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Man of Steel – Movie Review

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Despite its pedigree, Man of Steel has little in common with the Dark Knight movies. It’s really a Marvel movie wrapped in the pretentious seriousness of its Dark Knight cousin.

Man of Steel isn’t really Superman. The first hint of that comes from the title which carefully avoids the S Word. But it isn’t a Dark Knight realistic reworking either. Superman as we know him barely appears here. But in his place is a character who could just as easily be Marvel’s Superman. Swap out Superman for Thor and with a few minor modifications you could have exactly the same movie. And, Man of Steel even bears a suspicious resemblance to Marvel’s first Thor movie.

There’s hardly any Clark Kent here. Just the story of an itinerant superhero, a classier version of Will Smith’s Hancock, who occasionally saves people while fleeing his past and searching for his purpose. That’s a story alright. But it isn’t Superman.

And it’s barely a story.

Man of Steel avoids origin story drag by telling everything through a set of flashbacks. That only adds to the feeling that the entire movie is a set of montages. You could watch Man of Steel with the sound off and miss absolutely nothing because there is no plot development.

Clark Kent tours the world and punches aliens. Then he punches them some more. That’s the movie.

Man of Steel isn’t bad. It just lacks content. There’s nothing here you remember after walking out of the theater. And that makes it no different than most of the other 200 and 300 million dollar summer blockbusters. There are gorgeous scenes. Superman’s first flight is absolutely spectacular and the rendering of Krypton’s history in animated art deco chrome is amazingly beautiful and moving.

But that’s it.

From the first minutes of the extended opening sequence where Russell Crowe as Jor El does all the usual action hero stuff, somehow beating General Zod and his men in hand to hand combat despite being a scientist, you know exactly the kind of movie that Man of Steel will be. And it doesn’t disappoint by not disappointing.

Even the closest thing to a dramatic arc, Clark Kent learning to trust human beings, is barely there. His pivotal struggle consists of walking into a church and then answering his own question. Even Marvel movies have more plot content than that.

Zack Snyder can shoot beautiful scenes, but he has never learned to connect them into a movie. That worked in 300, but brought him down when he tried to tackle the complex interwoven narrative of Watchmen. And he doesn’t even try in Man of Steel. It’s Superman 300 without the Superman or the 300.

Henry Cavill makes a passable Superman because he doesn’t ever have to do anything except look determined. The movie brings in Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner to play Clark’s parents and both men turn in great performances. Meanwhile the pivotal role of General Zod is left to an actor with all the subtlety of a hammer.

If General Zod had been played by a better actor, Men of Steel might have been more watchable. Instead Michael Shannon’s Zod is demented, but lacks presence. He gets beaten up by Jor El in the beginning and then gets captured and he never seems like he has anything going for him except advanced technology.

The actual fights are the same generic things you see in every movie these days complete with useless military attacks and product placement brand names being smacked around. There are moments of potential, such as when Superman smashes into a fast food joint managed by a former classmate, but then it’s just as quickly brushed away reminding you that while Man of Steel may owe something to Superman II, it’s a much worse version of even that butchered movie.

Snyder and the Dark Knight gang try to inject gravitas into a video game movie. And all it does is make for some pretty and well acted cut scenes that amount to nothing. There is no conflict that matters. Pa Kent’s warnings are nothing but another flashback that is quickly disregarded. There is no evolution here, only forcible points in the script that follow a dramatic formula without ever caring about it.

Man of Steel might have been a great movie, but its only aspiration was to do a DC version of a Marvel action movie. And it barely succeeded at that.

Bashing Bourne

It’s fashionable to bash some movies and Bourne, which dumped its director and star when they whined too much about their hideously expensive Green Zone vanity project not getting enough support, was ripe for it. But the latest Bourne movie is no box office disaster. Bourne knocked The Dark Knight Rises out of its top spot and had a pretty good ten grand per theater average.

It isn’t in the range of the last Bourne movie, but the Bourne Ultimatum wasn’t up against the Dark Knight. It was up against the Simpsons movie. The real question is how much staying power it will have.

What’s Wrong with the Dark Knight Rises

….Spoilers, obviously.

 

1. Omnipotent Villains, Dumb Heroes

The Joker was a little too close to omnipotent, but at least Batman in the Dark Knight seemed equally competent. Bane is twice as omnipotent as the Joker and Batman and the police are as dumb as bricks. Batman doesn’t get a single thing right in this movie. He gets beaten twice by Bane, he loses his fortune and Commissioner Gordon nearly dies and gets the entire Gotham PD killed by sending them all into a tunnel. Bane isn’t brilliant. His schemes all involve blowing things up. The movie just takes place in a world where everyone lets him to do it. Including Batman. The only thing Batman is any good for is finally getting the bomb out of the city.
The Dark Knight Rises Poster

 

2. Batman

When the closing credits rolled on The Dark Knight with Batman as a hunted villain, forced to go back to protecting Gotham from the shadows you expected the next movie to open with that Batman. Instead The Dark Knight Rises opens with no Batman. What that does is make the big conflict of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne looking to retire and hoping that Harvey Dent can make Gotham safe meaningless.

Harvey Dent made Gotham safe in death by extending sentencing for criminals. What Dent’s Law had to do with Batman isn’t obvious. Batman wasn’t in prison. How was increasing sentencing going to help prevent Harvey Dent from being killed again?

Batman was able to retire for eight years making him and the entire conflict basically unnecessary. But retirement just means he mopes around because the death of a woman that he seemed only marginally interested in completely robbed him of his will to live. Batman’s big conflict in The Dark Knight Rises is to have to want to live again. That’s not Batman. That’s a chronically depressed emo teen in a bad song.

 

3. Bane

The last two villains of the Nolan Batman movies had plans for Gotham. Bane seems like he does, but the whole thing is actually a revenge ploy. Gotham is only targeted because Batman happens to be there. And Batman isn’t even Batman anymore.

All of Dark Knight Rises is a complicated plan to kill Batman. Do Bane and Talia really need a nuclear bomb and a takeover of Gotham City to do that? I know, they want to rub Batman’s nose in his failure to save Gotham. So to do that she enlists Bane to start an uprising, seize control, grab a nuke, hold revolutionary tribunals, kill a whole bunch of people and then eventually the nuke would go off.

This is a really stupid plan. It makes even less sense because Talia remains undercover even once Bruce Wayne is in a pit in another part of the world that no one but her had ever escaped. Why even keep up the charade for weeks or months just so Bruce Wayne can get a few more scraps of CNN talking about how awful Gotham is now?

Talia wants to kill Bruce Wayne because he killed her father, even though she never knew him and he abandoned her in a pit in exchange for his freedom. (None of this makes sense either.) So what does Bane want? We have no idea. He’s just a puppet. That makes him the lamest kind of villain.

 

4. Catwoman

Selina Kyle is being written as the girl from the streets who’s good at stealing and on the run from Bane. When did this happen if Bane was a mercenary operating in another country? Why is Bane so scary? We have no idea. He’s strong and backed by a lot of men from the League of Shadows. But we never see Bane actually do anything Joker style that would spread fear.

Catwoman is supposed to be street, but Anne Hathaway plays her like a nervous uptown girl. This is more her fault than the fault of the script, but the script has more basic problems.

Catwoman is supposed to be a pivotal player, but there’s very little background. She wants her identity erased for some reason. She’s in trouble for some reason. She does things randomly, betraying Bruce Wayne several times and then bailing him out at the last minute. She’s terrified of Bane but then gets into a confrontation with him. She doesn’t seem to care for Bruce Wayne, but for some reason does the right thing at the end.

Catwoman is just as big an enigma as Bane. Talia is the only one of the three/four villains in this movie with a clearly defined and consistent motivation. And it’s dumb and simple by the standards of the villains from the previous movies. Revenge.

End of the Nolan Batman

batman dark knight

I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the end of Nolan’s take on Batman. What Nolan did with Batman was “interesting”, in the way that what Michael Mann or Michael Bay might have done with Batman would have been interesting. It was interesting in the wabatmany that what Tim Burton actually did do with Batman… was interesting.

But it wasn’t Batman.

To Nolan, Batman was a way to comment on urban sociology. It was a superhero story last and a take on the modern city first. Again the results were interesting. Just as Tim Burton viewing Batman through his gothic fairy tale lens was interesting. But interesting isn’t meant to stick around, because none of those things are really Batman. They’re what happens when someone decides to play around with Batman.

Tim Burton’s spookhouse approach to Batman and Nolan’s urban dysfunction approach to Batman went in opposite directions from each other, but were within the outward circle of what Batman is. Batman is a bit spooky and he deals with urban dysfunction. But he isn’t a spookhouse or a sociology text. And that’s where the Burton and Nolan movies break down.

Batman is more than these things. And Batman works best when he is all of these things and more. When he can be the dark knight and the billionaire playing politics and the superhuman fighting machine and the soul of a wounded city. Nolan limited Batman to being less than a superhero. Now that the Nolan movies are done, Batman is free to fly again.

The Dork Knight Rises

There’s a word for this and it’s stupid. I don’t mean the movie itself, which like Dark Knight will probably be interesting in its own way, but Nolan’s Batman. With the third and final movie it’s clear that Nolan overthought the whole Batman thing by quite a bit turning the movies into urban sociology and philosophy. There is no Batman in Nolan’s Batman movies. Not really.

Will The Dark Knight Rises even be a good movie? It’s anyone’s guess. The inaudible Bane adds on to Nolan’s inability to direct action scenes, having to take Anne Hathaway seriously as Catwoman and a whole bunch of other problems. Nolan got a boost in Dark Knight from having the Joker as a character, it’s hard to go wrong there. This time around there isn’t much in the way of a villain personality which is going to put the focus where it shouldn’t be. On Gotham.

Christopher Nolan Fails at Casting

So far we’ve got Anne Hathaway playing Catwoman in Nolan’s Batman 3 reboot. One of the stiffest actresses of her generation. Tom Hardy as Bane, a large angry Latino man on steroids. Nope. Rumors of Joseph Gordon Levitt as the Riddler, yes the minuscule Levitt as the Riddler.

But Nolan has miscast every Batman film. Christian Bale is a terrible Batman. Katie Holmes playing a top prosecutor in Batman Begins was silly. Cillian Murphy didn’t even register. He got lucky with the older actors, seasoned pros like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson who redeemed the whole affair.

The casting for Dark Knight was still weak. Heath Ledger’s performance was average. If he hadn’t died tragically before the movie opening, that’s the way people would have seen it. Maggie Gyllenhaal was okay. Aaron Eckhart was great as the golden boy of hope, but terrible as Two Face. But it didn’t matter, because Dark Knight was a sprawling ensemble piece, in which even Bale and Ledger’s weak performances hardly registered against the epicness of it all. It’s like complaining about the acting in a Cecil B. DeMille film.

Can The Dark Knight Rises pull off the same trick? Nolan made another epic movie with Inception. He’ll probably do it again. But dragging along his Inception cast is a bad move. Nolan has miscast all the Batman movies and this looks to have the worst cast of them all.

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