Monday, April 04, 2016

Man of Steel

Right then, I’ve steeled myself up (pardon the pun) and I’m going to see ‘Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ on the big screen later this week. There’s a certain car-crash mentality to this decision. I can’t even call it morbid curiosity, because curiosity suggests an open-mindedness, a spirit of inquiry rather a morbid confirmation of what one knew already. Yes, I know ‘BvS: DoJ’ is going to be downright flawed at best and an abject piece of shit at worst. But after a fortnight of reading reviews brimming with bilious hatred, I need to see it for myself. If only to experience the zeitgeist. The last time the collective critical consensus went against a major tentpole release – Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ – I opted out of seeing it theatrically. Two years later, I caught in on DVD and my immediate opinion was “yeah, whatever, not great, not terrible, nice train chase”; then, with a jolt of realisation and complete bewilderment, “wait a minute, the critics hated on it that much?”

So I’m going to tootle along to my local multiplex, lay my money down, invest two and a half hours of my life (three if you count the wanky ads for piss-weak foreign lager and aspirational lifestyle bollocks), and revel in the mangled wreckage and streaks of blood on the side of the highway. We’re talking schadefreude, folks, and you don’t need to speak German to dig it. Because tonight, thank God, it’s Zack Snyder and not me. 

But before I go and see ‘BvS: DoJ’ and before I hammer out my review of it in a Lagavulin induced haze, there is the necessary context of ‘Man of Steel’. So here goes.

Cards on the table: I liked Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ with Christopher Reeve. The sequels were shabby, and got worse as the franchise lumbered on. Bryan Singer’s ‘Superman Returns’ was one of the dullest big-budget studio films I’ve ever seen, and I’m including the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequels in that, so nyah-nyah-naa-nyah-nyah. Innit?

Cards on the table part two: I’m not that keen on Zack Snyder. His ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake was better than it had any right to be, but nothing else in his filmography has lived up to its promise. ‘Sucker Punch’ came closest, and at least had the feel of a work by an auteur, but I still came away from it with a feeling of “meh”.

So I didn’t have much hope for ‘Man of Steel’. And maybe that negative expectation worked in its favour when I finally got round to seeing it. There was the opening sequence with Russell Crowe as Superman’s dad and a nerdishly unholy dose of sci-fi porn – glitzy, borderline incoherent and thunderously unsubtle … but it did the job. There was the montage of Superman-in-waiting, from his childhood as stepson to a couple of all-American farmers (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), to his troubled, peripatetic twenties – a welter of swaying cornfields, tornadoes, schoolkids in peril and oil rig fires … bludgeoningly obvious stuff, but all in context and effective enough. And. Then. Snyder. Went. Fucking. Apeshit. 

No stand-in for tarnished post-Nixon patriotism à la Donner’s classic; no heavy-handed Christ parable à la Singer’s snore-fest (although Snyder sneaks the odd visual metaphor for crucifixion). Nope: what we have in ‘Man of Steel’ is a superhero for a jaded, paranoid and politically compromised age where the entertainment value of superheroes is in stark contrast to the swathes of destruction they’d cause if you rooted them in an even remotely realistic scenario. This is the single greatest achievement of ‘Man of Steel’ and Snyder was given a kicking for it.

Hold that thought while we consider a heavily adumbrated précis of the film’s narrative: the infant Kal-El escapes Krypton in the midst of a putsch orchestrated by General Zod (Michael Shannon); he struggles to be accepted on Earth; the moment he discovers his lineage and truly embraces his powers as a force for good, Zod turns up looking for him and the US military first arrest and then cravenly hand him over to Zod in an attempt to avoid an intergalactic ass-whupping. When it becomes obvious that Zod is going to royally fuck over the planet and use its ruins as the basis of a new Krypton, Superman (Henry Cavill) saves mankind anyway because … well, actually, this is where the film loses me. Maybe because his step-parents were nice. Maybe because he quite fancies investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Maybe because he just wants to prove everyone wrong.

Got that? America – and by extension the world – doesn’t give a flying one about Superman. Scenes of a handcuffed Superman and a heavily armed US force handing him over to Zod constitute the bitterest comment on extraordinary rendition that I’ve seen in any mainstream American film, let alone a superhero flick. Snyder ramps up the deconstructive cynicism with Superman’s climactic smackdown with Zod and his forces. Whereas Marvel have given us epic city-wide battles, portals between worlds and all manner of futuristic technology with barely a civilian casualty, ‘Man of Steel’ stages its almost interminably wearying slugfest in a recognisable environment where a downtrodden populace are going through the motions of working, travelling and making ends meet. The carnage that ensues, excessive and CGI-driven though it is, takes on a weight and a brutish aftermath that the Marvel films gloss over. Whether it was intended or not, Snyder and his creative team seem to be holding up a mirror to the audience’s demands for violence and destruction and asking them to judge their own slavering reflections. Michael Powell pulled this stunt with ‘Peeping Tom’ back in 1959 and it all but ended his career. Snyder isn’t exactly standing in line at the labour exchange right now, but he certainly caught hell for it.

‘Man of Steel’ is a flawed but interesting film. Big concepts bubble beneath its surface, but are subjugated in favour of iconography – grim and bloody iconography but iconography nonetheless. Potentially fascinating characters are given glimpses of an interesting narrative arc then unapologetically sidelined, with Adams and Laurence Fishburne (as Lois’s hard-ass editor) coming off the worst in this respect). And it’s all so grungily self-important. But it strives to locate the concept of the superhero in a world that’s so morally, politically and socially compromised that even the offer of unconditional heroism is met with cowardice, fear and an executive order as regards the use of weapons – and the conclusion it arrives at is dark. The original big-screen iteration of Superman was the hero America needed at the time; the one in ‘Man of Steel’ ends up as compromised as the society he protects.

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