Earlier this week, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts about the current state of distribution and finance in the movie industry, warning of “an implosion, or big meltdown… where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground,” which could drastically alter the way films are presented and how much audiences will have to pay to see them. This isn’t exactly news — ticket prices have been creeping up exponentially for decades; sequels, superheroes, remakes, and reboots routinely dominate the box office; and studios are increasingly leaning on gimmicks like 3D to get people out of their homes and into seats — but when the two undisputed architects of the modern blockbuster decry the havoc it has wrought upon the system, a couple more ears tend to perk up.
Lucas may be something of a hypocrite, considering the cost-to-quality ratio of the last few pictures he’s put his name to. But it is egregious, if not outright deplorable, that without his own Dreamworks banner to distribute it, Spielberg’s Oscar winning Lincoln would have been relegated to the small screen, picked up and aired by HBO, much like Steven Soderbergh’s proposed swan song Behind the Candelabra. Lincoln‘s $65 million budget is far from chump change, but it’s a mere fraction of what Hollywood spends on the average tent-pole feature. The presidential biopic went on to earn almost three times its budget at the American box office, plus an additional $93 million overseas. For a film like Lincoln, those kinds of numbers are a huge success; for something like Warner Brothers’ latest attempt at a Superman franchise, however, that would be barely breaking even.
Hollywood, whether it’s prudent or not, can afford to throw this kind of money around, so who are we to begrudge them? If movie studios are anything like me, they’re willing to live above their means from time to time, so long as they’re getting their money’s worth. It can be return investment or it can simply be satisfaction, as long as it feels like money well spent. And there’s the rub. If I had spent $225 million and two and a half years making Man of Steel, I’d feel pretty damn cheated. Hell, I only spent nine dollars and two and a half hours on it, and I still feel robbed. Zack Snyder’s latest cinematic defacement is one of the most soulless, untenable, and soporific entries into the bloated glut of superhero films that I’ve seen, and precisely the kind of film I picture when I hear people like Spielberg denouncing the mediocrity of multiplex fare.
In Snyder’s incredibly dour iteration of the Superman creation myth, Krypton is a planet on the brink of destruction due to overpopulation, depleted natural resources, and the ravages of war. We see Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the Kryptonian head of Sciences, delivering his wife’s child, which we will later learn is an act of rebellion in itself. All children on Krypton have been artificially incubated and engineered to fulfill specific roles in society; Jor-El’s son Kal is the first natural birth in centuries. Jor-El frequently finds himself at odds with General Zod (Michael Shannon), the head of Krypton’s armed forces. Zod wishes to overthrow the existing government and colonize another planet to ensure the continuation of the Kryptonian race. To accomplish this, Zod requires the Codex, a charred skull that acts as a key to unlock the genetic codes of all the incubating fetuses they’ve been stockpiling for their imminent demise. Jor-El, envisioning a more serene future for his bloodline, stuffs his newborn son and the Codex in a shuttle pointed toward Earth. Disagreeing with Jor-El over this matter, Zod does what any evil zealot would and murders Jor-El. Despite the fact that their entire planet and everyone upon it is about to be destroyed, the Kryptonian government still finds time to try and sentence Zod and his minions to banishment in a black hole. (Pity they didn’t just let them die with the rest of them one scene later, and we may have all been spared the remaining two hours.)
From there, we follow Kal-El to Earth for a fragmentary recapitulation of his first three decades as Clark Kent, the only son of farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who discovered him amidst the wreckage of his shuttle which, when it finally made its way to Earth, touched down in their field. Here’s Clark age thirteen getting into a tussle with his schoolmates; oh, and here’s that time a couple years ago he saved a bunch of workers on a burning rig in the middle of the ocean; and who could forget when he was nine, pulling his school bus out of the lake after the driver lost control and drove it off a bridge? Vonnegut this is not, and the non-chronology does little to build momentum, create suspense, or illuminate the interior mechanisms of the now adult Clark, played with a somber vapidity by Henry Cavill. Through the odd juxtaposition of scenes, a vague notion of father-son guilt and reverence manages to come through, but whatever pathos Costner’s sensitive performance generates is routinely trampled by the utterly ridiculous conceit of having the ghost of Jor-El appear to and guide various characters throughout the film. It’s one of the many examples of lazy writing that only serves to bring Man of Steel down.
In trying to mimic the gritty realism of their Batman films, writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer have constructed a script that is nothing but clunky exposition. They try so hard to ground every aspect of the film in some tweaked version of real world verisimilitude that they leave no room for character; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the person who lies about why they couldn’t make it to your party and then over-explains every detail of their scenario as though minutia could establish verity. It’s an overlooked fact of Nolan’s otherwise excellent Dark Knight trilogy — and, largely, of his filmography in general — that the series became increasingly mechanical as its plots grew more outlandish, sacrificing character development for character signifiers and emotional resonance for logical resolution. In this regard, Man of Steel most resembles a more lunkheaded The Dark Knight Rises (or, for that matter, the fourth season of “Arrested Development”), lumbering under middling plot contrivances that are only there to give the characters something to do.
Amy Adams is given the thankless task of embodying what is thus far the least interesting iteration of intrepid reporter and Superman paramour Lois Lane. What probably looked good on paper as an empowered, headstrong female — “I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flak jacket” — plays as cheap armchair feminism when there’s no personality or character arc to back it up. In Nolan and Goyer’s iteration, Clark is not a reporter but rather an itinerant worker, changing jobs, names, and locations every couple months. His father raised him to be both moral and fearful of the implications of his powers. Whenever Clark commits a feat of strength to raise suspicion — like, for instance, protecting a waitress’s honor by twisting an abusive customer’s truck into a pretzel — he moves on to the next town. It is after one such episode, in which Clark saves Lois’ life by cauterizing a bad wound with his heat vision, that Lois decides to put her investigative skills to work finding this mysterious man whom she believes is not of this Earth.
The itinerant worker angle draws unfortunate comparison to last year’s The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant fever dream of a film which featured Adams as the clandestine and conniving wife of an L. Ron Hubbard-like spiritual leader, gamely pulling her husband’s strings (and other extremities) to manifest her own desires. Here, Adams does no such string pulling; mostly, she just goes along for the ride, showing up for every major plot point. The closest she comes is when she anonymously leaks her story about the alien with the laser eyes to a website run by Glen Woodburn (possibly a poor homage to Woodward and Bernstein) after her editor Perry White (a completely squandered Laurence Fishburne) refuses to print it. Pretty soon, however, Zod and co. arrive at our planet, promising to wipe out humanity unless we turn over Kal-El. Woodburn wastes no time throwing his anonymous source to the wolves, telling the entire country on live TV that Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane knows the man for whom the marauders have come. Within minutes, the FBI is at her apartment to take her into custody for questioning.
After a brief exchange with a priest — which allows for an incredibly ham-fisted shot of the only son of Krypton seated beneath the glowing stained glass visage of Christ — Clark decides to turn himself in to the FBI, with whom he will attempt to prevent the destruction of Earth over the course of several interminable action sequences completely devoid of any suspense or ebullience. Instead, what we get are video game brawls and the faintest whiff of allusions to a partial understanding of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Much as they did with economics in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan and Goyer try to shoehorn some pseudo-political commentary into a premise that simply isn’t conducive to it. Not only the Nietzschean ideology of race and evolution, but also the military industrial complex, the depletion of natural resources, even some of those good ol’ Ayn Randian notions of individuality amidst the system — all of these things are alluded to in passing, through offhanded asides and unsubtle metaphors, but none are explored with any depth or sensitivity. What could have passed for tasteful restraint from didacticism in The Dark Knight Rises betrays itself here as freshman-level philosophical window dressing, neither new or novel.
The one subtext that Snyder’s film even attempts to explicate is Clark’s conflicted relationship with his parents. Jonathan is both prideful and overprotective, but ultimately a good man with great compassion and morality. Clark’s respect for his adopted father will come into conflict with his willfulness and frustration over his insurmountable status as an outsider. Jonathan is wise, and warns Clark that once the world finds out about him and his abilities, neither he nor it will be the same. This fear swells, as does the deep seated altruism which Jonathan has also instilled in Clark. A better film would have made more out of this conflict, but Costner successfully embodies a lot of what the script neglects. Diane Lane remains an exceptionally beautiful and compelling screen presence; her suffering is quieter and more purely maternal, and hers is the most emotionally invested and nuanced performance.
Bryan Singer’s reboot Superman Returns, itself only a few years old, wasn’t without its flaws, but it managed to find moments of great beauty and introspection, transcending the limitations of its genre by creating a personal and poetic narrative that expressed universal themes on a grand scale. Everything that I loved about that film is absent here. There is no poetry, only bombast. Much as Ang Lee’s very underrated Hulk — a surprisingly thoughtful juxtaposition of two separate father-child relationships in the shape of an adventure film — was swept aside for the plodding, meat-headed Carolco throwback The Incredible Hulk, so too has Man of Steel kowtowed to the erroneous belief that more action is all it takes to make a better blockbuster. Snyder, whose previous abominations include the lackluster Dawn of the Dead remake, swords-and-sandals shout-fest 300, the handsome but turgid Watchmen adaptation, and adolescent sketchbook come to life Sucker Punch has, in ten years of filmmaking, shown a resolute refusal (or, perhaps, inability) to put any thought whatsoever into pace, tone, or his actors’ performances. His films are great trailer fodder, but his cheap eye-candy style only goes so far and nothing Snyder’s done yet possess the substance or skill to justify its own running time. Man of Steel is, unfortunately, no exception.
At the screening I attended, I was surprised to see so many older men, senior citizens accompanied either by their children or their aids. Then I thought about what this character meant to their generation, not just as entertainment but as an American icon. Times have changed, and I don’t fault the filmmakers for not upholding that outdated and decidedly xenophobic brand of patriotism. I do, however, fault them for making a crass, inelegant, obnoxious, and just plain boring movie. When Snyder finally addresses the patriotism angle, at the very end of the film, he does so with a single cheap image: Clark as a boy, blue jeans and white t-shirt, wearing a red sheet over his shoulders like a cape. The Sears and IHOP logos get quadruple the screen time each. A moment later, just before the credits roll, a member of the military asks Superman, “How do I know you won’t act against America’s interests?” If giving Zack Snyder $225 million to make Man of Steel wasn’t against America’s interests, then I don’t know what is.