Cast: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 143 min.
Verdict: An audio-visual assault. An aggravating experience. Utterly nonsensical.
Genre: Action, Fantasy
When little Clark hears, or overhears voices, has strange visions, one is reminded of the tormenting dreams young Jesus has as the night passes, the heavy breathing of all organisms around him, and the compassion that Kazantzakis establishes in the opening pages. Here is a tender human being confused and lost, scared shitless, struggling between the forces of the flesh and the spirit, and at that particular moment in Man of Steel, I felt, if ever there was a movie, a superhero movie that should’ve been directed by a could’ve-been-a-priest Martin Scorsese, this was it. Somewhere in there lay the germ of a great film, of what it means to be superhuman, but Man of Steel is not it. Rather, it is the very opposite – a hopelessly structured, anti-spiritual, heartless, inept and ugly looking film. It is almost remarkable if one were to wonder how a film could botch up such a fine idea in so many different ways.
I say anti-spiritual, and you might shoot back with all the talk of Gods, and the other worlds, and the moment in the church. I would retort how the movie trivializes the visions of Clark’s tormented childhood by having every Kryptonian setting foot on earth having a similar experience of sensory overload. A symbolic moment of poetry becomes a scientific fact only to be used as a weapon for fighting. What could’ve been about a very human struggle becomes a mere property of the Gods, thus sending something that was spiritual into the realms of mythology masquerading as science fiction. And what we get instead is some fluffy stuff about choices and faith set in a church, with Clark backgrounded by the figure of Jesus.
What makes matters that are merely disappointing to aggravating is the condensation of the imagery about the American life into war-prowess. We see a school bus on a slanted road, we see clothes hanging outside a house, and having just been back from a trip to the US, these are the kind of images of we see about America through the prism of culture. Imagine the old mother of the Ryan brothers outside her house. Ms. Dargis, in her review here, refers to Gary D. Engle’s 1987 essay on Superman, but Man of Steel does nothing with those images, except make Superman a super-warrior. Here he is, alternately, courtesy the narrative structure, son of Jor-El, a scientist, and son of Jonathan Kent, a farmer, and who does his very best to inspire him to greatness. And what supposed great things does Clark achieve? He fights General Zod and his men and kills some, amidst much destruction. What’s more, there’s even a congratulatory conversation between mother and son after the war about how papa Kent would’ve been proud. Clark, for all the talk the film delivers about the privilege of “choice” he has, is less of a son two his two fathers than he is to General Zod. We never see him speak to the administration save the military, or maybe in this universe the military is the administration. That makes him the earth’s version of General Zod, and by making America the invaded, it so conveniently makes war a necessity without the associated guilt, rendering Man of Steel much more irresponsible than the admittedly pro-war The Avengers. I say that because that film had the good sense of not invoking the 9/11 paranoia and instead reveling in the “awesomeness” of its superhero tag-team fighting it out with monsters. Here, the dread of 9/11, of falling buildings, or people being scared, is willfully invoked before making a complete non-issue out of it. General Zod’s terraforming machine tries to mess around with the Earth’s gravitational field, causing cars and buildings in Metropolis to be slammed to the ground. Thousands of deaths is a given, and yet the film conveniently ignores all of it in the face of a “heroic” scream from Superman as he thunders through some world-machine and several pre-established folks from the Daily Planet are saved. I fail to understand how the film measures all of that as the achievement of greatness.
Because, again, this is not a compassionate film we’re talking about here. We learn much earlier in the film that General Zod and everybody else are not evil by choice but because they have been pre-programmed to defend Krypton. Yet, in a silly one-liner, the film has Superman call him a monster, with absolutely no sign of him having any idea about the tragic figures all these Kryptonians are, not much unlike a moth attracted to a flame. Instead of understand that aspect of the narrative Man of Steel simply asks Michael Shannon to shout like he does, and when everything is destroyed, Zod’s vengeful anger doesn’t make any sense. There is little by way of grace, little by way of compassion, and all that is left is bodies thumping each other for no particular reason. Thus, when the time comes for the narrative for Superman to make a choice between a family and Zod, we feel completely insensitive. There has been no development in Clark from the time he destroyed that man’s truck to the time he breaks Zod’s neck. Nothing, absolutely nothing in this movie is earned.
It is ironic, in a way, because this is a film produced by Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose popularity can be charted through the grace notes in his films, through the compassion that runs through his narratives, who said in a recent interview that the greatest villains in the movies are those who speak the truth. It is also remarkable how the cross-cutting, for a Nolan produced film, whose career could be alternately charted through the art of it, is used so aggravatingly. Superman goes to the South to take out some machine, and people in Metropolis are being run down by the World Engine, and the cutting here works as a dampener, making no sense providing no narrative momentum and causing no questions the kind of which Nolan poses throughout his Batman trilogy by presenting the action via cross-cutting alone. Nolan exploits the narrative frame like few modern filmmakers, presenting the big central van-truck chase via no intercutting, with Batman coming to the game and kinda winning it, and then reversing it in one swift stroke by having the tragedy of Rachel and Harvey with that of the Batman and Gordon running, thus making it narratively impossible for Batman to save the day. Here, in Man of Steel, it is just nonsensical, almost like intercutting on auto-pilot. What’s sad is the lack of structure, or the lack of meaning to the structure, and it is flashback on auto-pilot as well. I imagine a film, where we open in the snows of Antarctica, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Lois Lane is drawn to that alien ship, and meets a figure there, and has a close encounter. She runs after him, searches for his footprints, and a legend is born. A legend who is torn, a legend who is scared and yet compassionate. A legend who is not merely a war-machine, but who sits and talks, who is above us. You know the kind of guy who is the bridge between us and Doc Manhattan. Not an idiot whose best is “I’ll stop you Zod”.