Saturday, 15 June 2013

Man of Steel, dir. Zack Snyder, scr. David S. Goyer, story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, st. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Russell Crowe

Not to be confused with the other Metal Man film on offer this Summer - Alan Partridge's Chap of Steel, the latest incarnation of Superman falls to 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder, a man whose trademark visual excess is lauded and indeed often promoted over his ability to produce equally rewarding content. We're supposedly old and wise enough now to know what a fraud movie trailers can be. Whether we do so subconsciously or not, our minds make thousands of calculations per second as we watch them. We forgive the clunky expository scenes edited together to explain plot, the wisecracks, the forced sexuality of its stars, the artificial rhythms that montage every gun fired and explosion exploded in order to ramp up the trailer's conclusion. And from this mess of information we filter out things that please - a certain visual aesthetic, a literary design, an intricate dialogue. And then there are trailers, beautifully constructed ones that hold back, that are all about establishing mood and colour, that promise greater things. And we dare to hope. When Man of Steel's Howard Shore-scored teaser hit in Summer 2012 and later, the full trailer in April this year, we threw caution to the wind and allowed ourselves to be moved.

After all, there was so much riding on this. Snyder has been teetering on the keen edge of credibility for some time now, and his films have delighted and divided in equal measure; the Superman franchise, if there was any need for a reboot at all, was calling for something a shade more substantial than Bryan Singer's 2006 film Superman Returns; and arguably, in dark times, an authoritative arbiter of peace with an infallible moral compass, bedecked in the nation's colours, carries a resonating emotional heft. As the debate rages on outside the cinema auditorium as the US prepares to arm Syrian rebels, might this not have been the perfect serendipitous time to show off a little humanity and alternatives to violence and destruction, as the trailers sensitively suggested? Apparently not. Man of Steel is sadly, an ungainly and grossly miscalculated misfire - both in Superman canon and Snyder portfolio.

In an overlong prologue, Jor-El (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Zurer) eject their son into the stars just as General Zod (Shannon) attempts a military coup on Krypton's decaying planet. On Earth, adopted by the Kents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, the young Kal-El learns to control his sensitivity to stimuli and surpress his desire to reveal his true nature, convinced as Kent Sr. is, that he would be rejected by humanity were they to find out. After being imprisoned and subsequently, accidentally released, Zod and his cabal travel to Earth in an attempt to hunt Kal-El down and harvest the home-world Krypton's blueprint for life from Superman's cells. Man of Steel is curiously a film of two very different halves. The first sets up life on Krypton and Clark's time on Earth (along with flashbacks to his childhood), and the second is an unholy miscellany of noise and fury as Zod and Kal-El lock capes. There are elements in the first half in which you believe this kind of slow-burn setup is warranted; Costner plays Jonathan Kent with a quiet sensitivity. You really believe he's a man who fears for his son's life and lacks the faith in his own species to embrace the unknown. Interesting too is the way we are shown a young Clark dealing with his peculiar abilities; it's grimly fascinating to see how the X-Ray vision and heightened sensory capabilities we all know and love, and that are so ably wielded by an adult Kryptonian, manifest like some kind of degenerative mental disorder in a young boy. And then there's Jonathan's repeated message of restraint to his adopted son. There's a fine line between the cinematic franchise's 'don't reveal yourself' Macguffin-mantra and a deeper 'diplomacy not aggression' political ideology, but it's an element to the film that offers some kind of potential antithesis against the ravages of Hollywood superhero excess - and an ideal that's swiftly obliterated once Zod and Supe start punching twelve shades of living shit out of each other for what feels like days. 

The great tragedy is that the performances are pretty good - they're just underwritten, spectacularly disserviced by Goyer's unimaginative screenplay. And Crowe's gravelly "they will rise behind you" speech, so wonderfully showcased in the trailer, and that supports the idea of the human race embracing the unknown and the fearful, pretty much falls apart when there's barely any interaction between Kal-El and the Earthlings - their reactions to Superman being reduced to woefully clunky 'he's our friend'-type commando-speak or the dumb expressions on Metropolisians as they survey the unfolding carnage around them. The climactic mano-a-mano Kryptic cockfight between Zod and Superman is merely a rehash of the tedious Neo/Smith confrontation at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, in which the knowledge that neither hero nor villain is capable of doing any significant damage to the other renders the entire sequence utterly pointless, and only serves as an excuse for endless scenes of urban destucto-porn. Superman III's climactic scene from the 1983 film in which Superman, suffering a shift in persona, has his 'pure' form fight with his 'corrupted' self is thrice the sequence the entirety of Man of Steel is, and why? Because it's intimate, choreographed and possessing of delicate emotional clout. It's the movie scene equivalent of seeing your Father cry as a child. You're desperate for good to have the will to triumph over evil. 

Man of Steel is then a huge disappointment. It's sloppy, choppy and badly composed and framed. It proves that no amount of photo-realistic CGI can ever serve as life-giving form or content, and it reduces Superman to by-numbers iconography when, as Bruce Wane's Alfred suggests, there is immense worth in becoming more than just a man. But worse than all of this, much worse, is that it's just dull. For a character that's so rich in possibility, a boring Superman film is truly an astounding feat in itself. You'll believe a man can fly, but you just won't give a damn.