With the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU) threatening our wallets with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), I thought now would be a good time to cast my thoughts into the fractured, heated cauldron that used to be a discussion about its first movie: Man of Steel (MoS). Man of Steel was a decent movie all things considered. There are structural problems that I think have gone largely ignored because people have been focusing largely on the destruction and collateral damage. I think the real problems with this movie are just the over saturation of everything, inconsistent tone and clashing styles of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s film making. These issues are going to be more important going forward because this will set the stage for the entire DCCU.
Let’s break it down a little and go into it one thing at a time. What do I mean by over saturation of everything? Well, for starters, there is an overstuffed plot that is a bit too busy for its own good. The movie opens on Krypton with the planet doomed from within. There is also a call to civil war led by Zod against the political higher powers. There is also the fact that Kal-El is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Keep in mind that what is happening on Krypton is only half an hour long and we, as an audience are supposed to adjust to all this along with the heavy sci-fi bend. So barely out of the gate and we’re already overwhelmed. I watched the movie twice before writing this and every single time, those first fifteen minutes are just the worst thing to have to sit through.
The baby Kal is also affected by this as he has all of those things mentioned before being dumped onto his shoulders as a baby. He is supposed to be some kind of resistance to Zod, protector and inheritor of the genetic code and memory of Krypton, lead mankind into a bright and safe future and HE IS JUST A BABY. This is too much and all before we even get to earth! I need you to understand that whether all of this is right or wrong, good or bad, it is too much.
On earth, the over saturation can be felt most through the fight scene with Zod. This will come up again when I talk about tone and the clashing styles of the director and producer but this fight scene is too long. It is the embodiment of sound and fury signifying nothing. The only other time I felt such a strong disconnect was the fight scene at the end of the third Matrix film. In both, they are busy filling space and passing time. They feel this way because there is no sense of stakes. We don’t really know Zod. We don’t really know Clark for that matter but I will cover that later. There is no clear indication that one is hurting the other, there is just spectacle and that is saturated to the point of bursting. That is what I find to be the problem. Collateral damage is neither here nor there in a super hero movie. An empty spectacle is not much more than eye candy but if you eat too much candy, your belly starts to hurt.
The next problem is tone and this one will attempt to explain a lot of the negative reactions to the climax. First however, I would like to go back into the opening and discuss the tone there and how it bleeds into the rest of the movie. The film opens and the first thing we see, or at least I did, is that everything seems to be muted. The colours are all muted and there seems to be a grey filter placed over the film. Even sounds are suppressed and in the minor key. Except the explosions and Hans Zimmer’s BWAAAHS. It immediately sets a tone and the tone is dour.
I’m going to tangent here a minute and take some time to define a few terms. This movie is NOT gritty and is not really all that dark. This plays back into oversaturation. Zack Snyder wanted to make the movie appear dark and gritty, going so far as to put a grey filter over the entire film. This movie is not that however. Dark is usually an associate of the Noir style of film making. Film Noir has a dark colour palette, makes use of shadows and only uses light in so far as how far they cast shadows. They deal with stories of injustice, revenge and limits (of humanity, the law, the lengths people go, etc). Batman: TAS was very much noir and that is fine. That is what Batman is. Grit, in terms of film are the small details that affect (usually) small people. It refers to the idea that something deeper is happening and to the connections between people. Daredevil can be described as gritty. Game of Thrones is gritty. Breaking Bad has my favourite example of grit. Things look old, used and lived in. That is a level of small detail that makes me love a show/movie more. The issue with using dark and gritty in a superman story is that Superman’s abilities and the nature of his rogue’s gallery prevent a dark and gritty undertone. These are gods clashing and the dark and gritty story in that comes from the people merely trying to survive their impact.
Back on track, the film starts off and tries to be dour through its cinematography. The shots are bleak and muted. Then we have Zod and the civil war plot, then we have political dialogue, then a quiet scene with parents and child and the tone flits back and forth between action, slow, action, tender, action, action, slow, action, tender. All in the space of thirty minutes. With the over saturation of plot things happening, the tone isn’t allowed to settle and that harms the film further.
As I said before, I am going to explain (or at least attempt to) why people found the destruction of Metropolis disturbing but both Avengers movies get away with it. In Avengers, the tone is kept light-hearted; we get to see the Avengers make a concerted effort to save people at any cost, they crack jokes, they quip. In MoS, there is none of that. We’ve created this image in our heads as audience members that this is a bleak world of horrible people (especially truckers) that may not deserve to be saved if it means outing yourself. When you do this kind of thing, juxtaposing that with a lurching shift to superhero punch out is incredibly ill-advised. The gratuitous shots of Superman and Zod turning Metropolis into Swiss cheese feels incredibly indulgent and childish as a result. This is one example of how Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan contradict each other in style. The tone that (I assume) Nolan set up for Superman is one of, “Do these people even deserve to be rescued? Are humans worth the effort” and at every turn, the answer seems to be no. That can work as a dark Superman story. This does not contradict what I said earlier because Superman himself is still a shining beacon and light. The world around him is dark. That is an interesting way to do Superman. All of this is lost the second you go into CGI punching through nuclear power plants and half the city. It creates a severe and instant disconnect but our minds still try to piece it together and the shots of buildings coming down as people try to run covered in debris don’t help with this rationalization process. Now, I know the kind of people most likely to read this article are superhero fans and this kind of rationalization isn’t necessary but just remember this: comic book readers average in the hundreds of thousands. The people watching these movies rank in the millions. We can fill in the blanks and accept the tonal shift just fine but for the average Joe, they are lost. Judging by the reception, I think it’s safe to say most were. The tone in any action movie is important as it allows us to more easily suspend our disbelief and with dour tones and a harsh, unkind world does not lend itself to a character like Superman without more subtlety and extreme care.
The final and probably most important thing to look at going forward is the meshing -or lack thereof- of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder. Both are auteurs with their own signature. Zack Snyder is bombastic, revels in visual design and simple to digest spectacle. Christopher Nolan is quiet, contemplative and likes to challenge his audience. Both of these styles are ultimately fine but this movie feels like a child competing with both directors for attention and if they do plan to work together on Batman v. Superman or ever again in the future, they need to work out how they’ll do so without tiring out the audience mentally. From the opening, we have Zack Snyder wrestling in a handicap match against plot and world building, losing spectacularly. Then Nolan steps into the ring to take on theme and characterization, again, by his lonesome and he gets power bombed through the ring to the earth’s core for the effort. Characters dribble dialogue like a man with a twenty-four hour stomach virus leaks diarrhea. No one has conversations. People monologue at each other blatantly telling you the themes as opposed to showing them. I can already see how one could have helped the other to make an ultimately fulfilling movie. Have Nolan deal with Krypton’s political and social structure with Zack’s visual flare doing the world building. For the pre-cape earth bits, just let us see these themes of a world broken beyond help. Let us feel Clark’s struggle and get to know how he reacts to the whole debacle. The world is a messed up place. We don’t know who Kal-El is nor do we know how he feels about them for himself. He is told not to save people by Kevin Costner so he stops saving people. When Russell Crowe tells him to put on the suit and save people, he does that too. Superman is just an obedient puppy doing the bidding of whoever his current father figure is. That is not characterization.
Snyder and Nolan could have very well complemented each other but instead it seems like they couldn’t reach a proper agreement so instead they compromised. Snyder does the opening and the climax and Nolan does the middle. Neither really showing their ‘A’ game. Finally, I would just like to see that I did somewhat enjoy this movie. Not for what it is but what I see in it as potential but potential is meaningless when you try and sell it to me as a product. Remember always that these things are in fact products to be sold. They can be good, even artistic if the creator(s) really want it to but don’t be fan boys and blindly defend things not worth your time. Be a tosser who deconstructs things and analyzes them instead!