You won't find a lot of film critiques that compare Terrance Malick's To The Wonder and Zach Snyder's recent Superman reboot, Man of Steel. But I witnessed the movies back to back recently and they are equal representations of what is challenging and demoralizing about the state of movies in America.
When I viewed one of these films, it received audible jeers from the audience. I witnessed small crowds of viewers discussing their confusion and dislike for the film even before they left the theatre. Viewing the other film led to nothing but silence as people shuffled out of the theatre shoving their empty popcorn boxes into the trash.
I am currently living by the following guiding principal when interacting with media-- Kanye West:Music :: Michael Bay:Movies. They are both creating what I will term "audio visual packaging" with the singular purpose of sensationalizing every possible emotion to a level of intolerable sensory panic. Man of Steel unfortunately fits squarely in the Kanye West and Michael Bay packaging-over-substance box. The movie supplants story with action. It creates incredibly dynamic yet senseless battles between foes that destroy innocent lives and property and ignore the very core abilities of the characters themselves. Character and motivation are quite literally ignored. Yes, we are talking about super heroes, but the creators of this movie seem to forget that they even have that little trick up their sleeves. And yes, it is a summer popcorn movie, but the problem is that studios want every movie to be a summer popcorn flick. So this is cinema, for now.
Man of Steel simply moves from once scene of symbolic hyperbole to the next. It is a film that is overly concerned with creating easy to digest Jesus-Americana imagery, explosions, snarky (not witty) characters, and gleaming CG effects. The heart has simply been ripped out of the movie and the creators do not trust their actors enough to give them more than a few seconds at a time to actually tell us a story. The result? It will make hundreds of millions of dollars. Tepid by current superhero movie standards, but still not a failure. Which means? A sequel.
For all the smart-ass dialogue (Avengers still having the most one liners per minute of all the current super hero movies) these movies are not being used for storytelling or even for the development of much beloved characters. I don't think you can honestly say they are entertaining either. Entertainment requires some sort of enjoyment, and enjoyment implies satisfaction. Were you satisfied by constantly moving from one massive scene of global destruction to another? It is iron(man)ic that superhero characters that were created for the very purpose of conveying stories and providing modern day morality plays aren't able to get out of their own way on the big screen to serve even that purpose.
Luckily for all of us, and especially for those who first experience Superman through Man of Steel, there is an 80 year history with the being from Krypton. The story has expanded over time, but the core of the character and the mythology of his purpose allow us to fill in the blanks and almost forgive the movie's lack of authenticity to the original character. If you read, you already know a different Superman mythology.
To the Wonder is an not as fulfilling as other Terrence Malick movies, but it still stands as a stark counter point to Man of Steel. It suffers, in part, from Malick's choice to narrate scenes that simply do not need it. It feels like he was worried that the audience wouldn't understand the film, (that ship sailed for you years ago buddy) so he decided to spell it out for us...literally. It makes digesting the film even harder for those who already feel slightly confused since they now get to wonder aloud, "who is talking right now?" And it makes those who feel the actor's performances are more than adequate, seem less so. He should have trusted those performances more because they are solid. Of particular note is Javier Bardem's turn as the Father Quintana. This character's story arc is buried a bit and used as a foil to the other stories, but it would have been so much stronger to see this core element as a guide for the entire movie.
Man of Steel is more a series of vignettes and music video-style clips than a coherent movie. While To the Wonder actually uses the same technique of capturing small moments in time through visual imagery for a vastly different result. One builds emotion, the other simply numbs it. Man of Steel leaves us with overworked images of Superman as Christ and drawn-out overextended fight sequences where it is obvious that sound editing was more important than any storytelling. Oh, and breaking General Zod's neck after 8 minutes of destroying a city and killing people. We are left with that too. Using the same quick cut editing techniques and multiple camera angles seen in Man of Steel, To The Wonder provides us with endless poignant emotional moments like Father Quintana raising his hand briefly to the prison glass to show love for the convict on the other side. Or watching Marina's (Olga Kurylenko) slow steps up the motel stairs as she debates proceeding with her lover. Even the scene where Jane (Rachel McAdams) asks Niel (Ben Affleck) to be her husband rings true. Fast cuts, strange angles, and lens flare (though decidedly real actual sunlight is causing the flare) all combine for storytelling clarity--even if the clarity is only six seconds long.
I have experienced walk-outs, taunts, and real statements of disgust when watching the last two Terrence Malick movies in theaters. And I watched them both in a town where people probably consider themselves to be artiscially forward in their thinking. Of course, there were some left sitting in their seats crying and not wanting to leave the theater. These two Malick movies were polarizing for people and caused actual debate and conversation, both on the cinematic choices as well as the story. The meaning was not always clear or it varied widely from person to person. While it would be a nice fantasy to think that cinema as an art form could spark this kind of engagement with a wide audience, box office receipts show us that America can't be bothered to think in the cinema. They can't be annoyed with emotional ambiguities, and left to drift and interpret moving images on their own.
Instead, we are in the midst of an onslaught of super hero movies that would offend Odin himself. Movies like Avengers, Iron Man, Transformers, Man of Steel, Captain America... they just....keep...coming. And you can't call them summer movies when they come out all year long, endlessly. The people making these movies assume we want epic battles and fast, but digestible images. They thing we want Superman rising above the world as if Christ himself, not a woman reaching almost achingly to take the rain drop falling from the tip of a barren branch into her mouth.
I love a good action movie. And I really enjoy a well crafted and witty, not snarky, super hero movie that knows its characters deeply. I also like to think. I like to be stumped and left wondering for a time about the meaning of what I have seen. I even like to have that meaning change for me on repeated viewing or though conversation. How many times do you really need to see Captain America? I could watch To The Wonder again knowing I would take a different meaning from it depending on my own emotions and state of mind at the time. Do you know what that is akin to? POETRY!
A Note On Taking A Cue From Music: There is a theme in Man of Steel that does not make it into much of the final cut, but listen to the Man of Steel-Han's Original Sketchbook on the original soundtrack recordings beginning at 8:06 and through 13:30...or 19:00 if you want to "rock" out. It gets all Inception on you at one point, but that music should have been the foundation for the movie. It builds. Maybe let Hans Zimmer direct the next one.