By Tom Kapr
It can be difficult when you are the one person out of five people on a podcast about movies who thinks a movie isn’t good. Worse still when you’re also the one out of the five who wasn’t present for the conversation. Even worse, when you then have to listen to that conversation and edit it into the podcast we present to our listeners, without bias. (Believe me, the temptation to just chop out opinions that you think are totally wrong is like being cajoled by inner James Earl Jones-ian voices to go over to the Dark Side.)
I was dreading the editing on the Man of Steel segment last week, but strangely, even though those fools gave it a grade of two A’s and two B’s, I spent most of the time thinking, “that’s a fair point.”
The truth is, I found Man of Steel nigh unbearable to watch, but that’s not because it’s a complete failure of a film. Oh, it’s a failure of writing and directing and in some cases acting, but it has its merits. I actually love the direction they took the character. I love that for most of the story, he’s just Clark Kent from Smallville trying to figure out who he is, where he came from, why he’s different, and what he’s meant to do. I love that they show him as a human with frailty, weaknesses, uncertainties. I love that he doesn’t really know how to wield his power. I loved Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent; they were two phenomenal father figures and fully-rounded characters. Amy Adams was fine as Lois Lane, and Henry Cavill was fine as Kal-El.
If only all that had been put into a script that had some sense of pacing and wasn’t full of cringe-inducing dialogue. If only all that had been directed by somebody who knew how to balance the carnage with some sense of respect toward its subject matter. If only all that had been directed by somebody who knows what to do with a camera.
The guys on the podcast think I’m blanketly (is that a word? well, now it is) a Zack Snyder hater. I’m not. Well, I am, but I wasn’t always. I remember when I went to see his re-imagining of Dawn of the Dead. That is one of the best zombie movies ever made. I came out of the theater thinking, where did this Zack Snyder guy come from? This was his first movie, and it was freaking amazing. Then of course his most popular film came along, 300, which I dislike for moral reasons, but not, like the rest of its detractors, for its aesthetic. I even enjoyed Watchmen for the most part, despite having finished the book an hour before going to the theater. But then came along Sucker Punch, a melange of imagery that should have been interesting but was somehow intensely boring, not to mention, again, morally reprehensible.
Still, I was willing to give Snyder another chance with Man of Steel. Especially after I saw the trailer (which is still one of the coolest trailers I’ve ever seen), I was excited to see this movie. Now I see that Snyder is a director who knows how to capture fascinating images (a lot of the shots in this film are surprisingly artistic and beautiful), but not how to bring them together cohesively. Especially the opening 20 minutes and the seemingly never-ending destruction of the finale are little more than tons of CGI being thrown at the audience with no sense of cinematic artistry. The camera zooms in and out seemingly at random. I thought the cinéma vérité style of the trailer was a fascinating stylistic decision for this movie. Now I feel I can only credit that to, maybe, Snyder getting lucky with a few shots, or perhaps cinematographer Amir Mokri, and probably more than a little to whoever edited the trailer. Maybe that person should have edited the movie.
I have a laundry list of complaints: the character of Zod is interesting but I felt didn’t quite have the sense of consistency he should have, even with the great Michael Shannon in the role; Diane Lane seemed to almost be playing Martha Kent for camp, and I usually love Diane Lane (though I hated Must Love Dogs); the movie felt interminably long, especially when it became a constant stream of CGI with no sense of environment; it was way more violent than it needed to be; the Christ-imagery, while inherent to the character, was ham-handed in its delivery; a few scenes were eye-rollingly cliché; the color palette was one of the bleakest I’ve seen outside of a Dogme 95 film; even some of the dialogue scenes were way too CGI-heavy (I’m thinking of Jor-El’s Fortress of Solitude Exposition Extravaganza); and the scene in which Clark watches his second, earthly father die is hopelessly contrived. You mean, Jonathan had to be the one to go back and save the dog from the twister? Sure. It’s in the script. At least Costner delivered.
I feel that they tried to cram too much story into one movie. This is basically the story of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and its immediate 1980 sequel mashed into one movie–with, admittedly, a far more interesting Superman at the center. I know Christopher Nolan shepherded this movie through its scripting phase, and I find it interesting that I had this thought completely separate from that knowledge: I wish they had broken this story up into two movies, just like the originals were, and followed more of Dark Knight trilogy arc: the first film, an origin story about a hero who had to go on a journey of self-discovery before he could take his place as protector. There was absolutely no sense of Superman as protector in this film, and that is its gravest trespass. I know he needs to find that in himself first, but the movie never got there, or didn’t care to (I suspect the latter), which is the only real reason I felt a sense of disrespect for the character on the part of the filmmakers. Not because he inadvertently causes almost as much destruction as his enemies or because he makes the decision, the necessary decision, to break Zod’s neck and kill him, but because the storytellers made no effort to give Kal-El a sense of duty to help people who are in danger.
I mean, sure, he saves the planet, but listen, this is the moment when I decided to really hate — not just dislike, but hate — what the filmmakers were doing: Superman saves Lois Lane (yada, yada) and they land in what used to be Metropolis (now a barren wasteland), and they start making out. While thousands are still dying in the rubble around him. Thousands of people that Superman should be able to hear crying for help. Superman stopped the Earth Destroying Device just in time to keep Perry White and two of his reporters from being killed, and the woman (a character who was not established prior to this sequence) says: “He saved us.”
At that point, I whispered loudly enough for the person next to me to hear, “Well, he saved four of you.” And then the film went on to knock down more buildings and kill thousands more people. Look, I know you have to up the ante these days, but you can tell your story without a Transformers-level disregard for humanity.
That scene also contains an exchange between Superman and Lois Lane that is one of the worst pieces of dialogue ever in a movie. Ever.
As I was saying, this level of darkness and destruction might have fit better in a Dark Knight-esque sequel. Like Batman was faced with the formidable Joker, a sequel in which Superman had to face Zod would have paced this character’s and this story’s arc better. He would have already been established as a protector character in the first film, and the second film would have pushed that protector role past Superman’s limit, fighting a force of foes that have him out-manned, out-gunned, and out-classed in every way — every way but being on the side of goodness and compassion.
Forgive me for the rambling nature of this article. This is just my Tuesday rant, after all. I just have so much to say against this movie where others have done little but heap praise on it. Praise that, to a great extent, I understand. There is a lot of good stuff in this film, at least conceptually, and there are even a lot of great scenes. It just wasn’t all put together that well, and Zack Snyder became so focused on showing as much wanton destruction as possible that he lost sight of what was important.
I believe there are good places to go from here with this franchise. I just sincerely hope the next film isn’t directed by Snyder.
Having said all that, be sure to listen to our podcast and also to read this well-written article defending the movie I just trashed.
Oh, by the way: Superman Returns might have a less rich concept of Superman as a character, but it’s still much better filmmaking. Yeah, I said, it’s the better film.
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