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From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.
To those (like me) who have watched and enjoyed the Avengers franchise since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man (Jon Favreau), Iron Man Three offers both variation and familiarity. It has the obligatory action sequences, including the pinnacle of the Iron Man movies at its climax as multiple Iron Man suits battle the super-powered minions of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). These build upon the technophilia established in Iron Man, with protracted shots and sequences emphasising the sleek technology and mutable digital images. These are sometimes at odds with the vague social critique that the first film performed – as one viewer described it, “Michael Moore pimps my ride”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Junior) is not only a master builder, or “tinkerer” as he calls himself, but also handles information and images with perfect ease.
Iron Man Three features plenty of witty repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as between Tony and his computer Jarvis (Paul Bettany). There is also great banter between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which echoes the previous film directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey, Jnr. as well as Val Kilmer (Iron Man and Batman together!). Here is where the variation comes in, as much of Iron Man Three focuses on human exploits. This links to the darker element in the film, which is a change from the previous instalments. Since the superhero cycle began in earnest with X-Men (Bryan Singer) in 2000 and swung to dizzying heights in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), there was a consistent presence of “darkness”, with superheroes suffering from relatable problems and sometimes going to sinister places. The peak of this tendency was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which went so far as to feature an anarchic psychopath, scenes of torture and the repeated failure of our favourite Caped Crusader.
In contrast to the grim exploits of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman, Marvel’s Avengers have been light, frothy fun. Humour has been a constant presence, especially with RDJ’s razor sharp performance of Tony Stark, but also with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a fish out of water and Captain America (Chris Evans) being a laughing stock. Best of all, The Avengers featured Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and irreverence, making it possibly the funniest superhero film to date.
Iron Man Three is also humorous, especially in its banter but also in character responses, such as when Rhodes says with deadpan incredulity (something of an oxymoron): “You breathe fire?!” after Killian does just that. Furthermore, the character of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) provides very significant humour, to which I return later. But alongside the humour, there are some grim moments that make Iron Man Three the darkest entry in the Avengers franchise.
The presence of the Mandarin as the film’s big bad begins this, as the propaganda videos with his threats are reminiscent of Al Qaeda videos. These threats come home to roost when Tony’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion linked to the Mandarin. The aftermath of this attack, in which Happy is shown hooked to monitors in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, is a very poignant scene that fuels Tony’s anger.
Of course, Tony’s anger makes him reckless and stupid, and his TV interview in which he invites the Mandarin to a confrontation results in his Malibu home being destroyed. Tellingly, several Iron Man suits are destroyed, demonstrating Iron Man’s vulnerability, which continues as Tony himself falls into the sea and is then automatically flown away, before his remaining suit loses power and crashes (startling a digital deer as it falls). Cut off from his equipment, Tony must rely on his own wits and ingenuity. Yet his mind also poses a problem that he must confront.
A significant development of Tony’s character is his post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The entire film features voiceover, some of which echoes the meta-cinematic voiceover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the (very funny) post-credits scene shows us Tony talking with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is woefully ill-equipped to offer therapy for Tony’s psychological problems. These problems permeate the film, as Tony is, plagued with nightmares about his experience in New York in The Avengers, when he travelled through a portal to destroy an alien armada and almost died. Tony’s PTSD is consistently demonstrated as he suffers panic attacks whenever New York is mentioned, his trauma casting a sombre pall over much of the film. Nor is the trauma limited to Tony, as the Mandarin’s previous victims leave behind grieving family and literal impressions, as Tony finds in Tennessee, where an explosion left both a crater and seared shadows on nearby walls. The soldiers of Killian, infected with Extremis, are shown to be suffering agony as the nanoprobes reformulate their bodies, and Pepper herself is also tortured in this way. Trauma cuts deep, and cannot be hidden from in a metal suit.
Iron Man Three brings Tony out of the suit, having him build more modest devices so that he can save Pepper, the US President and half the world. At times, he seems more like 007 (or MacGyver) than Iron Man, using a gun, homemade tazers and other improvised weapons. This creates variation from the previous films, which never quite got the balance right between super-techno-heroics and human ingenuity and interactions. Whereas Iron Man and Iron Man 2 made abrupt shifts from Tony tinkering to mechanical mayhem, Iron Man Three escalates its action. Once Tony invades the Mandarin’s secret headquarters, using his various improvised weapons, he has some success but is eventually taken prisoner and only breaks free when the re-charged Iron Man suit arrives. Even then, the suit arrives one piece at a time and operates at less than full power so the ensuing battle is more comical as spectacular, featuring the very funny line from one of Killian’s minions, “I don’t even like working here. They are so weird!”
The spectacle comes later, as Tony powers the suit completely and flies after Air Force One to save President Ellis (William Sadler). He fails, but succeeds in disposing of Killian’s head henchman, Savin (James Badge Dale) and, in a spectacular aerial sequence, he rescues the passengers as they tumble towards their deaths. This sequence, like others, contains a surprise as Tony is operating the suit remotely, which emphasises his distance from the suit, which is less cocoon and more human-shaped coffin. It does not detract from the visceral excitement of the action set piece, which is spectacular and involving. Furthermore, the final spectacular battle of Iron Man Three feels like a natural progression, as multiple Iron Man suits battle Killan’s minions and Tony himself fights Killian. Whereas the action set pieces in Favreau’s films felt like departures, Black’s are escalations, making the film coherent and satisfying, with a continual focus on Tony’s personal journey.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
This can also be the film’s detriment, as it is more a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie. This is further demonstrated by the licence taken with the Mandarin, a major character from the comic books and Iron Man’s classic foe. Most superheroes have these – for the Fantastic Four it’s Doctor Doom, for the X-Men it’s the Brotherhood of Mutants, for Superman it’s Lex Luthor and for Batman it’s the Joker. Iron Man’s greatest nemesis has long been the Mandarin, and for many viewers the prospect of having these two great adversaries clash was one of the most exciting elements of Iron Man Three. Imagine the surprise and (in some cases) disappointment when the Mandarin turns out to be an actor playing a role devised by Killian. Some viewers were very disappointed by this, which indicates the importance of the Mandarin within Iron Man lore.
For my part, I was genuinely shocked by the revelation of Trevor Slattery, to such an extent that I didn’t believe it initially. I was waiting for Slattery to be a decoy and the real Mandarin attack, or at least be somewhere else. But instead, we get an actor whose Lear is the “toast of Croydon” (very funny for a British viewer). But the surprise worked, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious performance meant that I was carried along for the ride.
Furthermore, it is actually a relief that the Mandarin turned out to be a fiction within the film. The original character is a Chinese stereotype and somewhat racist, and the casting of Kingsley raised questions of why such a role should be played by a white actor (not forgetting Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role in Gandhi). The film avoided the Fu Manchu territory by making the Mandarin more of a Bin Laden figure, and in “his” propaganda videos he had an American accent (replaced with a British one when he was discovered). These elements in his character serve several functions. Firstly, it avoids racism, because the Mandarin never seems Other. Secondly, it avoids the fantastical nature of a character that possessed “power rings” in the comic books, either magical or derived from alien technology. While Thor managed to incorporate science and mythology very nicely, Iron Man has been somewhat grounded in practical science (however fanciful) and the inclusion of power rings would have jarred with the overall possible world. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the Mandarin to be a smokescreen, and the real enemy to be Killian the power-mad weapons manufacturer emphasises the contemporary concern over internal threats. Killian recognises the opportunity in giving people a figurehead to fear, in order to legitimate arms manufacture, and uses it to great effect. Tony’s discovery of Slattery demonstrates the conceit of true danger often being less exotic but no less dangerous.
As with much of the film, the climax had its surprises, both with the multiple suits and Tony, not to mention Pepper, proving to be able combatants in their own right. For Killian to be in league with the Mandarin was not surprising; for him to actually be the Mandarin is a masterstroke, as it maintains the conceit of military contractors being a threat. This may not be original, and indeed forms the conceit of more “realistic” films as Snake Eyes, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ghost Writer, but it works, maintaining the critical eye on the military-industrial complex that has characterized the Iron Man franchise since it began in 2008. Tony Stark may have learned the error of his ways, but other arms manufacturers still pose a threat.
For Killian to be the true locus of the film’s threat serves as the external version of Tony’s internal conflict – he needs to address the trauma he suffered and face up to danger, which he does by doing his fighting himself. Except that Killian is far more powerful and without his suit Tony would be finished, but fortunately Pepper is there to save the day. When Pepper fell into a fiery explosion, I thought she had been killed, and was delighted when she re-appeared, reconstructed by Extremis. While it was gratuitous to have her in a bra at the film’s climax, it was very pleasing for a woman to save a man and put down the bad guy for a change. But Tony faces up to his demons and succeeds in overcoming them, demonstrated by the destruction of all his suits and the removal of the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest, as these defences are no longer needed.
By reworking the characters of the Mandarin and Iron Man himself, Iron Man Three departs significantly from the comic books. None of this hurt it at the box office, as its current take stands at $1,077,068,034 worldwide. It is easy to be protective about the texts we love, but reinterpretation need not devalue the original. There are multiple versions of Iron Man to enjoy, in comic book, animation and feature film. Iron Man Three builds upon the strength of what has come before, and does a very fine job of being its own model.