Mindless Mass Murder and…
Man of Steel
Contains Some Spoilers
There is a scene in Season Three of the brilliant HBO show Game of Thrones where Daenerys Stormborn has played a strategic blinder in order to become the owner of several thousand of the Unsullied, an elite core of trained warrior-slaves. Having done so she immediately grants them their freedom, before giving them the offer to fight for her as free men. It is both beautifully acted and shot; and I felt a real shiver go up my spine.
I only mention this because if it is genuine emotion and a connection to character that you want to feel, then don’t look to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. You certainly won’t find such old-fashioned notions there.
I finally got to see the rebooting of Superman yesterday, narrowly making it before it leaves the cinema screens. Any other time that I had been able to make it only coincided with a 3D showing; and crapvision quite honestly is one technique that I can’t stand.
I’m glad now that I didn’t see it when it opened. Expectations were high as I loved the director’s Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen, liked 300 and even thought that Sucker Punch was under rated; at least by yesterday I was just looking forward to enjoying a good super-hero outing. And in a way it was; but man, it was so much more about missed opportunities.
The extended opening is on the planet Krypton, where Russell Crowe as Jor-el, along with wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) has just witnessed the birth of his son, Kal-el. This is the first natural birth in hundreds of years as breeding is rigorously controlled through the Codex. This is a system by which children are grown outside the body and specifically designed for the position that they are to be allotted in life. (I can’t decide whether that’s the same or the opposite of last week’s Royal Birth—some births being more equal than others—where a sprog won the lottery due to the random fun of DNA.) Horrible idea; and quite frankly a horrible planet. I had been looking forward to seeing the the kind of enlightened society that this species of humanoid, so far ahead of us on the scale of evolution, had created for themselves. But instead of serenity and learning we find a race that are so warlike that they make the Bush and Obama administrations combined with Attila the Hun look like harbingers of peace and love. And they are cruel, not to mention sadistic. So much for the shape of things to come.
This is an expansionist civilization that has ambitiously reached out to the stars themselves. But now their colonies are abandoned, they are in isolationist retreat and they have depleted their planet’s core by the over mining of natural resources to the point where it is doomed to destruction. And even with this about to happen to them, they still manage to fight amongst themselves, with a military coup in the offing under General Zod (Michael Shannon). If this makes you think that you’re being beaten over the head by comparisons with our own planet, then in fairness that’s more my fault than that of the script. It just looks that way when you state it so baldly.
In any case, General Zod and his gang of insurrectionists are arrested and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, with Zod swearing to hunt down the ‘natural-born’ baby Kal-el who has just been packed off to Earth, where he would have to meet a gentler, more easy-going race than the Kryptonians, wouldn’t he?
The following half hour alternates scenes of the grown Kal-el (now called Clark Kent), touring the world and doing good deeds along the way, with scenes of his childhood growing up as a farm boy in Kansas. I liked the way that Snyder shows how traumatic it must have been for the kid as powers like X-ray vision begin to make themselves known.
Following an incident in which an obviously alien artefact is found buried in ice that is 20,000 years old, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane goes on the hunt for the source of that urban legend that has an unknown man travelling America and being quietly heroic. And again, I found this very effective.
Indeed, there is a great deal to like about the first hour of Man of Steel. I suppose that a lot of foster or adoptive parents would recognise the unspoken pain of Jonathan and Martha Clark as the child that they have raised makes it clear that he doesn’t consider himself part of the family.
The Merits of Genocide
A word here about some of the actors: Kal-el/Clark is played by newcomer (to me anyway) Henry Cavill and is a great choice. Although he’s actually a British actor he has one of those clean-cut faces that seems to epitomise ‘truth, justice and the American way’ without being corny. And I’m reliably informed by the lady with whom I saw the movie that he is ‘hot’.
Horribly, horribly miscast is the fine actress Amy Adams as Lois. Sorry, I like her but she just shouldn’t be here. God knows how they’re going to build any chemistry between these two for the sequel.
Russell Crowe? He doesn’t have a lot to do but I always like watching him. Ditto Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are rock solid as the Kents, even if I found some of Jonathan’s homely advice a bit on the dodgy side. And as for his demise in a Kansas tornado, I swear to Dorothy and the Wizard, you would have needed a heart of stone not to laugh. Put this up next to Glenn Ford’s dignified, simple and moving exit in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. There is no comparison.
And talking of that movie, who would have thought that anyone could have made you forget within minutes that Zod was once owned outright by Terrence Stamp? Well, of course I hadn’t known that this version was being played by Michael Shannon. Yes, the creepy Michael Shannon, religious freak of Boardwalk Empire and freak- with- a- vision of Take Shelter. Like John Malkovich, this is one actor who must save the producers a fortune in make-up. He already LOOKS like he comes from another planet–one that doesn’t wish us well– and has a stare that would turn your frigging bowels to jelly. Michael Shannon’s next role will be as the lead in a light romantic comedy? Nah, I don’t think so. And what a great line he gets as he confronts the enduring consciousness of Jor-el: “Debating the merits of genocide with a ghost…”
As for Zod’s next–in-command Faora-ul, played by Antje Trane? Jeez, talk about scarily sexy. Can you imagine if she had been cast as Lois? She could beat a story out of me any time!
Another interesting aspect of Man of Steel is the concept of ‘culture shock’. It’s an idea that I first came across in the seventies when reading Arthur C. Clarke and concerns how the human race would react to the news that we are definitely not alone in the universe. How would it affect our various religious beliefs, would we feel depleted by our lack of significance and so on? It’s touched on here with the rumoured existence of an alien amongst us; and then it is hit on more fully when General Zod and Company make themselves and their power fully known. And it’s interesting that from here we go almost directly to a scene where Clark reveals his identity to a priest in a church.
This brings me rather nicely to what was for me the most extraordinary image in the film; and indeed makes it worth the price of admission alone. As we see tank turrets, anti-aircraft guns and other weaponry turned to point at the sky it is revealed that in fact it is the blue-costumed and red-caped figure of the Man of Steel himself that they are aimed at. He is hovering perhaps forty feet from the ground, Godlike and serene; and it is one hell of a Christian image. Yes, similar appears in Snyder’s movie of Watchmen and in writer Alan Moore’s comic-book original of the same. Yet I was reminded more of Moore’s Miracleman Book Two, where the title character hovers above some ageing Nazis. One reflects that they waited forty years for the Ubermensch and then when he arrived they tried to kill him. To which another reflects that it was always thus. Quite.
And regarding Snyder’s Christian imagery am I reading too much into the specific noting of the Superman’s age as that mystical number 33, the age at which Christ himself is supposed to have died? Probably.
So, yes: there is plenty to enjoy in Man of Steel; but as I said before the viewer never connects with any of the characters. It is one of the most humourless, joyless and grim experiences that you could find in a cinema. And whatever about the pluses that I’ve just outlined, they are totally wiped out by the sheer anarchy, chaos and nonsense of the last hour, by which time I was convinced that the film was never going to be over.
The eternal final act resembles nothing so much as a never-ending video game; and given that I don’t play them it was indeed interminable to me. As Zod and his followers do battle with Kal-el and the army the destruction rages from Smallville to Metropolis. Composer Hans Zimmer does the music; and as he also wrote for the Dark Knight trilogy you know the kind of hideously loud bombastic thundernotes to expect. Zimmer and Snyder, mixed in with the sound of collapsing buildings, gunfire and explosion after explosion, finally beat the audience into submission—again, without ever engaging it emotionally. (By the way, amidst all the mayhem watch out for the tankers with LEXCORPS written on their sides. Nice touch and pointer to the future.)
Literally tens of thousands of human beings must have been slaughtered in these scenes and yet the feeling is that little of consequence has taken place. Even the fact that, with the killing of Zod, Superman has committed genocide on his own species seems oddly untouched on.
Some critics have, incredibly, called this the greatest comic-book movie ever made. Really? They must be referring to comics of more than thirty years ago when it was mainly punch, thump and kick; because comics have grown up a lot in that time and the best of them certainly don’t resemble this smash-and-grab. They actually include such odd concepts as characterisation these days.
The screenplay is by David S. Goyer, with the story credit being shared by Christopher Nolan, who also produces; so you know that, along with Zimmer, they were looking for a Dark Knight feel. To me, though, that is impossible with the character of Superman. I still feel the way I did about him when I was a kid, that he was a bit of a do-gooder, whilst the Batman was something morally murkier. Or as Frank Miller described Supes, ‘the big blue schoolboy’.
Curiously, I find myself looking forward to the sequel in 2015. With all that build-up out of the way, perhaps we can settle down to finding out just who these characters are. And best of all, the big blue schoolboy will be teamed with…Batman!
And one final thought: with the Codex still within Kal-el’s body, could this be the genesis of a future Bottle City of Kandor?
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