James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

Review (Theatrical): MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Full of half-baked religious and political allegories, bizarrely inappropriate handheld ‘shaky cam,’ not terribly impressive CGI, plot holes, weak characterization, blatant product placement and a climatic hour’s worth of overwrought, overblown, nonsensically cartoonish action, Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s Man of Steel lands in the summer 2013 moviegoing seasion with a clangorous and incoherent thud. If you’ve been holding your breath since May to see if Hollywood could screw up anything worse than it’s managed so far with the Star Trek reboot series, you’re in luck; you may now breathe easy. Supes (a handsome and charming Henry Cavill) is on the case.

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Snyder, whose adaption of the genre-deconstructing graphic novel Watchmen has much to offer the mind, eye, and spirit of the superhero aficionado, here creates only a corporate product designed to entertain non-English speaking audiences with bright colors, movement, and noise—like a dangling mobile above a child’s crib, these event movies now offer about as much substance and narrative heft as substituting sawdust for flour in the dinner rolls. At least there are ads for Budweiser, Sears, and IHOP (the logo seems to appear at least a dozen times).

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With Christopher Nolan’s name attached, Man of Steel wants us to believe it in possession of gravitas and to seem artful—check out the golden hued, Malick-esque inserts that feel like Tree of Life trims—but it’s hamstrung by its messy, misshapen structure. A half-hour ‘teaser’ sequence before the baby Kal-El is ever blasted off to earth? No wonder they made the Smallville part all interwoven flashbacks—if it’d been told linearly, the movie from yesterday’s screening would still be running.

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Much is rushed through—we have an hour of mayhem to get to! We have millions of innocent bystanders killed when Superman and Zod pummel each other and topple buildings! Sure, it’s the scale that comic book geeks have always wanted to see, but like Fred Williard’s oversized penis in Waiting for Guffman, it’s ‘simply too much.’ All the time that should have been spent on character development—that’s when we get emotionally invested in them as ‘people,’ from which we sit in anticipation of consequences stemming from the character’s actions—is wasted on prologue and extended climax. When Lois and Supes kiss near the end, standing in the destroyed city where literally untold millions of people have died screaming and suffering, I thought, wait—what? When had there been hints of romance? When had they had time? I suppose the one super kiss was enough to spark the flame. Too much spectacle—we are to take the character’s humanity as-read. Nice.

What’s also too much is the convenient reappearances of Russell Crowe’s dashing Jor-El, whose ‘consciousness’ manages to reintegrate even more substantially than Obi-wan’s, and  at a number of crucial moments. He’s a ridiculous deus ex machine device, sure, but he’s also there to re-explain what’s going on for the sodapop guzzling audiences who probably missed the plot points the first time due to texting and checking the old FB newsfeed. A half hour, guys, to set this thing up. I bet even the slow kids are able to follow it. You’re wasting time—there’s shit to be animated being blown up.

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And then there’s more fan service, and like all fan service it serves too narrow a purpose: Like so many filmmakers of this generation (my own, I might add), there are benchmark films that informed the adolescence of would-be filmmakers like Snyder, and in the interminable opening sequence on Krypton he evokes a Dune-like atmosphere and production design, which looks cool enough, but doesn’t all this crap look ‘cool’ nowadays? How are these CGI landscapes even judged? “I will find him!” scenery-gnashing villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) yells, in exactly the same inflection and volume as Sting in Lynch’s problematic but memorable 1984 adaptation of the Frank Herbert book. This kind of material in these movies (another example would be the previous attempt to reboot this franchise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a 2006 paean to the Richard Donner film) is meant as fan service to guys like me, but look, I get it. I was there too. I kinda loved the production design of Dune, but then, it’s like sampling in music. Come up with your own guitar hooks, you ‘artists.’

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The worst part? None of this felt fun, or awe-inspiring.

Remember how cool it was when you sat there and said, I know that’s a matte painting, but it looks awesome. Or, look at that beautiful shot—boy, the DP really captured a lovely image. Now it’s all the same, everything’s possible to see in (reasonably) photorealistic terms, and overall we couldn’t care less because there’s no bar anymore to get over. Remember the sense of awe we felt when in the 1978 Richard Donner film we saw Christopher Reeve fly for the first time? How he lifted off the ground and flew so gracefully at and across the camera and out of the thrilling and enormous Fortress of Solitude ‘crystal palace’ set? Sure it was a guy in a wire rig, and later on they painted out the wires, but how long did it take to play and execute that shot? How grueling was it for Reeve in the wire rig? Now none of these questions are raised in the mind of curious viewers. It’s all cool, man. Wow—look at that. You know how long it took them to code that shot? Give me the cameraman and a remote location and a sunset over a room full of 700 special effects monkeys writing code on 700 desktops and at the end of 700 hours you have a shot of Superman flying.

But look, perhaps I’m simply being nostalgic and old. I go to these movies, however, to try to recapture that sense of wonder I reveled in as a kid. The movies were my church; I got in touch with alternate consciousness there comforted in the dim and the velvet and the low light, waiting for the curtains to part and listening to the music overture, which in those days was often the movie’s soundtrack itself, or else that of another memorable blockbuster. Now it’s commercials for high fructose corn syrup laden garbage and trying to persuade the impressive young men these movies are all aimed at pleasing to sign up and go be shot at for real. Movies are finished, at least in the sense of how I grew up to understand cinema, and art.

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One prop: though it is blatant text rather than subtext, which is always less interesting, thank goodness the filmmakers slipped in at least one bit of useful truth to plant in people’s heads: Superman is good and right and true, and his last act is to crush and shatter a surveillance drone. You hear that, Mr. President? Superman, the most all-American hero of them all, doesn’t think much about you and your boy W’s little Skynet seekers floating around in the sky and watching and killing indiscriminately. I’d listen to the guy—he speaks for us all.

Amy Adams, here standing on two apple boxes

Amy Adams, here standing on two apple boxes

And, one last dig: I’m sorry, but cherubic, 40 year-old Amy Adams makes the least appealing and two-dimensional Lois Lane ever. Not only does she look more like Cavill’s aunt than a romantic interest, Lane’s amazing ability to be capable and improbably present but constantly in need of rescue make her well-nigh on useless as a character, except perhaps as that most tired and offensive of sexist tropes, the damsel in distress. How crude and base and annoying a conceit in this modern age of 2013. Oy. Very low recommendation for this one.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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