Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Man of Steel; Superman has lost his pants

Zack Snyder inexplicably gets hatfuls of money chucked at him so that he can make movies which resemble nothing so much as a transcript of a kid in a sandpit mooshing his superhero figures together, so it's not entirely astonishing that when David "one plot" Goyer and Christopher Nolan couldn't quite find the time to make a Superman movie together, they outsourced it to Zack, a man with form on the superhero issue. He made Watchmen, a movie which everyone agreed worked best when Zack was making up a cool pre-movie credits sequence, and then started to tank pretty dramatically as soon as he knuckled down to trying to do a straight-faced adaptation of an all-but-unfilmable comic book. Before that, he'd made 300, a genuinely baffling adaptation of … a comic book. After Watchmen, he made Sucker Punch, which is best described as an adaptation of the comic book which Zack Snyder genuinely thinks ought to exist outside his head as well as inside. Sucker Punch is actually fun, in disturbing ways which mean I probably ought never to have ... well, any of the responsible jobs I've actually against all the odds and most kinds of sanity, held. 

In short, it was probably time for a Superman movie. 300 shot Zack to fame partly on the back of the way that everyone from Sparta came to war in just a cloak and their underpants, so it's slightly disconcerting that Superman has either figured out how to wear his underpants on the inside or has just flat out forgotten to put them on. Probably best not to dwell too long on which. He's still got the cloak, however, having failed to get this memo. In the climactic, which these days just means "boring", fight, General Zod swings Superman round about nine times by the damn thing, but at the end of the movie, Supe is still wearing it. Which highlights the intrinsic Superman problem. He's invulnerable. Since nothing really hurts or inconveniences him, why wouldn't he go on wearing a huge tactical drawback? He might as well.

Even though I rag on origin stories all the time, I am almost prepared to write Man of Steel  a pass on this one. The origin story is integrated well into an actual plot which relates to the origin, and Goyer moves the pieces neatly enough so that Clark Kent is just where the comic books always had him, just as credits roll. It's not at all bad. It's too long, and the fights are boring, and we don't NEED origin stories, but if we're going to get them, at least I'll give marks for trying to be clever about it.

But man, the fights are boring. Fights are only interesting if the characters are really in hazard, and with everyone either indestructible or not an actual character, there's nothing to the fights other than just how much CGI Zack can throw at the screen. Which is too much, or sometimes, way too much. Modern CGI is like a five year old demonstrating the truth of the old saying that there's a world of difference between things you can do and things which you should do. I kind of zoned out in all the action scenes, because they were busy, but they weren't action and they didn't even have the bubble-gum lunacy which made Sucker Punch's action bits fun and fresh (and at least in Sucker Punch, there's a real sense of hazard; those characters who get clobbered are NOT bouncing back in the next scene).

Just as with the first ever big budget Superman movie, there's a real sense of wonder to the cast. Playing Superman, we've got, as ever, an amiable block of wood. Given how very one-dimensional Superman is, as a character, it's hard to know how even a good actor could make him interesting, but Hollywood's never even tried. Instead we get amiable beefcake surrounded by a breathtaking array of ringers. There's Amy Adams, playing Lois Lane, because why the hell not? It's not even as if this is a sell-out, because that already happened when she played Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum 2, despite the fact that there has only been one time, ever, in the history of cinema, where the numeral "2" appeared in a title and didn't shower everyone involved with shame. There's Laurence Fishburne, in the role of "What if I told you that your career would end up with you playing a man whose face looks like a frying pan in a Superman remake?". Over to the left and back a bit, Kevin Costner as Superman's dad, and Russell Crowe as Superman's other dad. Between them they actually have more Oscars than Marlon Brando, who played Superman's dad for the first movie. Man, it really didn't show, not either time, but it seems that's what you do. Notice out of the corner of your eye, Toby from the West Wing covering the mandatory superhero movie requirement for a scientist who we won't ever say is Jewish, but he totally is.

But I'm saving the best for last, and of course the reason why I even bothered; kneel before Zod, the one and only Michael Shannon, your go-to guy for the tightly wrapped part of the system that just had the wrapping come spectacularly undone. He was fun in Premium Rush, downright unsettling in Boardwalk Empire, and I was, of course, relying on him to rescue Man of Steel if the rest of it was as pants as Superman usually is. After a rollicking start, where it was really starting to look like Man of Steel would be The adventures of Zod and some boring dude with his underpants on the outside, Zod gets sent to jail, and by the time we meet him again, he's grown a goatee of doom for some reason and has magically become a million per cent less interesting. Possibly because he doesn't have Russell Crowe to bounce off at that point. Honestly, the early bits on Krypton are tough going, but any time Shannon and Crowe were trading insults, I completely forgot how crap looking and tedious everything around them had been. When it's just Zod and scenery, or Henry Cavill, as if that's a distinction, not so much fun. Still, not the Michael Shannon movie I'd recommend as your introduction to this talented maniac. That's still Premium Rush, which is eleventy million times better than Man of Steel and cost slightly less than the toothpaste budget for the principal cast.

Some thoughts on physics. Man of Steel gets a million marks out of ten for coming with a narrative explanation of kryptonite which makes some kind of narrative sense, but they're all then deducted from the overall score for making about as much scientific sense as Scientology (albeit both are about separating gullible people from money, so fair enough, really). Superman is all strong and everything on earth because the environment is different from Krypton, and having adapted to that, he's well, a super man. But bring him back into Kryptonian conditions and he loses the edge. It's actually narratively consistent and used very well; there is, thank God, no actual kryptonite. It's just that as science, it's not even wrong. The air is different and the sunshine is brighter, so super powers? Tchah. I wave my hand derisively in your general direction. Movie physics reigns unchecked for the rest of the movie; it doesn't matter what height you're falling from or what kind of speed you're doing; if Superman catches you, you might as well be settling into an armchair. And so on.

Still, I go back to what I said earlier about the whole origin story problem. Man of Steel isn't either a Michael Shannon lunacy fest, as I'd hoped, or an egregiously dreadful piece of Snyder-y which I could have fun ripping to pieces. It's a perfectly workmanlike, utterly unnecessary big budget action film that has moments where even Henry Cavill seemed almost like an actor. Admittedly, I'd been having a heck of day at the lunacy mines, to the extent that road traffic ads before the movie were making me feel weepy, so perhaps I'm giving the acting more of a pass than it deserves. But Man of Steel isn't a terrible movie. It even had moments where I was thinking that it wasn't doing a half bad job of storytelling. Then they'd ruin it all with another goddam CGI punch up and I'd start checking my phone for messages again. Hollywood, I don't know if you can hear me over all those fake explosions, but if it's not too much trouble, make some new movies. Put characters in them. Average Man. That sounds good to me, somehow.

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