Sunday, June 16, 2024

Whatever Wednesdays: ‘Man Of Steel’

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Watching Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel while in quarantine, I was struck by two things: 1.) My God, would I love to see Snyder direct a silent film, and 2.) The characters are insufferable-even Superman. Age has not been kind to Snyder’s vision if only because the notion of keep still, don’t do anything, and whatever you do don’t help anyone, seems downright horrific in these modern times.

Snyder’s Superman is a selfish boor. He wouldn’t do anything unless he was standing nearby. Maybe he might feel bad about it if he didn’t. David S. Goyer wrote the script, together he and Snyder have made an anthem to selfishness and the importance of self to the detriment of the movie.

For MOS heroism comes not from sacrificing for others but from not sacrificing for yourself.  To stand by, knowing you could do something, but err on the side of caution because of reasons. Who knows, maybe it’s the quarantine talking but watching this Superman is not only tedious, it is rage-inducing. Seeing footage of the dead being thrown into freezer trucks because the morgue is overrun and then watching Snyder’s stand and do little Superman beggars my good faith.

Some will argue that I have to take MOS as a larger part of a broader story. That it’s all part of the long con and that Snyder clearly has a plan here.

No, I don’t. Movies are to be taken as they stand without the caveat of, “Well, the next five movies will explain it.” But let’s say we do put it in the broader context, MOS is a dreary joyless exploration of a selfish tool who does the right thing because there’s a gun to his head, and even then he still has to be talked into doing that. 

MOS has a sort of repugnant moral immaturity to it that sinks everything good about it. If only because Snyder and Goyer, shove bombastic imagery down our throats while having their characters say the silliest drivel, all while making sure to end every line with macho posturing. It would almost be camp but it’s not bad enough, or worse, not even remotely enjoyable. 

Poor Henry Cavill is trying really hard to do something but Snyder, like Michael Bay, has never been a fan of performances. Actors in his movies either mutter with tight-lipped staccato or screech as they flex their neck muscles. The theater of the unintentional absurd mixed with the theater of toxic masculinity. 

Cavill’s Clark Kent/Kal-El is a passive character adrift in an ocean of uncertainty. MOS is trying to show us the journey of how he becomes the Man of Steel. Instead, Goyer’s script gives us the journey of a child who goes from wanting to do the right thing to a man who borderlines on the venal. 

Michael Shannon as General Zod is the only one who manages to escape the torpor of Goyer’s script. We can see the veins in his forehead as he bellows and wails through his lines. Shannon’s Zod may not be that interesting, but in a movie that makes even Amy Adams sort of dull, he soars above the rest.

Re-watching MOS  I was struck by how much I was reminded of Brightburn. As much as I detested that movie, it is a better film, in a technical sense, if only because its character’s motivations and actions are consistent with what we know of them. Much of the problem with Man Of Steel is not Snyder’s philosophy but Goyer’s script. 

Take the now-infamous scene between Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry). Clark has just saved a bus full of kids from drowning, outing himself as “different”. In the tradition of comic book movies, the parents try to play it off as people not understanding what they see. Jonathan tries to make his son understand that it is important he stay hidden for fear of him being taken away and studied by scientists, or worse dissected.

A perfectly logical fear. But when young Clark asks if he should have let the boys drown, Jonathan says “Maybe. There’s more at stake here than just our lives, Clark or the lives of those around us.” Curiously throughout this scene in which Clark is feeling lost, confused, and incredibly vulnerable, Jonathan doesn’t hold, hug, or really do anything to show he loves or cares. He just keeps his distance and monologues.

But in the very next scene, as he shows Clark the spacecraft they found him in, Jonathan says, “I have to believe you were sent here for a reason. One day you will stand tall and proud before the world.” Even Jor-El (Russel Crowe) his Kryptonian father, who he meets after discovering the ship buried in ice, says essentially the same thing.

The beacon of hope, by the way, is willing to let people die rather have Lois Lane (Amy Adams) reveal his identity. The man who will one day make his father proud runs away even as Zod says he will kill everyone on the planet lest he reveals himself until a priest gives him a halfbaked sermon. Snyder and Amir Mokri, his cinematographer, frame the scene with Clark hunched forward in a pew while a stained-glass picture of Jesus is behind him.

Subtle, MOS is not. But my problem isn’t with the lack of subtlety. My problem is why does an alien care what a priest thinks? For that matter what does an alien think of a priest? He’s having a crisis of conscience, I get it. But at no point in time does Snyder or Goyer give us any inclination that the Kents are a god-fearing or particularly religious family. If they had, MOS would have been more interesting, especially in dealing with the central thematic conflict of self versus society.

But Goyer doesn’t care and Snyder can’t abide more than a few minutes without blowing something up. The last quarter of the movie is an action scene with one explosion after another that goes for almost half an hour. The result is a numbing effect on the senses.

All of this being said Snyder’s grasp of the visual medium is almost unparalleled. While the scenes that follow each other may not be consistent dramatically or character-wise, they are thematically, and visually Man Of Steel is in a class of its own. The movies of the MCU may be more entertaining and fun, but they are also shoddier technically.

Snyder, to his credit, is one of the view filmmakers to tell a superhero story and swing for the fences. This isn’t even taking into account the audacity of how overtly political Snyder dares to be with his Superman. Yes, I vehemently disagree with what he’s saying and how he’s portraying Superman, and Clark is such a passive character that his actions have little to no impact on us, the audience. Still, when put into the broader spectrum of other movies, having sat through countless superhero movies and blockbusters I’m just happy that Snyder has an ethos.

To be quite honest, as much as find MOS deeply flawed, and as much as I hate Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, they are better movies than anything by Joe and Anthony Russo. They are headier in theme and content and more rewarding on rewatches for the visuals and scope of production design. The politics of MOS are clear and present and it’s impossible not to see them.

Other superhero movies have been political but in a way, audiences have been able to ignore them or simply were not aware. Snyder isn’t shy about his Randian beliefs and in the era of the modern blockbuster in which most directors aim for a misguided sense of apoliticism so as to not alienate anyone in the audience, Snyder took the chance. I have a certain amount of respect for any artist willing to make the movie he wants to, studios and fan service be damned.

Begrudging respect for Snyder and his vision aside, I didn’t enjoy it any more than last time. In fact, in many respects, I found MOS even less enjoyable this time around. Yes, I appreciate Snyder’s guts and fearlessness in taking a beloved and well-known character in a direction most people wouldn’t have taken. For all his talents and all his earnest cynicism Man of Steel is a lumbering confused beast who can’t help but step on its own tail.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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