Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Man of Blue Rubber

So I'm going to start in on this year's movies even though I still have plenty of Halloween movies left to watch. I guess I'll save those for January or February to mark the grinning skull of Time or just Valentine's Day or something.

I felt honour bound to start with the movie I've been kind of badmouthing all year without having seen, Man of Steel. Obviously I went in with low expectations so it was nice when some of the movie did actually work for me. I mean, as much as I hate Zack Snyder and David Goyer, I don't go into any movie wanting to hate it. If I'm going to give two hours (in this case almost two and a half) to a movie, I actually want to have a nice time. But, although this movie isn't all bad, it's certainly mostly bad.

I think the first thing that really struck me about the film was all the big black genitalia. It seems the people of Krypton like their shuttles to look like penises and figure there's no point in building a door that doesn't look like a vagina.

This is one of the film's rare two shots, Zack Snyder seems allergic to them. Usually they exclusively belong to establishing shots. Even an early scene where Jor-El and Lara Lorn Van (an effective Russell Crowe and a rather flat Ayelet Zurer), as Superman's biological parents, are standing next to each other facing the same direction doesn't get a two shot, we hop between close-ups of both of them. We don't really get to see two actors playing off each other until over a half hour in when Clark (Henry Cavill) meets the holographic version of Jor-El.

Which brings me back the genital architecture. I would say it's probably due to the influence of Prometheus already exerting itself, which is kind of funny considering how influential Alien's production design was on this sort of thing. History seems to be repeating itself.

One might perceive a purpose in it here. In this version of the story, the Kryptonians genetically engineer their offspring and Kal-El is the first natural birth in a long time. This angers General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup at the beginning of the film.

I do love Michael Shannon. He's creepy without trying to be creepy and focused as hell. He bears little resemblance to Terence Stamp's psychopath Zod. In this case, Zod tells us he's haunted by his actions but he thinks what he's doing is for the greater good. This seems like it may be one of the places where the film takes its cues from Nolan's Batman films whose villains tended not to be morally simplistic. Part of Batman's challenge is embodying the argument for justice against the actually seductive qualities of chaos or tyranny in his foes.

However, it's a little harder to see the point of view of the guy who wants to wipe out the entire human race for no apparent reason. He starts terraforming Earth but there's no reason given as to why out of all the planets in the galaxy Earth has to be the new Krypton.

Maybe the best thing about this movie is Amy Adams as Lois Lane, even though she's the worst written character in a movie filled with not particularly well written characters. She mainly seems to serve as free floating plot spackle--one minute she's the reporter who discovered Superman, next she's abducted by Zod for no apparent reason, and then she's arming a bomb in an airborne plane for the U.S. military.

But Adams remains a wonderfully engaging actress and damn her hair looks good in this movie. In a movie notoriously loaded with product placement Pert Plus really missed the boat here.

Of course she and Superman kiss at one point and it feels extraordinarily arbitrary. It's the sort of thing that's considered required by a studio when making a superhero film. But a studio asking David Goyer to write romance is sort of like the Three Stooges asking a mule to balance on a paperclip.

There's a really lame piece of dialogue after they kiss--she says something like, "They say it's all downhill after the first kiss," and he says, "I'm pretty sure that only counts if you're kissing a human." Which might give one pause as one wonders, "Did he just say he thinks their relationship is going to be lousy?" before you realise he was talking about himself, not her, while she had been talking about him. Of course this isn't about Lois. None of this is.

Which is a shame since Adams is a much better actor than Henry Cavill who doesn't improve on Brandon Routh at all. Actually, both of them seemed to have modelled their line deliveries on Christopher Reeve's straightforward, clear eyed tone, but in Cavill's case it feels a bit unnatural despite the fact the guy does have some expressive eyebrows.

The action scenes are good--Snyder does have a knack for video game kinetics. Though it's a bit odd when bystanders in Metropolis hang around to watch what must look like mouse cursors darting across the sky while buildings are falling all around them.

And of course, plenty of people have complained about Superman not seeming particularly concerned about the deaths of bystanders on top of a rather character-breaking moment at the end--if you haven't seen the film and you've avoided spoilers, skip the next paragraph:

There are around eight million things about that climatic moment that don't work. Zod's head clearly not being held steady enough by Superman being one of them--there's no reason he can't immediately fry the people he's talking about. But okay, let's say Superman had to kill him to prevent those bystanders from dying. What does that say? The man who doesn't believe in taking life under any circumstance is forced to take a life. It'll be weird if he tortures himself about it because Zod wanted to destroy the whole human race. If he doesn't torture himself about it, there was kind of no reason for the filmmakers to take us there except for the emotional kick.

Which ultimately is the film--a rather cheap ploy for thrills. Some ideas about justice and government--Clark is rather significantly shown reading Plato's The Republic at an early age--are fleshed out poorly by bad characterisation and arbitrary, money driven plot mechanics.

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