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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Zack Snyder, 2013

SPOILER ALERT: This review gives away some stuff. Skip it unless you’ve already seen the movie—which you probably have. Or until you do. Or if you just don’t give a damn.

I. Look! Up in the sky!

Man of Steel is one of the loudest movies I’ve seen recently. Or maybe ever. In this almost constantly erupting show guns fire, buildings topple, planets explode. Watching the picture—which revives Superman for the movies on the 75th anniversary of his first appearance in Action Comics (April 1938)—I felt as if I were being continually blasted out of my seat, and it wasn’t an enjoyable feeling. The film, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who gets story crdit),  is an almost  deafening ride from beginning to end—loud not only aurally, but also visually, technically, cinematically  and even philosophically. If you turned the sound off, as I often felt like doing, you get the idea the images would probably keep clanging around or shooting off in your head, like fireworks—especially during the movie‘s long, long final act of mass carnage and Metropolis destruction, with its unpleasant echoes of 9/11, and its tendency, like many another recent fantasy-action movie, to wreck everything that can be wrecked.

Man of Steel, of course, is already a huge hit and crowd-pleaser, grossing over a hundred million dollars domestically on its first weekend. But after watching it twice, my opinion didn’t really change. (Money isn’t everything.) The technique and effects are often fabulous; the story tends to be overblown and over-familiar. I was entertained by a lot of it: Henry Cavill, as Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman,  and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, are a really cute couple. Michae1 Shannon is fantastic as the main villain, the vengeful General Zod, and I was surprised at how much I liked some of the seemingly offbeat casting— like getting Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Clark’s Smallville foster parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent, or hiring  Laurence Fishburne to play Daily Planet editor Perry White. (Sadly, I didn’t hear him say “Great Caesar‘s Ghost!”)

It’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a bad or  indifferent movie. But it’s not a particularly good one either. It’s nowhere near as appealing or as entertaining, or as much sheer fun, as the first two Superman movies back in 1978 or 1981, directed  by Richard Donner and Richard Lester, written by David & Leslie Newman and Robert Benton and Mario Puzo, and both starring Christopher Reeve, an almost freakily brilliant pick to play Superman. And though the special effects today dwarf anything Donner, Lester and their crews could accomplish, they‘re not quite as much fun either.

Of course, it‘s obvious that fun wasn’t exactly, or totally, what Snyder, Goyer and Nolan (who was also one of the producers) were after. They aren‘t trying for a light touch, or irony, or even for much humor. Man of Steel takes a much darker and more serious view of Superman, more like Nolan’s somber take on Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy.

II. It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

The movie begins, as the comic book origin story did, with the destruction of  the planet Krypton, and the last-minute rescue of little Kal-El (Superman’s real name) by his scientist father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who sends  a space ship on auto-pilot, speeding the Baby of Tomorrow earthward. Also showing up at this world’s end is General Zod (played here by Shannon, and in the 1978-81 Supermans  by Terence Stamp). Stamp was wonderful, but Shannon has a stranglehold on the role, and on the movie, and his General Zod doesn’t waste time. As Krypton simmers and bursts into flame, the glowering natural-born-warrior manages to stage a coup, kill his friend Jor-El, and get tried and sentenced to cryogenic imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, in what seems, at least the way Snyder and David Brenner edit it, like half an hour or so.

The rest of the movie makes elaborate use of flashbacks (Nolan made Memento, after all) to tell the fragmented story of how little Kal-El, adopted by the Kents of Smallville, Kansas and renamed Clark Kent, struggles with identity problems growing up, is confronted by catastrophes (a tornado, drowning classmates), and finally faces his first big challenge: the possible destruction of Earth by the reawakened, and burning-angry General Zod. There’s a moral twist (and I do mean “twist”): Clark was taught by his dad never to reveal himself, even to save lives or avert tragedies, until the right time—whenever that is. Clark obeys him at times, disobeys at others. But I agree with David Poland that it’s a massively uncomfortable experience to watch Superman, the guy who can do almost anything (that’s the  appeal of the fantasy) standing around doing nothing while people are endangered—even if his daddy told him to.

Eventually Zod arrives, out of suspended animation at last, and threatens Earth with annihilation unless the government hands over Kal-El (whom Jor-El implanted with the DNAs of much of Krypton) and then starts to make good on his threats. In the last act, another city (Metropolis, this time) gets hammered.  That’s standard villainous destroy-the world stuff, but it gets a little excessive, the fiftieth time around.  Will audiences never tire of it? It’s also odd to see Amy Adams’ piquant Lois Lane—who is introduced relatively early in the movie, but later in the actual chronology—nosing around and knowing as much about Clark Kent as she does. What about the Secret Identity, which was one of the main elements in the Superman fantasy? What about the fact, just as crucial, that the classic Lois Lane adored Superman but thought mild-mannered Clark was a bit of a nerd? Obviously, times have changed and probably the creative team here has something cooked up for the sequels (amnesia, maybe). But, unless I missed something in all the last-act pyrotechnics, this Lois may be The Woman Who Knew Too Much. At least, for my no doubt old-fashioned taste.

Shot by Amir Mokri, the movie looks like a million. (Pardon me: a hundred million.) But director Snyder, even if he doesn’t bore you, also rarely lets up. His pictures, from Dawn of the Dead on, tend to hammer you into submission. They rarely give you enough time and space to enjoy their own grace notes —or what could be grace notes, if the heat and the decibel level went down a little. His Superman, Henry Cavill, one of the stars of  British TV’s “The Tudors,” is a good-looking man of steel, and he can act the angst. Yet he may be suffering more torment than he should handle here — though I appreciate that having your planet blow up while your mother (Ayelet Zurer) dies and you shoot off into space might qualify as childhood trauma.

The Superman of old was a child of movie fantasy, as much as of the comics. According to Wikipedia, the Superguy’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, based him and his appearance on movie stars like the senior Doug Fairbanks (for Supe) and Harold Lloyd (for Clark Kent) —as well as on author Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Martian explorer John Carter—and they got the name “Metropolis” from another of their cinema favorites, the great Fritz Lang science fiction movie. (A couple of nice Jewish boys from Cleveland, they probably didn’t get “Superman” from reading Nietzsche.) So The Man of Steel, concocted out of pre-World War II pop culture, and probably at least partly a response by its authors to ’30s world tensions and the rising dangers of Fascist Germany, was a strong fantasy figure for any little kid, of either sex, who got pushed around or who felt like an outsider. The movie seems to be playing on that—by emphasizing how hard his own foster dad thinks it is for little Kal-El to be accepted. (I’d say one super-rescue caught on camera, should do the trick.) Super-alienation wasn’t always that much a piece of  the core Superman fantasy. Maybe that’s why Shannon as General Zod seems to be taking over so much of this movie. His alienation and torment—and his rage—resonate more. They’re more wounding and scary.

III, It’s Superman!

I‘m not indifferent to the seductions of the Superman legend. I bought my first Superman comic (or my mother bought it for me), at the age of five, in 1952 at a Chicago El station newsstand. I once had a huge collection of Superman, Superboy, Action Comics and World‘s Finest Comics (in which there were Superman-and-Batman tandem stories)—which was lost in one of our many moves. I caught many of the TV shows, with poor typecast  George Reeves as Superman and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. And I even wrote and drew a few of my own  Superman comics when I was a kid. (They were derivative and not very good, but at least they weren’t expensive.) I’ve seen most of the movies—even a snatch of the 1951 dog Superman and the Mole Men, with Reeves. So. though I never followed the comics much after the ‘50s, I’m not ignorant of the charms of the legend and its many offshoots. To the contrary, Superman was one of my great heroes when I was ten or twelve or so.

A hundred-million-dollar gross isn’t exactly Kryptonite to the people who wield green lights, and stories similar to mine are probably true for a lot of the core audience for this movie.  But if  you’re not committed to the mythos of Superman in some way, I wonder if  the new picture will affect you emotionally as much. Tons of people will apparently go to any big old superhero show—at least until they run out of big old super-heroes. But Man of Steel, for all its initial success, and for all its interesting quasi-realist approach (handheld camera, limited CGI) seemed to be missing something. It lacks some elements that the story doesn’t absolutely have to have, but would make it  more enjoyable. Like wit, playfulness, humor, heart, the quieter, more Hitchcockian kind of suspense, even that sense of pop grandeur  Donner and Lester got so well—as well as the recognition that the Reeve movies were giving us something we loved a lot, and that meant something special to us, but that is now more then a little silly and mad—yet that we can return to for a few hours, and remember what it was like, when Superman flew.

Anyway, I’m not sure I would have liked this new movie all that much at twelve — though I know I would have liked the Donner and Lester and Chris Reeve films (the first two Reeve shows, not the others). But then, when I was twelve, the idea of a hundred million dollar movie based on Superman, and one in which Lois Lane knew who Clark Kent was, and Superman didn’t wear his little red trunks, would have seemed utterly bizarre and even a little nuts. I also think my 12-to-13-year old movie tastes—which ran to pictures I saw on TV and iinthe theatres like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Bridge on The River Kwai, The Quiet Man and Some Like It Hot (all movies that probably couldn‘t get greenlit today)—would have found this movie too frenetic, too crazy, too much. And too loud.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon