was it a failure? Not quite. Was it passable? Only just. With a different screenwriter, the sequel could be great. Let’s just check the trades and see who they bring on board before we get too excited.
[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Dan Lin]