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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Guest Post: Man of Steel

Buckle up - this is a long one. The next guest blogger pretty much comes to the opposite conclusion about Man of Steel than I did, but that's alright because he is a much better writer. In fact, Brett Faulds is a beautiful writer and it is an honour to have him on my wee blog. ...

“Superman comics are a fable, not of strength, but of disintegration. They appeal to the preadolescent, (sic) mind not because they reiterate grandiose delusions, but because they reiterate a very deep cry for help.” David Mamet

Much like when losing one’s virginity, time offers many a revisionist to credibility where the celebration dulls and the reality of uncertainty presents itself as a counterpoint. In the moment, you pray for it to be something other than a complete disaster that should’ve been left to the imagination. In Hollywood this is referred to as box office. Critical appraisal has little relevance when the bottom line is whether you’ve delivered the requisite precision required when it came to the money shots.  To be concise, you either strut like Bart to a Bee Gees tune or you do the equivalent of drinking towards oblivion, waiting for enough time to pass, hoping no one remembers.

It was all the fault of Christopher Reeve.

To continue the (perhaps entirely inappropriate) analogy, he didn’t so much strut after ‘Superman’ than clear the dance floor of the world with the words “The Man.” emblazoned red and blue on his arse. Hypnotised by the symmetry, we demanded a repeat performance that going against the logic of all that isn’t Jack Nicholson duly delivered. To this day scientists still debate whether the accruement of underwear thrown into the sky did in fact create the Ozone layer (and they say over population is killing the planet. How do you like them irony apples?).

What goes up therefore must come down (possibly because they didn’t have special pills back then).

One could blame the shift in perspective that came about Hollywood in the decade we really should demand be forgotten. That of the introduction of the comedy sidekick. 

Now is not the time to investigate why this at the time involved mainly black comedians (I guess Jim Belushi couldn’t smother all with his “talent”. I hear the dog from K-9 slid into alcoholism). Trends have always been the fresh boy in the boardroom brought in to suggest innovation (“But, you know, for kids.”) and ‘Superman III’ certainly wasn’t the first. But we’ll forgive Reeve for Richard Pryor and the cheque for 4 million he pocketed. What we cannot forgive Reeve for is ‘Superman IV: The Quest For Peace’....

“You want to stay away from anything Superman can cure for humanity. It is one of the rules about writing for a superhero.” Tom Mankiewicz, writer ‘Superman’ and ‘Superman II’

The ego. The super-id. Complacency of success. Reverence to outright hostility. Those that defend Reeve’s role will of course refer to Cannon Films. They would have a point. However, it was Reeves story. Reeves insistence that because of his previously proven manliness, he knew best. 

Tapping into the legitimate concerns of the Cold War, let us then compare it to another “prescient” movie that came two years earlier and touched on similar themes. The difference with ‘Rocky IV’ (that is how bad it got. Superman was taking notes from Rocky) is it knew how to measure the nonsense with the serious (speech at the end ignored. Stallone never became President). For all the sledge hammering of James Brown miming out of his arse as Carl Weathers said goodbye to his dignity, Rocky never forgot what its core audience turned up for. Reeves did. To conclude the (perhaps entirely inappropriate) analogy, whereas the first two offered us breakfast in the morning, ‘Superman IV: A Quest For Peace’ called up our mum mid coitus and asked her if she wanted to join in.

Thus, Superman was no more. For 19 years. It was Joel Schumachered.


“I think that 'Superman Returns' was a bit nostalgic and romantic, and I don't think that was what people were expecting, especially in the summer.” Bryan Singer (Director of ‘Superman Returns’)

The summation of the above is simple. The world had moved on and the serious superhero movie had been introduced into a more cynical, fragile time (ironically, started by Singer with ‘X-Men’). It was simply no longer plausible for there to be a separation from real world, post 9/11 formation of character with the Donner idealism of a singular ideology to believe in. Designed as both a reboot and a continuation, Singer tried to recapture what was so adored about the originals. Whereas Peter Jackson took today’s technology and went back in time for his King Kong movie, Singer took the character into the heart of the previous incarnations, offering reflection, melancholy, regret that events could have turned out differently. A personal movie not personal enough to offer assurance that after everything that had happened in his (movie and real world timeline) absence, everything would be okay. We all wanted to be the guy who could fly and save the world, because the world needed to be saved. 

We did not want to be the guy more worried about his ex to the extent he goes off stalking her home at night (we’ll be fair and suggest he would’ve looked away had Lois been in the shower)....

“Hollywood is the only industry, even taking in soup companies, which does not have laboratories for the purpose of experimentation.” Orson Welles

Everything is reaction in the movie industry. In order to form profitable reaction, connection with formula is mandatory. We are deriding the fourth Superman movie for its pretentious conviction that a movie could change the world (and for, well, being shit). It is not the function of art to aim so high. The most therefore one can hope for is innovation of medium. Which brings us to ‘Watchmen’. Specifically, the graphic novel. Perhaps unfair to compare what was at the time a niche medium with what has always been a populist form, to this day it equally offers validity in the claim that in order to get to the heart of a real world parable, one has to look towards the obscure to achieve permission. Often since cited as one of the most influential pieces of literature by not only those who have since carved successful careers in the same medium, but also from more promoted forms.


“I always say, I'm certain I changed 'Watchmen' less than the Coen brothers changed 'No Country for Old Men.' I'm certain of it.” Zack Snyder (Director of ‘Man of Steel’)

Attempt followed attempt. Directors like Terry Gilliam and David Fincher (oh, just imagine. Remember the three shot, two fade onto the taxi in ‘Zodiac’? If you’ve read ‘Watchmen’, just imagine). The same excuses presented themselves. Budget. Tone. How? My suspicion presents another scenario. One of fear. We have ‘Ishtar’. We have ‘Heaven’s Gate’. We fast forward to ‘John Carter’, a folly so disastrous it sent Andrew Stanton back to Pixar faster than a soap star’s attempt to form a pop career runs from Katie Price’s opportunistic leg spreading. Here was a fascinating historical piece of writing primed for updating in a world offering rejection to the reconstruction of ‘Superman Returns’. Naturally, fear maintained its grip. 

Naturally, at a budget of $130 million, dictation cited formula as compromise. Welcome to Warner Brothers then, Mr. Snyder. Play it safe and we might have something else for you in the future. Something involving a cape. The resulting movie suggested two things:

1.) Hollywood missed the point of the novel. In its day a stunning portrayal of politics and fear mongering designed merely to induce paranoia and distrust in potential voters looking to elect public officials. Whilst offering questions such as who governs those that govern us? Who is accountable in any scenario? Is the bad man the one presented to us or closer to home (how little has changed, huh?). Therefore, to offer anything other than a contemporary update mirroring 9/11 consciousness of response (itself a more than valid construction given the tide of opinion that since the immediate has become more than questionable for its promoted resolution) rendered the whole point of the exercise mute.

2.) Mr. Snyder was merely a hack for hire, fumbling against the dark as he tries to insert his slow motion wire fu hard-on into the unwilling and unwelcome resistance of such things as characterisation. Emotion. Stuff that happens in between to offer weight to the overall (picture the shoot out in ‘Heat’ without the drama the preceded it. Doesn’t quite work now, does it?). One suspected another from the school of James Cameron who sat in the back of the class and wrote “cool action scenes” over and over whilst missing the importance of chaining coherence into a whole.

 A worldwide box office of $185 million does far from a success make. It was an utter nose picking of the source material offering suggesting opinion that his much published inspiration accrued to ripping pages out daily to wipe his backside with. But it was safe. It looked like a graphic novel on screen and it suitably impressed the studio with its standard adherence to generic character beats passing time until shit blows up. Job done. Have ‘Man of Steel’. The boy inside me however, the kid who believed Christopher Reeve was winking at him and him alone was not impressed. The bitter taste of the reaction to Singer’s attempt to reboot Kal-El still lingered and lingers, resolute in its determination to remain seemingly the one sole voice promoting the validity of Bryan Singer’s movie.


“I adore the Donner films. Absolutely adore them. It just struck me that there was an idealist quality to them that may or may not work with today’s audience.” David S. Goyer (writer of ‘Man of Steel’)

Unfortunately, this quote makes little sense in context of what is presented on screen. Make no mistake. A more American superhero movie one could not find. It becomes apparent that not only is the design to readdress the flaws of Singer’s movie but to suggest to said audiences that when the dastardly foreigners (one of Zod’s henchmen is so brilliantly Germanic you expect him to ask, “Is it safe?”) come to take their home, we reunite as one to take it back. Indeed, almost every American stereotype is catered for, but it is okay as we get an insert or two of other countries watching 

Zod’s message and panicking like extras do in movies. Consider also that whilst it is the world that gets threatened, the only place the enemy focuses on is actually America (yes, yes. Earth is getting terraformed by a machine taking a break from destroying Zion). Why does this not become a global fight? Because we come to what should be offered as a legitimate question towards how desensitised people have either become or presumed to have become. There can be two conflicting thoughts here. We are 12 years on from 9/11. Surely then enough time has passed? The answer falls into subjection. But it will be a question the movie requires you to answer as buildings fall and people flee from dust clouds. 

The very fact these scenes involve none of the main cast but plot devices 101 the movie could easily exist without simply reinforces what is being told on screen. Yes, there may be thousands nameless and faceless people dying in other collapsing buildings, but here we have the personal moment of someone pulling someone else out of rubble. ‘Superman Returns’ trod very carefully on “The American Way.” in tone, dialogue and character and whilst ‘Man of Steel’ ensures care also to not directly reference what commentary suggests is now an unpopular ideal, I was left in no doubt that this movie was as much a summer blockbuster as it was both a healing process for its target audience and suggested validation for what its country has partaken in since that tragedy.

As for the much vaunted realism, it is a curiosity. Indeed, those looking for light, the very essence of both the Reeve and (I would argue) the Singer incarnations might want to look elsewhere. ‘Superman Returns’ was blasted into a hell normally reserved for Michael Bay onscreen masturbatory technique for its emo-----tional approach to the mythos. ‘Man of Steel’ drowns itself and the audience into portentous self importance with a repetitive declaration this is indeed meant to be taken seriously. The question though is, was Superman ever supposed to be taken seriously? For if this is the purposeful setting up of a shared universe with that Bat fellow, does then a serious incarnation not squat in the tree and take a dump on the very basis of the idea that if Batman was the dark, Superman was the light?


“If the world found out he existed, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history...” David S. Goyer

To the absolute crux of the story being told and the one aspect this “new” mythology (“new” as in, based on the comic book ‘Superman: Birthright’) that defines whether or not you can connect on an emotional level. Whilst not an overriding theme in terms of screen time, what scenes we do get adhere to the very notion of how a world would indeed react to such knowledge. For this to have an answer we have to look at the movie in two separate halves and in doing so, we have to analyse Mr. Snyder as a director.

The simple truth is that even with the Dark Knight team behind the story (thankfully, after ‘Sucker Punch’, Snyder’s input into the actual story is minimal), the first hour brutally exposes his limitations. There is little wrong with scenes directly relating to the discussion of such exposure (save for one 30 second scene with a Priest that seemingly flips 33 years of identity crisis towards a positive conclusion), but problems arise significantly with everything that surrounds it. 

Mr. Snyder simply does not know how to direct actors (I will forever pity the poor female cast of ‘Sucker Punch’). Cavill is left floundering in any scene that does not require him to offer one note expressions of determination (CGI or not), which, considering the guy is headlining a $200 million dollar movie is at best negligent and at worst, unforgiveable. It also detracts significantly from the story that is attempting to be told. Identity. Belonging. Purpose. Trust in the compassion and acceptance of others. These are the very essences required to fuel the audience into participating in such a moral dilemma. Emotional moments designed for this purpose are in turn laughable without subtlety of hand to guide. We are shoehorned, bludgeoned through an erratic timeline of forth to back with a startling lack of subtlety and finesse. Indeed, it evokes the travesty of the third act in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, where competency of technique is replaced with A-C-S-B-Z construction that on the surface is pleading for compliment but in actuality jars the momentum to the point it is allowing the audience to mark out its flaws. 

Ultimately, the dichotomy of personality in the character in relation to his connection to Earth does not in any way match the clarification of Zod’s in relation to Krypton. Which sadly is absolutely what the story intended yet is lost through generic (and again, poorly handled) character beats. This is where ‘Superman Returns’ knocks it out cold. There was connection. There was melancholy. There was care in the prescience of the world they lived in. There was acknowledgment from both sides that co-dependency was a given. It sold Superman as a God like, otherworldly presence that needed humanity to inspire his ideals. It was the core on which the Reeves films where grounded. Singer knew this. ‘Man of Steel’ attempts to try to acknowledge this but simply fails under the weight of displaced, poorly executed emotional grandeur. If only there was a love interest then to persuade Kal-El about what it is he is fighting for.


“I liked the fact that Lois was one person with Clark and another with Superman.” Margot Kidder (the original Lois Lane)

Where art thou, Sigourney Weaver? Linda Hamilton? Erm, Kate Beckinsale? Did Jodie Foster actually exist or was she a figment of Travis Bickle’s horny imagination after exiting the porn theatre? Don’t approach Amy Adams for answers. 

We get one line of, “Hey, I’m a modern chick standing up for myself. Respect me.” before she is swiftly relegated to first generic love interest , then woman in peril. This of course is nothing new. If movies have taught anything since time begin it is that all women of our world are helpless, weak individuals constantly in need of the manly man to manly man them to manly town (read: curtains blowing in the wind). Whilst we do get a strong female figure in Foara-Ul (a scene stealing Antje Foara in her first breakout movie. No. ‘Pandorum’ doesn’t count on the grounds of crapness), this is of course not an Earth female for they simply do not exist. 

Dicks rule the world. It is the swinging of dicks that indeed allow the Earth to rotate and keep us all alive. This is no criticism of the actress herself in the same way I cannot fault Cavill’s struggle with the patented Keanu Reeves paper bag in the first hour. There is only so much any talent can do with a role that in one scene threatens to quit (for not being allowed to write a story), only to pout in a similar scene 10 minutes later when threatened with the sack (for not being allowed to write the same story). To use a popular term, she exists solely to offer motivation to Superman that if he does indeed save Earth, he may very well get the ‘V’. Hell, even Jor-El knows this. He basically sends her to her death as a plot initiation point to test how much of a horn his son has got for her.

Two actors to rise above all this nonsense are Crowe and Shannon, but one suspects this is more their ability to function without direction and offer dramatic weight to any line (Costner on the other hand seemed like a one-two take deal. Any scene with himself and the young Kal-El had me reaching for the cynicism of a new born kitten cuddling into its mother). Indeed, General Zod is one of the better recent examples of movie villainy we have seen. Partly because he doesn’t allow himself to be captured as part of the plan (I honestly cannot take another variation on this theme), mainly because the impressively realised scenes on Krypton (involving primarily, Crowe and Shannon) offer much needed weight to the second half of the movie. Alas, whilst this cannot overcome entirely the baffling nature of Jor-El’s plan (he reveals why Kal-El was sent to Earth in a moment where you really should be walking out of the cinema and calling child services), you find yourself grateful it was delivered by an A-game Crowe. Having witnessed all that had preceded it, had these lines been delivered by anyone else involved other than Shannon it would’ve sunk the movie into absolute absurdity....

“He can’t do anything that’s not a visual effect… if he’s going to do something physical, that’s a visual effect. Because he‘s Superman.” Zack Snyder

I offer the concession that I am in agreement about the lack of action in ‘Superman Returns’ (not to mention that Lex was, well, shit). For all its intentions of romanticism to both Reeves classics there just weren’t very many scenes of Superman being super. If this was the fear for moviegoers, for mythological followers still burnt by their Singer experience, allow me then to address fears. This shows every dollar on screen and for the first time in his career, allows Mr. Snyder to offer an identity to the audience. One gets the sense the moment General Zod appears on screen with the viral warning already shown previously to the inter-world, Snyder himself breathes out a thankful sigh of relief and brings the A game the world never thought he had. So we get crunching sequences of people frankly beating the toilet habits out of each other, of swooping cameras, extended one take over the shoulder sequences (which look genuinely impressive when they are of a man flying at full speed to punch someone), mass destruction of small towns (the best set piece in the movie) and entire city blocks, punches that you genuinely feel the weight of. A caveat however presents itself. Bizarrely, the action sequences of ‘Superman Returns’, a movie made seven years previously, offers more authenticity than those on show here. For you see, how your disposition settles on modern cinema will dictate whether you see this as CGI at its most impressive/intrusive. Watching it, I recalled Neo fighting a gajillion Agent Smiths. If you accepted that, you’ll whoop here. The problem with Mr. Snyder’s claim is it is all in the context of the scene. If subscribing to the “throw shit at the green screen” rule of blockbuster, then one might accuse the makers of doing so to hide from the audience that actual lack of context behind what we are witnessing. What makes this assertion so jarring also is it was being overseen by a director who preached to ridicule the necessity of placing his Dark Knight into a real world existence. Let us look at it then from the lead character angle. Batman is not Superman and therefore lends itself more freely to the idea of realism. But the Superman 30 years ago wasn’t the Superman in ‘Man of Steel’. We still believed a man could fly. We still believed he and Zod were going at it. Do we believe a man can fly here? No. We believe we are watching a CGI man flying on the screen. We know there are no such things as Transformers, but three movies making billions in box office shows that, hey, we’ll ride with it, no? We are after all a generation of movie goers and movie makers that no longer have to proclaim ourselves as purists of the medium. With great budgets, comes great responsibility.

The conclusion we find ourselves eager to arrive it then is do we get the full price of a cinema ticket? Yes. Yes we do. One cannot deny the spectacle onscreen (a desire for hipster validity or not). They spent the money to shut off your brain and suspend time. I did. You will. Hours after, you still will. 

Days? Months? Years? Chances are if your brain engages this without cynicism, it will erase such queries when the next big budget ‘wow’ appears. You know in your soul it ultimately all means nothing... Felt nothing… Amounted to nothing. But for the moment when you suspended time, you loved it and that, for many, is what paying the price of a cinema ticket is about. I was able to shut my critique down in a manner I could not even pretend to have done with the first hour. Many will not, but more than the many will. In this sense, what Snyder does here is an unqualified success. 

These are the best actions scenes of the year and I suspect, the best for many a year to come....

"Do the DC characters exist in the universe I created? The answer is yes. In my mind, we have this fantastic character of Superman. It’s not madness that there would be others" Zack Snyder

Are we then heading to a shared DC universe? 

Fundamentally, it shares more than enough genetic traits for the answer to fall into the positives. History and fact offer the conclusion that the idea for such a universe merely exists due to envious glances towards Marvel Studios. The truth is more simple. Warner Brothers and DC long had the idea (but not a clue) on execution other than killing the notion with procrastination. Before reaction to ‘Superman Returns’ (2006) floated around the bowl, we had ‘I Am Legend’ (2007) with the now infamous ‘Superman v Batman’ cinema header (the movie I guess had to be remembered for something). As is want, idiocy from one leads to opportunism for another. Thus, the Marvel universe was born, ‘Iron Man’ (2008) introduced himself and the rest is both history and future.


"[Nolan’s] Batman was deliberately and smartly positioned as a stand-alone. The world they lived in was very isolated without any knowledge of any other superheroes. What Zack and Chris have done with this film is allow you to really introduce other characters into the same world.” Jeff Robinov, Warner Bros. President.

Fiscally, a connection to the Dark Knight trilogy would negate the obvious expense of further rebooting Gotham’s favourite son. A closer analysis suggests a more involved look at the audience who visit these characters through the medium of cinema compared to those more personally and emotionally invested in these worlds. Who but the most observant would note the Wayne Enterprises logo on a satellite? Who but versed in previous would nod agreeably at the Brainiac reference when Zod loses his protection and submits to sensory overload? Now conclude which group rests in the minority. The sense surely then lies in a purposeful unity to a staggeringly successful (and in many ways unique) trilogy. Whilst it is true both Nolan and Bale have stated a desire to move on, whereas Marvel are famously more loyal to protecting their chequebook than the talent, Warner Bros. would have little problem requesting a price to be named. After all, to finish on a comparative, ‘Man of Steel’ to ‘Superman Returns’ is essentially nothing more than what ‘The Incredible Hulk’ was to Ang Lee’s experiment.

Time, and box office for ‘Man of Steel’, will detail whether it is time for Warner Bros. to strut.