Naked and spectacular

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Man of Steel [2013] by Zack Synder

I grew up with the Superman movies of 1978-1983. I may feel differently about them if I watched them now, but at the time they were gospels for a secular age, epic stories of good news in which we are saved from death by a superior being from space. 

Were these films really better than Zack Snyder's noisy and ridiculous Man of Steel? There was perhaps some charm in the characters, particularly Christopher Reeve's awkward Clark Kent. But there was one element that rendered those films transcendent, and that was the music of John Williams. Regardless of the artistic integrity of his compositions, his music has an undeniable power to lift a movie into a mythical realm that we humans find ourselves swept up into. One of Williams's techniques is the theme song, introduced at the beginning, woven delicately through the bulk of the film and then exploding upon the viewer in the exciting climax. It not only accelerates the urgency of the film's climax, but it brings the heart. Everything that is important to protect in the world is projected onto that music, and when we hear it thundering at the climax, at that crucial moment, in our hearts we know it will be okay. The careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could not have happened without John Williams. He is the master of manipulation.

Man of Steel is said to be the Superman story of our age, of the 21st century, our time of utmost scepticism and cynicism. In Zack Snyder’s film the score is indistinguishable from the sound effects and I could sum it up in one word, noise.

While there is an attempt to expand upon the story and the world by fully incorporating the destruction of Krypton and bringing its spiralling failed technocracy down to threaten Earth, the film spends most of its 143 minutes in noisy destruction that can barely even be called violence and that I would call silly if it wasn't so humourless. Sometimes statistics can be helpful, and it would be a sufficient film review if someone performed the simple but laborious task of calculating the percentage of the film's running time depicting a few almost invincible beings punching each other, banging into each other and just generally smashing their own and each other's bodies into as much human infrastructure as possible, resulting in the spectacularly banal destruction of first Smallville and its familiar chain stores and then New York and its skyscrapers. Things get smashed and crumble into dust. If that's your thing, you've found the right movie.

This type of violence cannot be considered dangerous or irresponsible, it is simply senseless and tedious. It is like an incoherent fascist ballet of utter abstraction, with bodies flying, falling and colliding. I suppose some people like this type of audio-visual stimulation. I can only assume they find it exciting, though I'm not sure what's exciting about it when there is no sense of coherent danger. It is noise. It is as gratuitous as any porn film. If it is the Superman film for our age, it is because, short of the character and plot sophistication of a Christopher Nolan film, it is more noise than you have ever experienced before, and in faster succession, and for longer; more smashes, more bangs, more whacks. A more appropriate comparison than The Dark Knight films would be the Batman TV series of the 1960s with its “Crash!” “Boff!” “Bang!” fight scenes. Those words are replaced by extremely complex computer graphics, but the experience is ultimately the same. Like any good porn film, the scenario that justifies the action is quickly swept aside for prolonged sequences of bodies pounding against each other.

Regarding the plot, Krypton was destroyed by inept committees, but the film adamantly rejects fascism. The military coup led by General Zod understandably wants to save the people of Krypton at any cost, even the genocidal colonisation of Earth. The benevolent line of Jor-El and Kal-El (Clark Kent) prefer instead to preserve truth, justice and the American way, by fighting fascist-inspired colonisation with the support of huge amounts of ammunition courtesy of the American government. And the Americans keep firing their guns, even though their enemies are totally impervious to them. Having justified the prolonged sequences of noisy destruction, the second objective of the plot is to create the hope and desire for a sequel, and you can bet $250,000,000 there is a sequel.

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