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 – Sucker Punch (2011)

8 April 2011
Sucker Punch: Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

This may well be the film that goes down in film history as epitomising the very worst trends in popular culture of this era. There is nothing new or unusual about loud, dumb, vacuous films that rely on the veneer of excitement to placate uncritical audiences rather than providing anything of real substance. However, Sucker Punch is so excessively bad in so many ways that it feels like a sort of cultural tipping point for mass-marketed mediocrity has been achieved. Writer/director/producer Zack Snyder, who made the impressive remake of Dawn of the Dead, the graphic novel adaptations 300 and Watchmen and computer animation Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, appears to have simply thrown every randomly ‘cool’ idea he had into this film. The result is almost like a stream of consciousness but not in the surreal tapping-into-the-marvellous-world-of-dreams kind of way, but in the stuck-listening-to-somebody-describe-a-dream kind of way.

Sucker Punch doesn’t even feel like a film. It feels like an extended trailer for a computer game and this is largely due to the absolutely flat and lifeless action sequences that are so crucial to the film’s success (or lack thereof) as an action/fantasy. The increasing reliance on CGIs instead of anything tangible has been an increasing trend over the past two decades but so rarely have CGIs been as vapid as they are in Sucker Punch. There is no tension in the action and being so obviously generated on a computer makes the artifice especially tedious. The actors supposedly underwent substantial training for these scenes but the heavy computerised manipulation of their bodies renders that training almost useless. Admittedly the backgrounds of the four major fantasy sequences that anchor the film look impressive for a couple of seconds but like every other element in this film, the art direction is so conceptually underdeveloped it fails to sustain interest.

Sucker Punch: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)

Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)

It doesn’t help that Snyder’s trademark use of slow motion and dramatic sound effects to accentuate everything comes across as so absurdly pompous and pretentious. If Sucker Punch was truly an inventively deranged and carefree film then it could have been silly fun, but it takes itself seriously and arguing otherwise sounds like Tommy Wiseau’s retrospective claims that The Room was really meant to be a black comedy all along. It’s one thing for a film to have corny dialogue that makes audience members involuntarily laugh but Sucker Punch somehow manages to unintentionally cause sniggers by its music cues and the way it uses costumes. Not that the use of music remains funny for long as the songs are either horrible, used horribly (warning to Björk fans) or are horrible covers of great songs (extra double warning to Pixies fans).

The final example of how Sucker Punch encapsulates the worst aspects of mainstream entertainment is the extent and gusto in which it embraces the porn aesthetic. For a start, this is not a girl-power revenge film but a film about vulnerable women trying to survive and escape from their tormentors. They only get to fight back in their heads and even then that involves a lot of sacrifice and martyrdom. In the real world of the mental asylum the film is set in (and even the fantasy world of the brothel) they are simply victims and remain so. The blasé and flippant depiction of the violence and sexual violence used against the women is an almost titillating detail used to assist the faux gothic visual flourishes. It’s like making a stripper wear a corset and then claiming she’s doing burlesque.

Sucker Punch: Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

Baby Doll (Emily Browning)

And the degree to which this film visually engages in the pornografication of women, including women made to look very young, is even worse. It would be wonderful to believe that the over-the-top school girl fetish outfits are some kind of heavily ironic statement but the repeated up-skirt shots and scenes revelling in the girls’ suffering makes it as subversive as wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Porn Star’ or having Playboy bunny car seat covers. Besides, even if you do think the combination and endorsement of sexualised and infantile imagery in a PG film is nothing but good ol’ harmless fun for the kids to enjoy, here’s the thing: none of it is remotely sexy. It’s embarrassing and try-hard.

For a film to be this full of over-the-top stylistic devices and an almost random assortment of fanboy-baiting ingredients (steampunk WWI German soldiers! a really big dragon!) it is truly remarkable that Sucker Punch is such a tedious experience. However, this artless and soulless film is one of the most depressing things made in the past decade.

half-star

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Watchmen (2009)

1 March 2009
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

The 12 part comic book series Watchmen initially ran from 1986-1987 before being collected in trade paperback format to become one of the first books marketed as a graphic novel. Written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is not only acclaimed by comic fans but it is also one of the rare comics to achieve mainstream recognition and become regarded as an important piece of 20th century literature. Its complex structure, strong symbolism, political satire and deconstruction of the role of superheros in contemporary mythology meant that it Watchmen took full advantage of the comic medium. Adapting such a text into another format was therefore going to be very tricky and fans were naturally anxious about what the results may be. Previous films based on Moore’s comics tended to gloss over his complex and challenging thematic concerns to merely focus on the action. The film version of V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) worked this well but From Hell (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, 2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) were very disappointing. While the film adaptation of Watchmen is not the masterpiece that some may have hoped for, the good news is that it is nevertheless an excellent film.

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Film review – The Spirit (2008)

2 February 2009
The Spirit (Gabriel Macht)

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht)

The Spirit is an adaptation of an acclaimed and influential 1940s comic strip by revered comic artist and writer Will Eisner. The Spirit (played in the film by Gabriel Macht from The Good Shepherd and A Love Song for Bobby Long) is a sharply dressed, masked crime fighter who is loved by the ladies and supported by the police. He has no superpowers but is mysteriously invincible, as is his arch nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). Frank Miller, a contemporary comic book legend, has written the screenplay and directed the film. Miller is responsible for the Batman comic story that influenced Tim Burton’s films Batman and Batman Returns, and he also created the comics Sin City and 300, both of which were very faithfully adapted for the big screen. Miller shared a director credit with Robert Rodriguez for the film version of Sin City so you would think that he was an ideal candidate for directing The Spirit film. But you would be wrong. Miller’s director credit for Sin City was very much an honorary title and he clearly didn’t learn much from watching Rodriguez work because The Spirit is an extremely amateurish effort.

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