A friend once nicknamed me the woman of steel, because I never cry in public. It is quite ironic I suppose that it was the Man of Steel that nearly reduced me to a sobbing puddle in the middle of the theatre.
I like to consider myself a fair critic. Getting wild with the big raspberry-blowing emoticon and wrapping it all up in ‘this-sucks’ sticky tape, is just mean. People’s efforts deserve more respect than that. But in truth my despair is making me snappy and, more importantly, with this film it’s really hard to know where to start. Everything was wrong.
For the tl:dr brigade and those who just want a rotten tomato rating without any spoilers, suffice to say this was a film determinedly throwing off its heritage, determined to reinvent itself as realistic and gritty. To give us a hero to stand alongside the Dark Knight and Iron Man, a man worthy of our age and complex reality. In the search for gravitas, the very air is toned to a perfect shade of grey; the red cape a sombre, blood-hued affair throwing off its cheesy cartoon origins, along with hum-along music, quick-change telephone boxes and glowing green rocks. Dialogue is delivered as though any emotion must surely be the province of madmen and clowns.
Stripped bare we are left with a film bereft: Bereft of character, conflict, intrigue, humour, and sense. But most of all it was bereft of story. It’s not alone, its sins seem to be the sins of Hollywood at the moment, but it is, thus far, the worst offender I have seen this summer. And it was this that nearly brought me to tears. Sitting there in the dark, I realised I wasn’t just watching another superhero blockbuster, another popcorn fuelled romp, I was witnessing the end of story.
I love story. Never really needed an explanation, but scientists have yet again proven what the rest of us already knew; story is hardwired into our brain. In the most simple of terms, it is how we figure things out. Engaging our imagination is an evolutionary tool designed to help us understand the consequences of our actions and figure out who we are. If we do it right, take the ‘what if’ and resolve it, with a happy-ever-after or otherwise, we are rewarded with a big dose of feel-goods.
As such, story has rules and those rules are laid in science. This doesn’t limit the variations, rather I like to think of it like DNA which marks us as human, yet also identifies every child born as utterly unique; its potentials are infinite. But you cannot break the rules. Break the rules and whatever you have, it isn’t story.
Those rules are ones we hear time and time again, and people like to roll their eyes at them as if they were a construct of the soulless, money driven corporations who also invented Christmas and chubby cheeks. In their simplest form they are: show don’t tell, suspension of disbelief and relatable characters. Exploring each would take a book, each over laps and plays into the other, break one, and they all start to unravel. In Man of Steel, however, they were not so much broken, as simply discarded.
Superman offers, as we know from countless reinventions, many possible stories, and, perhaps oddly for a film bereft of story, this is the first major problem. There are simply far too many vying for screen time and the consequence is that we cannot truly answer any of them, especially when we have all those explosions to fit in.
Structurally it is both irritatingly choppy and boringly linear; jumping constantly from an uncertain present time frame to his alien origins to wandering minstrel to childhood heroism, never allowing us to settle into the story. The worst sins, however, are committed in the first fifteen minutes, which gives us the backstory that we all know, with one small addendum. One small addendum that answers all the questions that might have arisen in the final two thirds of the film, and rendering any intrigue null and all action utterly void of interest or tension.
One might then hope this would leave us plenty of room to develop other aspects, the human aspects: his relationship with Lois Lane, the struggle of maintaining a dual identity, humankind’s fear of the unknown, and his acceptance that even he is limited. Well, yes they are all in there, what previously took three films to explore, and though this one seems interminable it’s still insufficient. So we are told rather than shown. It’s quicker.
Romance: Lois gets a snog. And while I can certainly understand why she went for it, I have more difficulty understanding why Superman did, or why Zod wants Lois aboard the ship, because if he managed to discern a meaningful relationship from the three words they exchanged, he really does have x-ray vision and psychic abilities to boot. Not suggesting it is to fill a plot hole.. there would have to be a plot.
Dual identity: after lifting up a busload of his classmates and saving an entire oil rig, all of whom saw him aflame, he refuses to punch the lights out of a little pip squeak and instead moves on.. It’s poignant, honest.. Pointless, but you know..moody. He even has a bit of stubble.
Humankind’s fear: Perry told us about it; a whole sentence. Apparently we don’t need anything more. He is editor of the Daily Planet.
The dialogue, brief as it is, attempts to bridge any missing links, putting subtext into our characters mouths and removing any individuality or believability with it, as everyone talks like they’re doing a trailer advertising their touching moment rather than living it.
Ever wonder what it might be like to raise a boy like Clark? How to help him balance normal adolescent concerns with superhuman abilities? Help him decide who he wants to be?
Wonder no more, Old Pa Kent tells us; ‘what kind of man you grow up to be.. will change the world’
I suppose it is better than don’t do drugs and eat your greens. Still I thought my dad was putting undue pressure on me when he wanted me to go to university. If only I like young Clark were so restrained to a ‘but can’t I just be your daughter’.. That’s how epic destiny should be handled…succinctly limp.
And of course since we have to kill off poor Jonathon early, everyone else has plenty of soundbites to make sure you don’t miss the point.
Jor-el: You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall, but in time they will join you in the sun.. (more psychic abilities)
Random priest: sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. The trust comes later.
What’s wrong with just admitting, bugger me, that’s a toughie? Don’t envy you that choice, big man.
It’s Superman, you say (or so I imagine you might well), we know how it works. We know who he is and what it is all about, we don’t need told. Granted, which is why I wonder why we needed to waste time on all that backstory yet again, and, as said before, story has endless variations. As witnessed in the recent Smallville, there are many unexplored aspects of this one which still fascinate, aspects which, with an unlimited budget and advances in special effects, should be ripe for exploitation. Perhaps therein lies the answer to what went wrong. This is a special effects bonanza; red veined super heat, earthquake inducing flight and world engines…
However, I still wouldn’t call this a visual film, rather it is a visual..something.. a video game, a series of vignettes; they would certainly make great music videos. I have no issue with storytelling through visuals, they are after all perfectly suited to the medium of film, but the point is you are still unravelling a story: action leading to consequence, problem leading to solution.
We have a copy of the Chronicles of Riddick in the world engines surrounding the planet of Krypton, a touch derivative but very clever and very naturally leading to the question, why did they sit around and wait to die? Why did the El’s prepare a shuttle only for their son and not the entire family?
We have a ship uncovered in the deep frozen north and not a red tipped nose or puff of white breath amidst their oh-so-brief conversations. Instead we have bare, bald heads in the dead of night..
And if your suspension of disbelief is still intact, then come the battles.. exploding high rises, trains derailed, high powered missiles deployed in small towns.. So does Superman feel the agony of the lives lost, compelled to stop and try to save even a single soul… well no, but apparently they was no one there, apart from the guy who put the closed sign on the local laundrette.
A wasteland cored out in the centre of the city and the only witnesses are Lois and a couple of fellow Planetites, no bodies underfoot and not a mark on them, though they did get a hell of a dusty, despite the surrounding skyscrapers being reduced to scorched skeletons.
And in this chaos, are heroes and cowards revealed, beneath the dust did we uncover ourselves, as we should in all good stories? Remember the guy cowering under the table, his mammy on the other end of the phone? He wasn’t in this film. I really missed him.
I know how long this is. The scary thing is I haven’t really scratched the surface of what I hate about this film. I think this has been coming for a long time. This film is the equivalent of a vain peacock, one of a flock, all looks no substance, and the worst is I knew it would be and yet still I went to see it with hope.
I write because of what I wish this had been, what I really wanted this to be, was willing it to evolve into even as I was sitting there. Until I surrendered. That’s when I wanted to weep. I still do.