Man of Steel

SPOILERS: The below contains major spoilers, so don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film!

Last night I finally got around to watching Man of Steel. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, but after some pretty lacklustre reviews (and a housemate declaring it to be “the worst film [he’d] ever paid to see”), I hadn’t treated it as a priority.

Being a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work, I desperately wanted the Superman reboot to be a success. It was alway going to be a tricky one to get right – gone are the days when Superman could declare he would fight for “truth, justice, and the American way” without being ridiculed by audiences, and the film acknowledges this – for a start he’s no longer wearing his underwear over his trousers. There are references to the old version of the character, such as leaping over mountains, but the name “Superman” isn’t even referenced until the last 30 minutes of the film.

With so many changes, you’d have thought director Zack Snyder had been given enough flexibility to avoid any disastrous clichés, and for the most part that’s true. The script is broadly believable (save for Michael Shannon repeatedly yelling “I will find him!”*), even if the story feels a little simplistic at times.

A lot of people speculated before the film was released that if it was good Christopher Nolan would be credited with it’s success, while any failure would be blamed on Zack Snyder. Most critics then promptly tried to dodge this by saying it wasn’t a badly directed film, and I’d agree that the story needed more. But after 150 minutes of things blowing up, I find it difficult not to attribute the bulk of the problems to direction, cinematography and editing.

There are two main issues. The first is film length. The film opens with all sorts of sci-fi explosions on Krypton, and although Zod and Jor-El turn-up, there’s no Superman yet (technically he is there, but given he’s just been born I wasn’t expecting him to deliver any lines). The cold-open with the protagonist’s parents is exactly what was done in Star Trek (2009), but that rather neatly sums up the problem – Star Trek took 11 minutes for that opening sequence, while Man of Steel takes nearly twice as long to show what’s happening to Clark Kent. There’s no need for the film to be nearly 2hr 30m.

The other issue is just how much time is spent showing things that blow up. The Director of Photography was Amir Mokri, who previously worked on Bad Boys II and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and the action sequences feel very similar to Michael Bay’s work. The final fight sequence (which probably shouldn’t have been shot) is very similar to the fight sequence in The Matrix Revolutions – two super-humans capable of flight beat the living daylights out of each other while causing all sorts of destruction and mayhem. Hot Fuzz mocked this style of false-endings and multiple fights, but apparently the satire has gone unnoticed.

There is also a massive planet-sized plot hole (spoilers ahoy!) – if Zod wanted a planet to colonise and knew Superman wanted to protect humans, why on earth didn’t he pick another planet? The whole last 45 minutes of film could have been avoided with the words: “Well I actually quite like these humans given they raised me in the first place, but I’d be happy to help if you want to colonise Mars. The humans have been wanting to do that for ages but can’t get the hang of it, so if you tell us how it’s done and let us watch we can help with supplies while you’re getting set-up.” There’s genuinely no reason for Zod not to take this offer up, but he’s hell-bent on terraforming earth because he’s Generically Evil.

Even having watched it and with all the above faults, I still want to like Man of Steel. There are no bad performances, Henry Cavill is perfectly believable as Superman (although he doesn’t really get a chance to play Clark Kent, and the underlying issues of family and origins had the potential to be interesting. The problem is that everything feels under-utilised, and content is replaced with huge explosions and fancy graphics.

I’m now less pessimistic about the upcoming Superman vs Batman film now that I’ve seen Man of Steel. Once Zod has been dealt with there’s less of an excuse for levelling half of Metropolis, so perhaps everything will calm down and the next film will be the intelligent and thoughtful production everyone was hoping for. But I can’t help but think they’ll find an excuse anyway.

 

  • Hilariously, Wikipedia describes this as “Zod then cryptically warns Jor-El’s widow that he will find her son”. There’s very little cryptic about a man screaming “I will find him” over and over again.

On Demand: The Need for Immediacy and the Digital Media Market

The band AC/DC have finally released their recordings on iTunes. They initially argued that their albums should not be available as individual songs, but should be listened to as complete pieces of work.

This is a view I can sympathise with – I was never particularly fussed by the Beatles until my Dad played the entirety of Abbey Road, when it suddenly all made sense. There certainly seems to be a subtle art to the ordering of tracks – had What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) opened with Don’t Look Back in Anger and followed it with Champagne Supernova, I suspect neither song would have been quite as popular.

But AC/DC’s change of heart is almost certainly due to commercial pressures. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, the now-DRM-free music of iTunes and Amazon is making huge amounts of money. Manufacturing costs are almost eliminated by the process, and the downloads are both immediate and cheap. The industry initially insisted on DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to ensure only certain devices were capable of playing a song – an effort to prevent piracy that, like many things in technology, was ultimately doomed by how often users were able to work around the restrictions imposed on them.

Head of Valve Software Gabe Newell once commented that piracy isn’t a price issue – it’s a service issue. He theorised that if the service was made as simple as possible with as little restriction as possible, customers were more than happy to pay for content. Whether or not it was free was not nearly as significant as how constrained the user might be, or whether the product was immediately available.

This is, in part, the cause behind Apple’s success with iTunes. Not only have they put a music store on every computer, but also on every iPad, iPhone and iPod. You can be sat on a train and decide to listen to that song you still have “on the brain”, and download it immediately.

And now, you can even download Back in Black.

The same has not yet been true of the film industry. Interestingly, the birth of digital music downloads coincided with the peak of physical formats. At 700Mb each, a CD can easily contain the information needed for an album at a reasonable quality, and double albums are rare enough that there was never a need to produce a new format.

The movie industry does not appear to have quite reached the same limit. Manufacturers constantly strive to improve the image quality, with both HD and BluRay being embraced by filmmakers. Further experiments such as 3D are ongoing, as the industry explores the question of “what’s next?” and how to best tackle piracy. We may not see any significant shift until the industry feels it is running out of options.

I’m intrigued by Mark Kermode’s suggestion that films should simply be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, and in a downloadable format. This again leans towards resolving ease-of-use for the customer. Given how well this has worked out for the music industry, I can’t help but wonder if this might be the solution.