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Rob Edelman: Mixing Special Effects and Intelligence

MAN OF STEEL, the just-released action film which brings to the fore the beloved superhero known as Superman, is yet another special effects-laden extravaganza spotlighting slam-bang good guy-bad guy encounters. If this is to your liking, you probably will relish MAN OF STEEL. But if you are looking for some narrative cohesion and intelligence amid all the mayhem, MAN OF STEEL surely will disappoint.

These days, for every film like THE DARK KNIGHT and SKYFALL-- a pair of high-octane spectaculars which combine dazzling imagery with thoughtful, stimulating narratives-- there are countless, endless superhero stories that are overloaded with special effects but which do little more than assault the viewers’ senses. Now sure, the villain in MAN OF STEEL is a villain for our time. He is General Zod, and he is no mere heavy who plots to rule the earth or corner its riches. He is from the planet Krypton, and he self-righteously declares that he will destroy the earth in order to save his planet, and his people. In this regard, General Zod is no different from your stereotypical, real-world 21st-century terrorist.

But otherwise, MAN OF STEEL is, well, pretty mindless-- and it becomes downright silly when, with the myriad skyscrapers of the city of Metropolis crashing around them, Superman and Lois Lane share their first kiss. How romantic!

I also must add here that, while there is plenty of destruction courtesy of the evil General Zod, there are no corpses in sight, bloody or otherwise, and there is no punch-in-the-gut human suffering. The citizens of Metropolis are seen running from the mayhem, but never are they personally victimized by it. Such is your formulaic contemporary Hollywood action-fantasy.

This of course does not mean that every serious-minded film works cinematically. Take, for example, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, based on a novel by SalmanRushdie. This film is an elaborate, well-intentioned historical epic whose primary character is born in Bombay on the day in 1947 in which India achieved independence from Great Britain. But Rushdie tosses a curveball here, as this newborn and another infant are switched at birth. A range of issues both cultural and political are dealt with by Rushdie and director DeepaMehta and, occasionally, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN is perceptive and touching. But the film also is episodic, and way too often wallows in soap opera-style theatrics.

The flaws in films as diverse as MAN OF STEEL and MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN only serve to emphasize that a film can spotlight eye-popping special effects while remaining genuinely coherent and intelligent. As proof, all you have to do is sit back and savor films like THE DARK KNIGHT and SKYFALL.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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