Film review – Man of Steel (2013)

27 June 2013
Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill)

Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill)

After one of the most exhilarating action sequences in Man of Steel, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) tells her adopted alien son Clark (Henry Cavill), ‘It’s only stuff Clark, it can always be replaced.’ These are important words for Clark to hear from the woman who raised him as it helps reconcile the path of destruction he leaves behind while trying to find his true self. Man of Steel is an unconventional superhero origins films as the focus is not on the discovery and mastery of super-powers, although those scenes are included, but the focus instead is on the character’s psychological development. The result is a surprisingly grim and serious film that attempts to deconstruct the iconic and righteous Superman character to instead present him as a troubled man-child facing difficult moral choices and being traumatised about the nature of what makes him great.

The character is barely ever referenced as ‘Superman’ and instead is referred to throughout the film by both his human name Clark Kent and his Kryptonian name Kal-El. Much of the film is spent resolving his identity and through the film’s adoption narrative, Clark struggles with the fact that he does not have a sense of belonging. He loves his adopted parents and the inhabitants of Earth, but is aware of how different he is. He is haunted by the words of his adopted father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who warns him about the devastating cultural shock that humanity could experience upon discovering that he is an alien. His attempts to blend in see him continually on the run; an outcast drifter continually reinventing himself every time he tries to start afresh.

Searching for the truth, Clark gains fleeting comfort in discovering he came from a planet destroyed by both civil war and environmental destruction. More importantly in terms of character development, he learns that his birth father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saw him to be a potential god among the human race. As well as the immense baggage of continuing an almost extinct alien race, he is torn between his natural father’s expectations and his adopted father’s caution. While Clark is mostly depicted in Man of Steel as an adult, the continual flashbacks to childhood, the multiple parental figures and the symbolic rebirths he experiences suggest that the character is in a state of mental and moral arrested development throughout nearly the entire film. Not only is Clark a nomad torn between two worlds, but he is also torn between the possibility that he is a god to be worshiped and the possibility that he is a freak to be feared. Worse yet, is that the many lives he has been covertly protecting on Earth become threatened as a direct result of him being there, when the militarist zealot General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives looking for him.

The culmination of Clark’s psychological origins story is the film’s exploration of how a being with such advantageous powers can act morally. Clark has a genuine desire to be righteous, but as Jonathan explains to him that means making very careful decisions about when to act and when not to, resulting in potential scenarios where neither outcome is ideal. Hence the defeat of an enemy often comes with massive collateral damage that the film gleefully showcases during its big spectacle scenes. Keeping with the notion of Clark as still being in a state of cognitive development, his apparent anti-property attitude suggests the well meaning yet naïve mind of a rebellious teenager lashing out against society and its institutions. Clark nobly resists the temptation to physically hurt an obnoxious man in a bar, but still destroys property that is important to that man. It is a moment of initial catharsis that on reflection is an excessively cruel act that obliterates that man’s livelihood.

During major action sequences in Smallville and Metropolis, Clark’s battles with Zod and his soldiers lay waste to those settings, which challenges whether or not Clark’s actions and approach to defending the Earth are justified. After the unknown innocent bystander body count, the question of destroying the human race to save the Kryptonians and Clark’s final confrontation with Zod, is the moral question of what lives and what principles should be sacrificed for the greater good. Clark’s symbolic coming-of-age is not making the right decisions, but accepting and being able to live with the moral complexity from making the difficult decisions. It is a surprisingly sophisticated examination of what it really takes to make somebody a super human.

Man of Steel also serves as a curious warning about interventionism on several levels. The planet Krypton is destroyed due to over extracting its natural resources and it breaks down on a societal level due to the use of advanced genetics to enable social engineering. General Zod’s attitude towards Earth is one of aggressive colonialism and genocide, setting up a device that as it pulsates into the ground it picks up cars and bits of buildings and then smashes them back down again. The symbols of human civilisation are used as weapons back upon itself, perhaps suggesting some kind of punishment for humanity’s hubris towards how it manipulates its environment. The mass destruction in the film suggests acts of terrorism and reveals how vulnerable our constructed world can be. Notably Clark initially seeks employment in remote environments suggesting his desire to be far from the civilised world of interference. More notable is that he settles for an occupation that requires him to be an observer with supposed zero interference on what he observes.

As a psychological coming-of-age film where the destruction caused by Clark Kent is an external expression of his id threatening to overwhelm rational thought, Man of Steel is really not a conventional superhero film, let alone what is most likely expected from a Superman film. Nevertheless the team of director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan (among others) do throw in elements that try to help the film resemble what is conventionally contained in a superhero film. Unfortunately this means the inclusion of some clunky exposition, some silly dialogue and an extended final action sequence that loses its potency and inventiveness. All this would barely be noticeable if Man of Steel were simply another inclusion in the colour saturated and hyperactive Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but because it aspires to be closer tonally to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the more overt comic book elements feel out of place.

Nevertheless, for the most part Man of Steel is exhilarating and visually engaging. The film has embraced the increasingly fashionable ‘found-footage’/Instagram aesthetic that incorporates lots of sun flares, objects artistically going out of focus, and snap camera zooms and movements to capture objects onscreen that seemingly appear without prior warning. Few of the visual techniques in Man of Steel are new, but Snyder and his team have used them extremely well to blend the emotional drama of Clark’s two families with the film’s science-fiction elements resulting in an impressive photorealistic quality to all onscreen elements. While the action and spectacle in the film ultimately wears out its welcome by being overlong and becoming generic, for the most part it is genuinely exciting. Making a Superman film that does not feel like a Superman film may not have been the plan, but when the result is a mostly-entertaining dark science-fiction parable about morality, those not overly invested in the Superman mythology will find a lot to enjoy in Man of Steel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

19 July 2012
The Dark Knight Rises: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

The most striking thing about the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is it looks like a real film. In an era when shooting a Hollywood blockbuster on actual film and not filming in 3D is a novelty, The Dark Knight Rises stands out for looking like something tangible as opposed to a hyperactive virtual world created on a computer. Even the elements of the film created with CGI have a photorealistic tactile quality to them; further validating Nolan’s decision to resist digital filmmaking. Not that Nolan isn’t a technical innovator as demonstrated by the film’s impressive scenes shot in IMAX and the visceral sound design where every bullet, grind of metal and kick to the head sounds like a mini symphony.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fine piece of cinema that successfully mixes outlandish comic book scenarios with a gritty realism that gives the proceedings an alarming plausibility. Curiously, it doesn’t deliver the adrenalin rush moments that were present throughout Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). It’s a much bigger film in scope with more at stake, bigger set pieces, grander themes and a far more complex narrative, but the results offer a different level of engagement than a mythical origins story or a showdown between two extreme personalities with more in common than one of them would like to think. The Dark Knight Rises is a tonally different film that successfully establishes a scenario of complete despair where much of the action seems futile. Within this bleak context the biggest spark of life is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (better known as Catwoman in the original comics) who is not only involved in the film’s most exciting fight sequences, but becomes an ethically dubious anti-hero in a film exploring complex ethical terrain.

Similar to The Amazing Spider-Man, this is a film where the superhero persona takes a background to the ‘real life’ persona of the protagonist. While Peter Parker learning to reconcile his identity as Spider-Man is a coming-of-age narrative, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coming to terms with what Batman stands for becomes a story of the old guard making way for the next generation. Wayne begins the film as a physically and psychologically damaged man and spends a good deal of the film grappling with how useful Batman is to his own sense of self and to the community of Gotham City. Characters from the previous films and important new characters express a variety of opinions, contributing to the film’s intriguing exploration of individualism versus social cohesion and truth versus myth.

The political arena that unfolds offers an enticing range of arguments about how to interpret the downfall of Gotham City, which is overtly linked to various recent American crises such as domestic and international terrorism, the global financial crisis and the Occupy movement. On the one hand, The Dark Knight Rises could be read as a hysterical conservative vision of socialism. The film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) is identified early in the film as a super terrorist with quasi-fundamentalist religious zeal. His plans to obliterate the rule of law, undermine the financial sector and return Gotham to the people results in a nightmarish scenario that plays upon every fear perpetrated by plutocrats who feel that their powerbase may be threatened. Bane and his followers are a disturbing fusion of fundamentalist terrorism with a perverse version of a people’s revolution.

And yet, the film is not that simple. The oppressive collectivism that Bane offers is one of mob rule that exploits the simmering hatred and resentment that is the result of the Zero Tolerance approach to crime initiated by the late Harvey Dent. Furthermore, Dent has been given near sainthood status, his psychotic and homicidal behaviour suppressed in order to maintain his myth. He is presented as a visionary leader despite having ended up as the Gotham equivalent of a war criminal. When a population places unquestioning faith in the false prophet that is a charismatic leader guilty of vast sins, the resulting order will eventually be undermined. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane is the figure that does the undoing. He is not an external threat, but the product of a civilisation that is sick to the core.

Furthermore, this is not a film where a lone individual defends the population against a socialist-style enemy. Bruce Wayne does not act alone in The Dark Knight Rises and the intertwining storylines within the film exist to facilitate an ensemble of characters working together to fight back, using brains, brawn and the ideal of Batman. The most interesting character in the film is Selina Kyle who is able to undermine Wayne physically and intellectually, as well as challenge his life of material privilege in a world of inequality. While Hathaway’s Kyle possesses the same moral uncertainty that the character does in the comics she is still a sympathetic character in the film. Her anti-one percent attitude is represented as markedly different to Bane’s exploitive manipulation of a population’s discontent and pandering to criminality. If anything The Dark Knight Rises could be regarded as a warning for how radicals with dreams of puritanical world domination get what they want by manipulating the corporate and financial sectors, and hijacking technology.

The Dark Knight Rises is about an older generation accepting their mistakes and maintaining as much dignity as possible while facing the consequences. The ‘rise’ of the title becomes a literal plot point that also serves as a symbolic rebirth where Wayne re-enters a new world where the people deserve the truth instead of faith in symbols. If Batman Begins was an independence story about a city rejecting the rule of an exploitive criminal class and The Dark Knight was a war film about sacrificing liberty to combat an unimaginable threat, then The Dark Knight Rises is a film about the need to return to a more civilised time now that the war (or perceived war) is over. Otherwise, that civilisation will turn against itself and reproduce the destructive elements that it was once fighting against in the first place. The time of symbolism and individualism is over and the generation that identifies with such notions need to clean up any mess they have left behind and then move on. Gotham is No City for Old Costumed Vigilante Men as a new dawn approaches.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Inception (2010)

19 July 2010

Inception

Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.

Inception: Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.

Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.

Inception: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Inception

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Film review – Quantum of Solace (2008)

20 November 2008

James Bond and Batman are both mythical characters in pop culture who have been repeatedly reinterpreted and reinvented to suit the times. Like Christian Bale’s Batman from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Daniel Craig’s Bond, from Casino Royale and now Quantum of Solace is a darker, more morally dubious character, reflecting a post 9/11 and War on Terror world where the goods guys and bad guys are no longer clear-cut.

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