Sunday, 16 June 2013

Cinema: Man Of Steel, and some thoughts on Hollywood superhero franchises vs independent titles

I watched Man Of Steel yesterday afternoon. I'm not a big fan of Zack Snyder's directorial style - I liked Dawn Of The Dead quite a lot, was indifferent to 300 (though I'm looking forward to Rogue-TheX's The Story Of Leonidas And The 300 Spartans), didn't much like Watchmen, and enjoyed Sucker Punch despite it being a clumsy mess. I figured that with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer Snyder ought to be able to produce something watchable, at least.

By and large, they have succeeded at exactly that - producing a watchable, if unexceptional, film. Visually, the film is for the most part reasonably impressive; it descends into a morass of CGI silliness in the third act, but that's pretty much standard fare for big-budget superhero films at this point. Similarly, the score is good when it's allowed to be subtly evocative rather than deafeningly blaring. And the script has some nice moments, when it's not busy walloping you over the head with clumsy symbolism or exposition.

The overall narrative is handled well, though clumsily balanced - a lot of the action feels empty, especially in the third act. There's no sense of peril to seeing Superman or Zod punched through a building, and it's all just CGI anyway, so rather than impressive and shocking it starts to become dull.

Ultimately, I think the issue that Superman in particular always presents is that he's a 70-odd-year-old idea. We all know the basic story, and the basic character - and there's not a great deal of interest there, frankly. It's challenging to craft a narrative around an Ultimate Good Guy who never changes and, in some sense, always wins - or at least, it's challenging to do so and make it in any way engaging.

When considering The Dark Knight Rises and Man Of Steel and to a lesser extent The Avengers, I find myself thinking about 2012's Chronicle and 2010's Super - both relatively small and independent productions, and both with a much more interesting take on either superhuman abilities or costumed vigilantism than any big-budget film I've seen. I find that Chronicle and Super hold my attention much more than MoS, tDKR or tA - I am much more likely to return to them for repeat viewing because they offer more than empty spectacle.

Chronicle had a much more intimate structure to its narrative than tDKR, MoS or tA, and was exceptionally engaging as a result. We follow its three protagonists through the film, as they discover a McGuffin that grants them ill-understood powers and begin to master them. We see in detail the many ways that Andrew's life is made miserable by almost everyone he knows except Matt & Steve, while Matt struggles to find direction and Steve pursues his ambitious goals; we watch Matt & Andrew in particular struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether Andrew should use his powers to retaliate against everyone making his life a misery, and when the confrontation finally builds to a head it carries a hefty emotional punch; coupled with some very clever and thoughtful choreography and scene-framing that makes the action sequences genuinely thrilling.

In a similar fashion, Super was the story of one quite-probably-schizophrenic man, Frank, and why he decided to don a mask and become an urban vigilante known as the Crimson Bolt. Much more darkly comical than Chronicle, it nonetheless had a savage undertone with an unforgivingly blunt assessment of what would actually happen should an individual with no special abilities, training or weapons decide to wage a one-man war on crime.

In contrast, The Dark Knight Rises and Man Of Steel were both turgidly serious films; examining some interesting themes, certainly, but doing so in such a tediously heavy-handed fashion that enjoyment is difficult - particularly when the runtimes feel inflated for no narrative benefit. Whedon's Avengers fared better in this regard; it still suffered from feeling a tad flabby (understandable to an extent given the desire to utilize every member of the ensemble cast in some manner) but brought some welcome humour and sparkle to its dialogue, remembering that at least some of its cast were individuals who occasionally enjoy making a joke. It's not enough to save the film outright, but it is enough to place The Avengers head and shoulders above the catalogue of bland mediocrity that, in my opinion, constitutes the rest of the Marvel Studios films.

The various problems affecting all of these films and preventing what should be fun and exciting action films from achieving that full potential are common - rooted in franchising and the desire to serve a brand as a higher priority than telling a good story. Certain visual designs cannot be changed too much, certain narrative elements have to be present, and this constrains the film-makers - especially when dealing with films in a franchise, where competing with previous iterations is as much a challenge as competing with other filmmakers elsewhere. Which is a shame, because only a fool would suggest that what makes Batman stories good is the design of the Bat-signal, or that what makes an Avengers story good is the costumes on the characters, or that a character with identical attributes and personality to Superman is axiomatically inferior if he doesn't have the costume and the cape to go with them. This issue, in my mind, is due to the financial controllers of film studios (and other industries where such issues are felt, like the US comic publishing industry) confusing the overt visual iconography of the stories for the qualities of the stories, and attempting to secure future financial success by requiring the continued usage of said iconography.

Whether or not studios think so, the superhero trend we're currently seeing will go same way as the most recent Disaster Movie trend, and the Pirate Movie trend, and every other trend. The way to keep a franchise going beyond such trends is not to insist the iconography is unchanging, but to recruit good film-makers who understand the narrative qualities of the source material for the franchise and can create new stories with those qualities.

To put it another way - when I see a film I enjoy, I don't want the sequel to be a Hangover-II-esque re-tread of the same exact material; I want it to be a new story that builds from the groundwork of the first one but features the same qualities and elicits the same response as the first one. So a funny film should still be funny, an action film should still be exciting, a horror film should still be scary; but it has to move beyond what was done in the first film, otherwise it will be pointless. "Go big or go home" should be the rule here.

It is disappointing, but unsurprising, to me that most of the action films I particularly enjoyed over the last couple of years have not been big Hollywood films. For every Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, it turns out there's a Dredd 3D or The Raid or Chronicle - and those films, by virtue of being made on smaller budgets with fewer restrictions on what narratives can be pursued, are more engaging and more enjoyable for the audience.

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