June 16, 2013

Man of Profit

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Man of Steel’s failures — as art, as drama or even as just mindless entertainment — pale in comparison to what its success (a $125 million opening weekend, as of press time) says about the current state and future trajectory of Hollywood cinema. Director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer did not make a movie so much as a two-hour, 20-minute highlight reel — a joyless, soulless composite of the last 15 years of blockbusters, from the Star Wars prequels and Independence Day to Avatar and The Avengers. There is not one modicum of originality in Man of Steel’s plot, themes or aesthetics, yet here we all are, pitching this as the Movie To Beat this summer, buying, quite literally, into the hype and the grotesque Gillette/Wal-Mart/National Guard-marketing scheme some freshly promoted PR team drummed up. It’s all really depressing, if also fascinating when you stop and think about it.

Let’s get formalities out of the way. Like last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel is the latest summer-superhero-reboot-of-a-franchise-that-was-only-rebooted-like-less-than-10-years-ago. Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns in 2006, with Brandon Routh as the titular man in tights. That film dragged, overlong and histrionic, but you could sense a real, almost operatic ambition throughout, particularly whenever Superman and supervillain Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) shared the screen. Now, Snyder and Goyer play the Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El origin story once more, this time without almost any feeling at all. Sure, Henry Cavill dons the spandex with a real winning smile. Too bad he has to fight the dull, lumbering military-industrial complex that is General Zod (played by Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon, who is unforgettable in that show but not here) and has not the least supply of wit or charisma to get him through the by-the-numbers plot.

Said plot never materializes as one passionate struggle, whether external or, more crucially, internal, for Clark Kent to overcome, which partly explains Kent’s bland on-screen personality. This problem can, in turn, be credited to how poorly structured the whole film is, or, more specifically, how often the point of view does not belong to Kent. We follow Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Kent’s father, for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, as he shoots his way through generic sci-fi baddies in order to send his newly born son into space before Krypton, their home planet, implodes. Snyder pads what should have been a quick prologue with aerial dogfights and acrobatic flights that unmistakably resemble scenes from Star Wars III and Avatar, respectively. The whole slog could stand as its own act, one where the film’s protagonist (at least in his grown, communicative state) has yet to be introduced.

Soon after, we see Kent as a buff, superhuman miracle worker drifting across America, and just as scenes start to drop hints as to what makes him tick, out of left field comes the love interest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams). We follow her around for a bit, as she investigates Kent’s shirtless heroism for obviously, strictly professional reasons. One could say, “Hey, by diverting attention to Lois Lane alone, the filmmakers prop her up as an independent, feminized lead capable of her own brand of heroism.” Reading into comic book gender politics never ends well, so, to that end, it is worth noting that any hopes for a strong, (post)modern Lois Lane might as well be checked at the door. Her introductory scenes only serve to further distract from the de facto protagonist, Clark Kent, and each following scene affords her fewer lines than the last, to the point where her sole purpose is to trot (and “trot” is the right word, as the sound mixer makes sure the clacky-clack of her heels can be heard over the surrounding bedlam) onto the battlefield and embrace Kent’s battle-worn bod.

Perhaps that’s all for the best, because as Man of Steel devolves into gratuitous slam-bang action scenes, the few times Lane or Kent open their mouths remind us why they shouldn’t. “You know they say it’s all downhill after the first kiss,” Lane (actually) says, to which Kent responds, “I think that’s true only about kissing humans.” A few winners from General Zod: “Release the World Engine!” “I was bred to be a warrior. Where did you train? A farm?” and, my favorite, “There’s only one way this ends, Kal: Either you die, or I do.” The dialogue is so bad that you begin to question the abilities of these proven, gifted actors. But it’s so much easier to blame Zack Snyder and be done with it.

Those lines only sample the festival of clichés that is Man of Steel, and Snyder one-ups Goyer’s clunky screenplay by transplanting shots and images from a drove of recent successful films. Beyond Avatar and Star Wars (and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek), Snyder rips off Spider-Man 2 (see the clawed, Doc Ock tentacles chasing Superman through Metropolis), Thor (the nondescript, Midwestern Main Street where Superman fights Faora-Ul, resembling where Thor battles the Destroyer), Independence Day/2012/any Roland Emmerich film (crumbling skyscrapers, of which the new Star Trek and Iron Man also stand guilty) and Transformers 1-3 (the last third, particularly whenever more than one flaming/explosive projectile bombards the same shot). For a change of taste, there’s even an unearned Terrence Malickian montage of a nine-year-old, caped Kent frolicking before a wheat field, where the soundtrack drops to silence and Snyder expects us to absorb this awkward moment as something profound and nostalgic. I will admit I dug the Apocalypse Now shout-out, where aircrafts soar before a massive, blood orange Kryptonian sun, but for the rest, Snyder approaches something more like plagiarism.

This all may sound like miniscule nitpicking, but let’s put this into context: New Hollywood directors — Scorsese, Altman, Friedkin, et al — often paid homage or “tipped the hat” to prior films and cinematic styles. One of the greatest examples is the stairwell scene in The Untouchables, where Brian De Palma recreated the baby carriage’s dramatic descent in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin for a Prohibition setting. That 1987 film starred Kevin Costner — who I have neglected to mention brings the only real gravitas to Man of Steel as Kent’s adopted father — and De Palma maneuvered Costner through the scene, as he simultaneously shoots gangsters and tries to save that falling baby. There was no character like Costner in Battleship Potemkin, so De Palma both 1) paid tribute to the Soviet cinematic great and 2) updated his scene to fit a different tone, era, story, etc. What Snyder has done in Man of Steel does not abide by such parameters of respect, knowledge or innovation. His is a style of “Oh, that worked there, so let’s put it here.” Man of Steel cannibalizes not the classics from film school but the record-setting blockbusters still filling studio ledgers. It is an unsustainable mindset motivated by profit and removed from the forces that met to make Christopher Reeve a star.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos