FILM REVIEW: MAN OF STEEL-3 YEARS LATER
Rating: 1 out of 4, Runtime: 143 Minutes
The time has finally come, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is being released to the public today after three years of build up. It almost seems passé at this point though. We’ve known about the film for so long that it seemed like it was never going to be released. Marvel releases two films a year, but DC hasn’t done anything since 2013. It wouldn’t be shocking if you forgot DC made films altogether. There were a million other films to be hyped about in those three years, so our attention never had time to focus squarely on BvS. Sure, when it was announced everyone was talking about it since the concept alone seemed improbable, but with over a years worth of advertising at this point you’d be hard pressed not to assume it was ever coming out at all. The funny thing is that through out all these years of waiting, I’ve hardly known anyone who thought it was going to turn out to be a good movie. This is due primarily to the reception of the first feature in this new DC film-verse, Man of Steel.
Arguably the most controversial comic book movie ever produced, Man of Steel split audiences down the middle. On one side we have those who see it as a masterpiece and a bold take on the Superman story, and on the other side we have those who see it as a desecration of everything Superman stands for and an overall horribly made movie. It’s a film with innumerable polarizing moments that has made it a continuous hallmark of internet arguments. With that in mind, my opinion always seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. Was it a good movie? No. Was it a bad movie? No. It’s the type of movie that epitomized the definition of “ok”. Not unwatchable, but nothing worth seeing. I liked a lot of the ideas they explored but felt it could have been done better. I didn’t really care about it, so I never got caught up in much of the praise or derision. So it struck me when I realized this past week I couldn’t remember anything about it.
I couldn’t tell if it was because three years of BvS build up had made it regress to the back of my mind or it really did mean so little to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything about the film outside of the famous controversial bits like the neck snapping or the mass destruction. This doesn’t really happen with me, I tend to commit movies to memory and I seldom can’t recall specifics. So I decided I needed to rewatch it before I see BvS, because if the film is going to follow the events set up in Man of Steel I‘m going to be lost’.
So I rewatched it, giving it my fullest attention….I know realize why I forgot it in the first place. Man of Steel isn’t only forgettable, it surprisingly got worse with time.
I usually write a whole section dedicated to laying out the plot, but this time around there would be way to much to unpack for a movie that’s already a few years old anyways. For the life of me I can’t understand why this film is nearly two and a half hours. The first twenty minutes alone are spent on the planet Krypton, which has very little to do with the overarching story that you’d wonder why they took the time to show us the whole destruction of the planet. The entire twenty minutes is summed up nicely later in the film in a brief one minute summary which serves the same purpose, the whole opening feels like padding as a result. The only important elements are Zod and the codex which could have been integrated elsewhere, everything else is superfluous. I as an audience member don’t care about the deaths of the Kryptonians because I know little about them. Am I supposed to be in shock when Zod stabs Jor-El? I hardly knew anything about the character of Jor-El so this has little impact on me. This is time that could be better spent on telling the story of Kal-El/Clark Kent.
We do get the childhood story of Clark, but it’s intercut throughout the first and second act as flashbacks. The film lacks a distinct structure which drives the narrative forward. So while the flashbacks might serve to establish Superman’s character, the scenes just come and go without much purpose. What is gained from intercutting older Clark saving people or destroying some guys truck with scenes of him learning to adapt to Earth or deciding wether to keep his powers hidden? The thing is many of these scenes are fine, creative and well executed even. I love watching young Superman adapt to his growing powers and the bit with the truck could establish a Superman who doesn’t take kindly to bullies and shows a hero who might be emotionally easy to manipulate, but the intercutting renders most of this material useless since it doesn’t build upon itself. Jumping from Clark and Jonathan Kent talking about keeping his powers a secret to Superman openly using his powers openly enough to be tracked by Lois Lane doesn’t show development, you just feel like there’s some piece of the puzzle missing. If one were to reorganize the plot to be straightforward, there might be a clearer picture of Superman developing and growing as a character. As is the film feels like a collection of random scenes that are hard to latch onto because the previous and following scenes don’t seem related.
This leads me to Superman himself, whose a bit on the bland side. I’m fine with Henry Cavill’s performance, but I know little about who Superman is by the end of the movie. In the scenes where he’s a child we get some development about him wanting to save people but being conflicted as his father wants him to hide his powers, but this doesn’t speak to the story that takes place when he’s older because he just saves people without considering the effects anyways. Both Jor-El and Jonathan repeatedly tell Clark that he’s destined for great things, but that’s about all we know. I couldn’t tell you much about his interests, beliefs, or how his childhood effected who he became. It’s not like it’s impossible to show that either, they have moments that are meant to be big pay-offs to his development. If you read the comics you know why Superman is so upset he has to snap Zod’s neck, he doesn’t believe in killing. But when does the movie ever establish that? That would have been a great pay-off, explore how Superman wants to be a savior for the world and doesn’t want anyone to die but has to make the hard decision to kill Zod to save lives. What we get instead is Superman saves people and kills Zod out of obligation to his fathers, he seems to have little agency or an overall character. There’s a scene where Clark goes to church, why not establish him as religious early in the film and have that be an element of his character? Instead it comes off as a lazy attempt to shove in a Christ metaphor.
This is the film’s persistent issue; it has great ideas but either drops the ball altogether or doesn’t set up scenes properly, robbing them of any meaning.
Other character fair about as well, but for different reasons. All the other character are given a personality and feel like their own unique character when introduced. Lois Lane is a take-no-crap reporter who pushes the envelope. Just based on her introduction scene alone I can tell you more about her character than Superman’s. Heck, even this guy:
has more of a personality than Superman. He’s only in two scenes but I know he runs a tabloid-esque website and is considered to be slimey, annoying, and opportunistic.
So why do these characters only fair as well as Superman? It’s because after their introductions, they loose any and all personality and henceforth only serve to move the plot forward by spouting exposition, no matter how confusing the reason may be. Lois’ skills and personality never come into play once she discovers Superman, I can’t even figure out why they become a couple as a result of what happens. Zod demands Lois join Superman when being taken prisoner and the military has her help fight Zod during the climax. Why do these events occur? No reason is given, it’s just to give Lois something to do and advance the plot. It’s sad to see actors like Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne be wasted when they are ideally cast for their characters.
The only character I’m on the fence about is Zod. Zod is given a nicely defined reason for all of his actions and arguably is the most interesting character as a result. He’s a soldier with nothing to fight for, he literally was bred to be a warrior. Now his motivations aren’t necessarily fully understandable until the climax when he lays it all out for the audience, but Michael Shannon’s performance is fun (read as hammy) enough to make up for that. The sticking point is he’s not in most of the film. He’s in the opening and then disappears for most of the first two acts. By the time he fights Superman at the end, the audience has already been through a long climax and his portions end up feeling tacked on.
The cinematography and overall design is pretty ugly. On the positive side, Superman’s suit pops nicely as his colors are fairly bold in comparison to the bleached out color scheme…and that’s about all the positives. The washed out colors are just unpleasant to look at and it isn’t helped by the digital camera work. Zach Snyder has always been known for his distinct style that isn’t to everyone’s liking, wether it be his slow motion or his video game-esque effects, but Man of Steel pushes it too far for even my tastes. I couldn’t figure out exactly why three years ago, but after having seen tons of movies follow suit in the past few years I’ve finally been able to pinpoint the issue, digital zooming. Snyder will have a nice wide shot and then in post he’ll dramatically zoom in closer to the subject, twice even. This effect is distracting at best and headache inducing at worst. Snyder didn’t invent the effect, but he certainly abused it. The action looses an element of reality since it’s clearly an effect the camera didn’t accomplish itself, it’s a look that can only be achieved digitally in post. For a movie stressing its “realism” and grittiness, it sure goes out of its way to remind me how unreal it truly is.
I’d go into deeper thoughts, but at this point I’m just rambling. Do I need to be the umpteenth person to make fun of the product placement?
I honestly found it hard to rewatch Man of Steel, it’s surprisingly boring. The first time around I was more willing to cut it some slack because I was watching it to see how they differentiated itself from previous incarnations. Yet just like The Amazing Spider-Man, once you get past that and think deeply about the movie, there isn’t much to chew on. It lacks any real development and is too overlong to sit through without nearly passing out. I pulled out my phone to check my email while watching, and if you know me you know I consider that one of the greatest sins one can commit when watching a movie. This movie bored me on a level I’m not used to. It isn’t hilariously bad, it isn’t fascinatingly bad, it’s just run of the mil bad.
I do think it has some great ideas and this material in better hands could be a unique take on a familiar premise, but Snyder serves up a boring and surprisingly confusing movie. I should be entertained watching Superman save kids from a bus sinking into a river, but when the takeaway of the scene is the families are angry at Clark for saving their children, I can’t really enjoy the things it seemingly does right. I get where the love for the movie comes from, there wasn’t a superhero movie like this at the time and it tries something new. But now that time has passed and we’re ready to move onto BvS, I think we can all see why there hadn’t been a movie like this before: It’s just not that good of an angle to explore. I guess I’ll stick to DC television for now, The Flash is killing it.