Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel's Futile Search For a Sense of Self

Despite the fact that he's one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes in America, Superman is a difficult character for many people to latch on to.  Some find him to be a problematic hero, stating a number of reasons, ranging from the fact that he's too plain and boring to his insane level of power removing stakes.  Those who write Superman stories run into the same problems that any writer bumps up against when writing about wholly good people.  Without the dark and tortured past or angsty present that many other heroes have, Superman stories can seem inert.  At the same time, it's interesting that the divide on Superman occurs because underneath the surface, he's quite a universal character.  His story can serve as a stand-in for many things, such as the immigrant experience, man's relation to God, and being a product of adoption.

There's no real point to that introduction, because Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is only briefly concerned with any of those metaphorical implications.  The early trailers focused on the more Malickian shots of the film, and the movie is at its best in these portions.  All of the moments set in Kansas, where Clark Kent is just dealing with the balance of his human exterior and his superhuman interior, are filmed with muted washed-out colors and there's a beauty and poetry to the look and feel.  In this stretch, things are appropriately mythic, and sometimes it seems like an indie film that just happens to have a super-powered alien in it.  Unfortunately, Snyder is preoccupied with donning as many suits as possible over its 143 minute runtime.  Throughout the course of the film, we get a splashy sci-fi epic in the first 15 minutes, a coming-of-age origin story in a few flashbacks, a summer action blockbuster in the third act, and even a bit of eerie horror in one scene.  Clark Kent assumes different names at various periods of his life in order to avoid detection, and the film itself suffers just as badly from a severe lack of identity.

Many people conveniently forget that Superman Returns got pretty positive reviews when it came out, instead choosing to adopt this revisionist idea that it was a critical and commercial failure.  Those who criticize the 2006 Bryan Singer installment complain about its lack of action, stating "The climax is basically Superman lifting a boulder!"  Have no fear about a lack of people punching things, folks, because Man of Steel is action-packed -- especially in the last 30-45 minutes -- and it's largely awful.  Nobody will try to make the claim that Zack Snyder can't do action -- after all, even Sucker Punch had some dazzling action setpieces.  Likewise, the setpieces in Man of Steel have an impressive amount of heft, but they're only thrilling for about 5 seconds.  After that it's just metal-crunching, concrete-smashing monotony.  Any heart and soul that the film may have had when it was trying to imitate a Levi's commercial is completely gone by the time the third act rolls around.  Once the first blow strikes, they seem to come endlessly, as we're given action scene after action scene with very little plot or character driving them.  Like General Zod, Superman's adversary, the film never wants to quit, and there were several times where I thought, "Oh, this isn't over yet"?

For as explosion-heavy as the exterior may be, there isn't much of a center to hold everything together.  There are many characters that fill the margins of the film, but they don't make much of an impression.  Everybody seems to be a generic authority type, from Laurence Fishburne as the Editor in Chief of The Daily Planet to Christopher Meloni playing Army Guy #1.  Amy Adams adds some sort of color to Lois Lane, but there's little reason for her to be doing anything that she does other than the fact that she's The Spunky Reporter.  The biggest problem though is with Superman and his lack of internal conflict.  Is there a place for Gods on Earth?  Will he have trouble choosing between humans and Kryptonians?  Fertile questions such as these are ignored,  making Superman's journey as straightforward and stakes-free as possible.  Don't let any promise of character fool you, Man of Steel is just as big and dumb as any other Zack Snyder film.

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