Sunday, October 20, 2013

How "Man of Steel" Made Being Alive Painful (And Other Observations)

Man of Steel made my being alive painful. While watching Man of Steel, the visual and aural bombardment - the speed, the jerkiness, the brightness and the screeching - made existence a chore. I refer explicitly, mind, to the last fifty or so minutes of the movie, the so-called "climax," in which the "characters" engaged in "fights". These scenes (if one is willing to afford them such a status) made me motionsick, and gave me a pounding headache. But it is the insult to my intelligence that truly made me wretch.

The film had, for the most part, been threatening to be good, all the way up until that point. It wasn't actually good, of course. Superman's doomed home planet of Krypton - once envisioned by multiple artists as a beautiful planet, whether it be a crystallized wonderland, or a lush panoramic sci-fi cityscape - is depicted as a dull, washed-out, typical fantasy alien world; a lot like if Avatar was tinted with sepia. Incomprehensible technology is used by characters who we have little cause to worry about, as they are warned of their oncoming doom and then reject the notion. Krypton is not a planet to be mourned here, or remembered; it's a dying planet filled with stupid people.

These stupid people are promptly murdered by one General Zod. He's as thick of the rest of them, but he has a single strength - competence. Now, if I compare this film to Richard Donner's marquee Superman: The Movie too much, the shadow cast by that far superior imagining of American's favourite Kryptonian will threaten to engulf Man of Steel in a way that I may not be able to give it the scathing it truly deserves. Superman: The Movie is a towering giant, and the minute, dwarf-ish Man of Steel may seem insignificant in its gaping flaws for its diminished stature.

But in Superman: The Movie, Krypton is established very quickly as an obviously dying planet. A giant, red sun threatens to engulf the population, and the councilmen are aware of this. When Jor-El goes to them and says, "hey guys, the planet is gonna die!" their reaction is basically a, "we know." They are the old guard; they hold their ground, even in the face of Armageddon. In Man of Steel, Krypton's core is collapsing because they drilled it of its natural resources - and when Jor-El (portrayed fantastically by Russell Crowe) tells them they've destroyed the planet, their reaction is basically akin to sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "lalalalalalalala". It's absurd.

So Superman is a baby - Krypton's first natural birth in years, apparently - and Jor-El goes and sticks some magic fairy dust in him and shoots him off to Earth (the planet where the audience lives!) as Krypton collapses and then... explodes. Why did a collapsing planet explode? Why not ask Zack Snyder? He likes explosions. This all becomes much more apparent later on. Oh, and Zod and his team gets sent off to the Phantom Zone. I'd say it begs the question as to why Zod and his men can be sentenced to relative safety inside a black hole dimension, while the higher-ups of Krypton all stay behind on ol' Collapso-'Splodo, but as I've established, these people are idiots. I guess that's a good way of establishing why they acted so ineptly. Acting out of pride? Out of pigheadedness? No! The Kryptonians were all just stupid.

What follows, is the most inherently watchable part of the film, so I don't want to give quite as much attention to it. It's shot bizarrely, and edited doubly so. The superhero effects on Henry Cavill as Superman are... okay. Okay here's what I'm gonna do. I'm going to compare Man of Steel to Superman: The Movie again, and it's going to be like comparing Jack and Jill to The Godfather.

The tagline for Superman: The Movie was "you will believe a man can fly". Dated as the film ended up being (and it's not that dated, as far as 1970s sci-fi goes - it's not as timeless as the preceeding year's Star Wars, but it's not as inherently ridiculous-looking as Jaws), the effects are believable - or, to put it in other words, you do believe a man can fly, watching that movie. There's no doubt for a second that Christopher Reeve is Superman. When Lois Lane asks, "you've got me... but who's got you??" the immediate answer isn't "THE WIRES I CAN SEE THE WIRES"... yes, it is indeed a believable, if not realistic, film.

In Man of Steel, the tagline is "you will witness a computer-generated double of our characters lurch violently forward in lieu of actually running fast and it will break your suspension of disbelief". Or maybe it was "by the producer of The Dark Knight". The point is, a great deal many of the animations in Man of Steel are atrocious. And oddly so, too, I might add; the whole film, typically, uses CGI rather flawlessly. The scenes of Superman actually flying are fine, as are scenes in space; hell, even the scenes on Krypton aren't so obviously fake that I was taken out of the illusion. So why, I wonder, are there scenes of - as I mentioned - characters lurching suddenly forward, encased in motion blur, making movements no human could make, completely breaking the flow? I mean yes I know these are superhuman movements, but it's still unbelievable. Worse still, there are scenes in which Superman is jumping very, very high, and I swear to god it looks about as good as Ang Lee's The Hulk looked. Ang Lee's the goddamn Hulk.

But besides the effects... and the editing... and the script, and the aesthetic, and the staging, and the pacing... the intervening scenes are... watchable. Sometimes good, even. There are flashbacks to Clark's troubled childhood as he grows up with Superman powers - a particularly effective one, as he realizes he can see and hear everything and runs to lock himself in a cupboard in the vain hope that it might go away. They are acted superbly and, though Snyder showcases a supreme lack of ability to exercise proper pacing, are the most inherently good parts of the film. The scenes following - Clark finding work difficult, Clark seeing his mother, being chased by a persistent Lois Lane, finding a Russell Crowe computer ghost, all that... it's not awful. Not good! In fact, very much leaning towards "bad". But it is quiet, and well-acted (as I said), and calm.

Then the film takes a left turn, and stops being watchable. It starts hurting. The pain begins.

Zod returns to Earth, and asks for Superman back. So Superman comes back and is like, "hey Zod, I don't know who you are, but we're probably pals, right?" And Zod - who has grown a beard in the meantime, and a spiffing one at that - decides to take his petty revenge on Jor-El the only way he knows how: torturing his son Kal-El in a expository dream sequence! ...I don't have any idea why he had to expose solely during a dream sequence. I don't know why that dream sequence had to have a pool of skulls in the cornfields. I don't... I can't wrap my head around either Snyder's or Goyer's or god forbid Nolan's decision to reveal Zod's master plan to Superman by having a disconnected nightmare sequence. I don't understand. I really don't.

Superman wakes up, Jor-El's ghost does some stuff with Lois, they break out of Zod's ship and they go to save the day, as Zod starts his masterful plan - terraform Earth into Krypton! And as this plan starts, so does all of Snyder's inkling of respectability and restraint get thrown viciously out the window. How do I... how do I explain what these fight scenes are... hmmm... okay, I got it. People and/or things are thrown into other things. Those things and/or other things explode.

That's it. That's action sequences. See, this film earned its 7.2/10 on IMDb.

Superman piledrives Zod through a pair of silos that for some reason explode. Then Superman drives Zod through a 7/11, which also explodes. That there was my threshold for explosions. One explosion is sort of shocking, and exciting. Two in a row can be halfway exhilarating. Anymore than that and the explosions just get... boring. Stale. It just becomes a bombardment of colour and noise. Which is what then the fights become. Combined with the fake-as-hell CG quick-dash move (done by double-tapping forward and hitting "A" while the left trigger is held down), the frenetic and frantic handicam-o-vision which I thought was reserved for Michael Bay's films, the dull colour palette, the noise, and the speed of the cuts, the result is a series of action sequences which are offensive to the eyes and ears. It really was painful, with everything resulting in a KABOOMABLAMMO, orange gas explosions so typically Hollywood; something collapsing or crashing, or... whatever. You know. It's all just noise. You grow dull to it, but that doesn't make it less painful.

Then comes the following scenes. Having dispatched two of Zod's henchmen, codenames Small Girl and Big Man, Zod plants his interplanetary terraforming device through the planet. Metropolis starts to collapse and we witness an apocalyptic series of events done with absolutely no charm or grace. The same insistently loud, messy, visually confusing approach to setpieces, taken off of the streets and placed onto a planetary scale. Fantastic. I wonder why they needed this introductory Superman film to be so "epic" in the first place. I could have taken a finale like this during the last part of a trilogy; the entire Earth at stake, Superman single-handedly having to remove a giant spaceship wedging itself through the planet. That's a decent concept for a series finale. But this isn't a series finale at all! This is a reboot, and the fact that they went this large a scale tells me that they lack either restraint, or foresight, or both. Like when J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek film blew up a planet: what is he gonna blow up next? The galaxy? The universe? Playing all your cards at once is a bad move enough as it is without flicking them forcibly into the audience's face.

So BLAM BOOM KAPOW BWWAAAAM (that's the Inception noise but it's okay because Hans Zimmer did it and he's the composer here!) BZZZZZT (that's a space laser) BAZZTTTTTT (that's another kind of space laser) BLAM BLOOM AHH HEELP LAWRENCE FISHBURNE PLEASE (Lawrence Fishburne has to do Superman's job of saving people, as he's off punching a laser, no yes Superman punches a laser and no it is not as awesome as it sounds or at all) and that's it. That's the movie. We're done. Also there were... metal tentacle things I guess? It was weird. Hey I dunno man, I'm just one guy. I can't be expected to keep track of everything that goes on over the course of two and a half hours.

Zod lays defeated, and, the devastating ruins of Metropolis in the background, the ash of millions of innocent people who couldn't escape the death laser in time coating the very ground upon which they stand, Superman shares a passionate kiss with Lois Lane. Zod then dies and the credits roll. There may have been something else at the end. I vaguely recall something punching buildings, likely filled with more innocent people, as they die. Also perhaps Superman... I think he snapped a... neck? Or a... pipe? He did some plumbing. Yes, he was invited to do some plumbing, and he accidentally cracked open a valve and water went everywhere and he screamed in agony for his fallen race and the blood on his hands. Or maybe Henry Cavill was screaming because he stepped on a thumbtack, and Snyder left it in. Because edgy.

No, in all seriousness. There is a final climactic battle with Zod. Far less filled with explosions - though no less filled with things being thrown at things! - it is a tremendously boring series of CG-lathered events, even more unbelievable and lacking any grit or tension than before. People have compared it to Dragon Ball Z, which I find disingenuous, because at least you know what's happening in Dragon Ball Z. When Goku shouts "Kame Hame Ha!" you understand that he's using his Kame Hame Ha move. I couldn't tell what was happening in Man of Steel's fight. It was a clusterbomb of random nothingness, of collateral damage and then they were in space and... it was dumb. And finally, at the end, Superman is left with no choice but to kill Zod, marking the first on-screen Superman murder. Hooray!

Some people will tell you Man of Steel is a bold "re-imagining" of the Superman mythos. Truth is, those people are liars. The proof is in the pudding - Man of Steel doesn't want to be a Superman film.

Man of Steel only twice calls Kal-El/Clark Kent "Superman" - and both times, disapprovingly, as if the name is inherently silly on its own. It is strange, though. Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder all wanted to make a Superman film - they poured millions and millions of dollars in to do just that. But the similarities it shares with the comic book Superman are not only superficial - they're childish. The film is innately juvenile, in throwing out many elements of Superman lore and iconography, in exchange for... grit? Pools of skulls, and murder? Does that sound like decisions adults would make? Or does it sound like grimdark teenage fantasy...? (Is Zack Snyder actually a teenager? Has anyone aged him? It would explain a lot, actually.)

Comic books are a rare format - they're written by adults, for adults, but almost wholly marketed and aimed at children. Comics master this deficiency by making sure their stories are emotionally charged, giving credence to their art by injecting real life into fake characters. Where they can't be overtly politically or sexually charged, they are romantic, or subversive, or they master longform storytelling - arcs, following multiple characters over years worth of publications.

With Man of Steel, any subtlety, maturity and thematically "adult" properties attached to the Superman lore are disregarded because they're... well, I don't know. I've heard the film described as one defined less by what it is, and more by what it isn't, and that makes sense. It doesn't just want to be a Superman film, it wants to not be Richard Donner's Superman films. It doesn't want to be accused of not having Superman punch people. It wants to not be exactly like the comics. But it does want to use those situations; it drains them of their life, it drains characters of their souls and in exchange it provides... nothing. Nothing but explosions, throwing, screaming, yelling, death, and skulls. It rejects ideas like Superman being called "Superman," Clark Kent working at Daily Planet and blending in well, Pa Kent telling Superman to use his powers for good, but is seemingly okay with humanoid space aliens tearing each other violently apart with laser eyes and punches and skulls.

So when I say that it hurt me physically - and I can still feel the headache from having watched it now, barely residing - I refer less to the absolute joke that its set-pieces devolve into, and more to the story that offended me as a moviegoer who appreciates adaptions made with the goal to enhance their source material, rather than doggedly try - and fail - to usurp and precede their source material. Without skulls.

Man of Steel doesn't want to be a Superman film. It doesn't want to be regarded in the same leagues as other Superman films. Luckily, it has achieved its wish - it's not even in the same league as Superman Returns, and doesn't that hurt hardest. It hits the reset button and fills the empty slate with grim violence and pathetic attempts at realism and grit, jagged scene staging, rushed pacing and schizophrenic editing. It is easily the worst film I've watched this year, and I sincerely hope it CG motion-blur dashes its way off a cliff, into a pile of skulls.