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The Man of Steel: When Big Themes Meet Empty Action

June 19, 2013

Man of Steel movie poster

The Man of Steel is another addition to the loud summer blockbuster tradition. It takes an incredibly popular character, adds a tons of importance and features little character development. The movie is a visual cornucopia full of empty calories and property destruction. The number one takeaway is that Russell Crowe is the only human alive who looks more comfortable riding a flying lizard then he is playing an everyday bloke. Also, Kevin Costner needs to act around corn more often.

I really wanted to like Man of Steel but found myself caring more about the property destruction. The CGI heavy fight scenes reminded me of what Iron Man 3 was trying to avoid after learning the computer blob brawls didn’t work in the first two. Superman battles CGI baddies in full space gear while giant claw arms spew from a mechanical spaceship. The excitement is non-existent because you know Superman will win and the CGI villains will fly around shakily and do nothing to engage or excite. Zach Snyder has taken a creative step back after Dawn of the Dead and 300 made him famous. You were invested in the characters as they battled zombies and boat loads of Persians. The violence was intense and stylish but you never forgot about character. His following films Watchmen and Sucker Punch looked amazing but never packed anything resembling an emotional punch or engaging narrative structure. Watching Sucker Punch had me worried about Superman because Snyder failed to make scantily clad women, good music, robots, Oscar Issac and huge battles entertaining.

The MoS cast is full of award winning thespians (Kevin Costner, Russel Crowe, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and most importantly Michael Shannon) who give it their all despite having little to do. Henry Cavill looks the part and deserves the tweets but he never makes an impression or is able to own Superman. Costner and Lane are wonderful together and Costner’s scenes carry the weight of the film. His insistence on making sure Clark is ready to introduce himself to the world is the central and most intriguing theme of the film. However, the self importance and suppossed familiarity in Superman characters left me cold and wanting more. I wanted more of Zod’s demented mission to save his race and Lois Lane’s researching skills. The themes in this film are really neat but become lost in the CGI punching.

I know a lot of people did not enjoy Superman Returns but I found several moments to be wonderful. For instance, the scene where Lex Luthor’s baddie and the kid play piano. The scene is a threatening moment that gives the henchman a memorable character moment and provides tension and levity. Also, the plane scene (which Iron Man 3 copied) is an exhilarating moment of man vs. machine that was not overblown by CGI. Also, Lane’s husband came to the rescue and added a neat vision of humans and Superman working together.

Wesley Morris of Grantland summed up why the first two Superman movies are so popular and endearing:

What made the first two Superman movies, in 1978 and 1981, work so well as entertainments was how they could scale the tone up or down. Richard Donner gave you a romantic screwball comedy — basically, His Girl Friday — that established the characters and made you care about them so that when, later, the comedy dissipates in the face of danger, you have a stake in the outcome. You want action to solve the drama and restore the lightness. Snyder doesn’t have that kind of classical smoothness.

There is nothing smooth about Man of Steel. There are three incredibly obvious Messiah references on top of camerawork so shaky it looks like they placed the camera on top of a large shake weight. Buildings crumble, people engage in huge acts of bravery and people are literally punched through city blocks (many times over). The problem is that while watching you care nothing for these characters. The flash back narrative and seriousness keep you from holding your breath. When Superman learns to fly it should be a triumphant moment of character engagement. However, you are treated to fantastic CGI and little else.  There is a scene where Laurence Fishburne (looking much better than he did in Predators) is trying to free a trapped coworker from underneath a collapsed building. You are supposed to care about their plight but the script has done nothing to make them real so there are no real emotions. I never want to see anybody smooshed but I had zero at stake whether they made it out of the property destruction.

The scenes with Laurence reminded me (PROMETHEUS SPOILER ALERT) of Idris Elba’s death in Prometheus. He and two of his crew drive their ship into the alien ship as it is threatening to fly away to destroy earth. The moment should have had an Independence Day type bravado but instead ended with a loud explosions and a crunched Charlize Theron.

The Man of Steel tries something new and that should be applauded. However, they forgot to add tension and character to the violence. The result is a movie about big themes that only go kiddie pool deep because city blocks have to be destroyed.

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