Man of Steel & Everybody Has a Plan

July 6, 2013
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When comic book heroes are turned into sensitive brooding souls, there is something twisted in our culture. We’ve seen a tortured Batman and now an angst-ridden Superman filled with anxiety about his true identity and how people might react to his superpowers. To complete the psychological profile the new Superman has a difficult childhood. He has to hide his abilities from the bullies who want to beat him up while he sits reading a paperback volume of Plato. His X-ray vision is a curse, forcing him to see skulls and skeletons when he looks at his classmates.

As he reaches adulthood this Superman becomes a bearded drifter, working in a succession of dead end jobs. It is only when he locates a spaceship from Krypton and puts on the cape and leotards, that he finds the self-esteem he has been lacking.

In comparison, the original comic book versions of Superman and his peers were imbued with a tremendous innocence. These figures lived in a black-and-white world where good and evil were clearly demarcated. In Man of Steel, many of the people Superman meets are so unpleasant it’s not exactly obvious why he has such an urge to help them. Once upon a time the superhero was the character who did things the rest of us couldn’t do. Today he is the same neurotic mess as everyone else. Rather than envy, we might feel pity for him.

This piecemeal psychologising of a cartoon character is what passes for depth in a big budget Hollywood feature nowadays. While audiences watch Superman or Batman or Spiderman or Woofter the Wonder Dog wrestling with their inner demons, they are being quarantined from anything of lasting literary value. Today’s Hollywood judges these texts as too hard, too boring, or simply not relevant, preferring to elevate pop cultural junk to a quasi-religious stature.

Despite all the hype, Superman is junk, yet director, Zack Snyder can’t even allow the film to be a piece of mindless entertainment. In those brief interludes free from explosions, battles and massive destruction of property, we are obliged to consider Superman’s existential anxieties and absorb a lot of quasi-Christian sentiment. There is a shallowness and dishonesty in the way these banalities are squeezed in between the action sequences, as if to justify every act of violence.

It may suffer from delusions of grandeur, but Man of Steel is an overly-long, bombastic, formulaic concoction that copies all the bits that must have proven popular in other recent Hollywood blockbusters. It is so loud one’s ears are ringing after the movie is over, thanks to more than two hours of explosions and Hans Zimmer’s tub-thumping score. It is also devoid of wit and charm, apart from a tiny one-liner where Mrs. Kent encounters Clark in his Superman togs, and says: “Nice suit, son.”

Snyder takes us back to fundamentals, retelling the story of Superman’s origins as if it were entirely new. The new bits are largely excuses for more explosions and battles – the things for which 3D technology is so well-suited.

Take the beginning, for instance, set on the dying planet of Krypton where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have just welcomed the arrival of their baby son, Kal-El. Rusty plays one of those scientists that only today’s Hollywood could conceive: a super-intellect and action hero rolled into one, who acts to save his civilisation when the nasty General Zod (Michael Shannon), stages a coup d’etat. This allows plenty of opportunities for Jor-El to plunge from great heights, shoot enemies with a ray gun, and engage in bone-crunching martial arts contests.

After much fuss, Zod and his gang are sent into exile orbiting the planet in suspended animation, while young Kal-El is dispatched to Earth. We will meet him again as Clark Kent, grown-up son of a couple of Kansas farm folk (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who have adopted this bundle of joy from outer space. Meanwhile, Krypton implodes.

But wait, here comes Zod again, threatening to destroy the human race unless Superman can stop him. This process entails a lot more collateral damage on a gargantuan scale.

Along the way we meet Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, who is now a Kate Adie-style reporter, keen to go where danger lies. We have heaps of homespun wisdom from Earth dad, Jonathan Kent. We have extraterrestial wisdom from Jor-El, who is actually dead, but has managed to preserve his consciousness for future reference. Zod turns out to be your typical psychopathic, would-be tyrant, while Clark/Kal-El, even allowing for his melancholy streak, is the embodiment of all things good, kind, noble and heroic.

British-born Henry Cavill is perfect for the lead role, not only possessing chiselled features and rippling muscles, but lacking expressivity to a remarkable degree – just like a Ken doll from outer space. When Superman wants to show displeasure he wrinkles his brow slightly. When he wants to say something profound he resorts to good old American values, which are also traditional Christian values. This is appropriate because he is constantly being identified as a new Messiah.

Creationists will be gratified when one of the villains from Krypton claims that being more highly evolved means they have dispensed with the “weakness” of morality. If only the director had followed their example! Even the ‘S’ on Superman’s chest is identified as a Kryptonese symbol meaning ‘hope’.

General Zod’s attempt to reshape the planet with a giant ray beam leaves New York/Metropolis looking pretty sick, but this vision of falling buildings and dust-covered inhabitants is a thinly disguised reference to 9/11. Snyder shamelessly piggybacks on the pathos of a real catastrophe that has become a piece of American mythology. Superman’s final face-off with Zod is less problematic, being pure High Noon.

Although Superman is now a brooding, sensitive new age guy there is not a flicker of sexual interest in his make-up, even though he seems unusually well-designed to attract the female of the species. Clark and Lois will probably get a little cosier in the inevitable sequel.

We know with absolute certainty there will be a sequel, as the two next parts of a ’trilogy’ have already been announced. There never seems to have been any doubt in the minds of the producers that this film would be a hit. We have reached the stage where the public not only tolerates formula, it expects and desires formula. For millions of people there must be a sense of reassurance in watching the same movie over and over and over. Those of us who want something else from the cinema are beings from another planet.

Nothing could be further from Man of Steel than Everybody Has a Plan, the debut feature by Argentinian director Ana Piterbarg. No 3D, no CGI, no saturation advertising campaign, only a story, told in slow, deliberate fashion. One could complain the narrative is actually too slow, but it is sustained by a Gothic, film noir atmosphere and a powerful lead performance by a Spanish-speaking Viggo Mortensen, who plays twin brothers Agustin and Pedro.

The former is a doctor living in Buenos Aires, while Pedro has remained in the shabby, impoverished part the Tigre Delta where the twins were born. After many years of estrangement, the brothers are reunited when Pedro discovers he has cancer. At the time Pedro arrives, Agustin has been spiralling into depression, triggered by his wife’s enthusiasm about adopting a baby. Pedro keeps bees for a living, but has fallen into evil pathways with an old boyhood friend, Adrián (Daniel Fanego), whose C.V. includes robbery, kidnapping and murder.

With Pedro’s death, Agustin glimpses the opportunity for a new life. He puts on his twin’s clothes and heads off to the Argentinian equivalent of the Bayou. There he hooks up with Rosa (Sofia Gala Castiglione), the 20-year-old girl who has been helping Pedro with the bees; and is hauled in by the police as a result of his brother’s crimes. When Adrián turns up with a new scheme, Agustin has to work out where his brother’s life ends and his own begins.

With any tale of assumed identity there are those predictable moments when the hero finds he is being consumed and moulded by the part he is playing. This is so much the case with Agustin that he allows himself to get drawn into the criminal world his brother inhabited. It seems to go with the part, just like his brother’s cough and the cigarettes he smoked.

Rosa, who already has a history with the sinister Adrián, proposes an optimistic approach to life: “To be good to others no matter who they are.” The result, she hopes, will be to increase the amount of good in the world and diminish the bad. That is a forlorn expectation in this case because the bad deeds of each character are never likely to go away. To Adrián, Rosa will always be “trash”, and Agustin “chickenshit”. There is no opportunity for change in this forlorn environment. He invokes the dead Pedro, who compared them all to the bees who each have their own role in the hive from birth to death.

It’s not a cheerful reflection on human nature, but in such communities it has a mordant ring of truth. At least there’s no suggestion someone will come along in a cape and make it better.

 

Man of Steel, USA/Canada/UK, rated M, 143 mins

Everybody Has a Plan, Argentina/Spain/Germany, rated MA 15+, 113 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 6, 2013