A review of Man of Steel
The genius behind the Back to the Future trilogy wasn't the nuanced way it dealt with time travel. It wasn't the casting, it wasn't the writing, it wasn't even the music (although the music didn't hurt, but that's a topic for another blog post). The genius behind Back to the Future started with a simple idea: what would it be like to see your parents as they were in high school? This idea was the basis of the first movie, and while it had the intended consequence of making a humorous, character-driven story, it also had the unintended consequence of keeping the story scoped. The genius of Back to the Future is that it found a way to address time travel without ever leaving Hill Valley, California. Throughout the trilogy we stay within the same 15-mile radius, and although the trilogy takes place at various points in time over the course of 130 years, to Marty McFly the time-traveler (and the viewer) the events all take place over the course of at most a few weeks.
It would have been really tempting, especially in Back to the Future Part II, to try to make the story bigger. For example, when Biff used the sports almanac to win all that money, marry Lorraine and become the most powerful man in Hill Valley, it would have been natural to ask where Biff stacks up in terms of powerful figures in California, the US and the world. But the movie refused to do that; instead, it kept us focused and confined to Hill Valley.
And this is where Zach Snyder's Man of Steel falls.
If you make a comic book movie today, there are two standards towards which you can strive: 2012's The Avengers and 2008's The Dark Knight. The former is the “spectacle” standard, a comic book movie which tries very little to relate itself to the world today but succeeds at bringing a comic book character to life in a vastly entertaining and accessible way. Some former former movies to hold the spectacle crown are Spider-man, Spider-man 2, and Iron Man.
The other standard, which I'll call the “gritty” standard, is a class pretty much defined by The Dark Knight. It's a comic book movie that almost transcends the genre. It relates to our world, it presents serious moral dilemmas, and we walk out of that movie not only entertained, but thinking about what we saw on a higher level than “how awesome were those special effects?”
Produced by Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel unsurprisingly goes for the gritty standard. I think this works fairly well for the setup and backstory portion of the movie. We learn of Jor-El's sacrifice, putting his son on a pod as it escapes a dying planet. We learn (in pieces) the story of how his son Kal-El grew up as Clark Kent, struggled to harness and understand his powers, and then to keep those powers in check when they could be used to save lives. We watched Clark look on helplessly as his earthly father died in a freak tornado, and watched him embark on his quest for an identity. Most critics didn't like this part, but I actually thought it was one of the stronger aspects of the movie. This was actually where the Dark Knight trilogy shined as well: the emotional scenes of human growth.
And then it seems like we jump into the action against an other-worldly villain right away. And one thing I noticed, and a few other people I talked to agreed, is that we'd have liked some more build up. Clark Kent doesn't start working at the Daily Planet until the end of Man of Steel, but the movie would have benefited from him starting at the newspaper earlier and adjusting to a more conventional double life as a reporter/superhero-hiding-from-the-government. One of Man of Steel‘s problems was that it just didn't feel like a lot of fun very often, and the fact that he jumped from an emotional upbringing into a destructive and costly final battle didn't help. General Zod might have been too big of a villain for this movie; maybe someone a little more Earthly and conventional would have served this movie better.
I mentioned, however, that Man of Steel's biggest issue was one of scope. In the climactic battle, General Zod unleashes a terraformer on Earth, which has the side effect of making super intense earthquakes. The machine drills itself through the entire planet, so one end is in Metropolis causing all kinds of destruction while the other end is somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Where was Superman through all of that? Here's my fundamental complaint with the movie: he was on the other side of the world trying to deactivate the machine. You might argue that he was simply the only one who could deactivate the machine so he should have been over there, and you're right. But in Metropolis there were a lot, and I mean a lot of people dying. And the final act basically alternated between Superman flying around the structure in the Indian ocean and basically helpless people trying to escape certain death. At the end of the movie I didn't so much feel like Superman saved the world as much as he pulled it back from the brink of complete annihilation.
I hate to keep comparing this movie to The Dark Knight, so I'll compare it to The Avengers, which has a similar final act of aliens just lighting up a huge American city. The Avengers were all in New York, they were all fighting the same guys (sometimes in close proximity), and the only guys who weren't in New York were watching from afar (or, you know, sending nuclear missiles at the city just for fun). Only Tony Stark leaves the city, but it's only for a few seconds before he's literally sucked back in. Just imagine what that final scene would have looked like if Tony was in New York, Captain America was in Washington DC, Hawkeye and Black Widow were in Los Angeles, Thor was (where else) in Minneapolis and Hulk was among his native people in Texas. You'd have wondered why the movie was called “The Avengers” instead of “Six Heroes”.
And speaking of The Avengers, one thing that movie did really well was present a lot of fast-moving action in a way that was enjoyable and understandable, and didn't want to make the viewer throw up. A lot of wide-angle shots and precise camerawork, and the fact that most of the battle took place between characters who were standing (even if they were standing on a moving ship) helped. There's a lot of challenges in doing the same with a man who can fly faster than a speeding bullet, but the camerawork for the final scenes was sort of shaky and left me wondering if Snyder wanted us to have a little motion sickness, figuratively and literally, just to appreciate the raw power and speed behind the character. But The Avengers showed that you could make that impression on the viewer without making them feel like they were missing things, and Man of Steel could have benefited from a similar treatment.
The strongest part of Man of Steel was the instrumental score, but even it ultimately left me a little unfulfilled. The music was strong, and bombastic, and dramatic, and all the things you expect from a Hans Zimmer score. But it kept building and building and never quite seemed to get to a climax. Plus it sounded a lot like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and while you can sort of forgive this because the movies are sort of similar, I would have liked a little more creativity.
There's no chance that Warner Bros. won't make a Man of Steel 2, and hopefully the studio will learn from their mistakes and produce a sequel that's a little more fun. Today Warner Bros. announced a Batman/Superman film that will precede the Justice League film that got pushed back a couple years. It sounds sort of like a buddy cop movie: my only question is, which of them is going to be the comic relief?