The visual aesthetic of Man of Steel’s action scenes

I’m not that big a fan of superhero movies, or superheroes in general, but when I saw the latest live-action installment in the Superman franchise, there was one particular thing that struck me: the fight scenes. In fact, out of all the movies I’ve seen within this ongoing new wave of superhero flicks, Man of Steel is the only one that’s truly impressed me with its action scenes. Sure, all the superhero movies have their fair share of explosions, heavy punches and sceneries getting destroyed, but not quite on the same level or in the same vein as Man of Steel.

And I think there’s partly a natural reason for this; Superman is, after all, one of the strongest superheroes out there, and in order for a match against him to be interesting there has to be an opponent who’s at least on the same level as him in terms of physical strength (as long as not kryptonite is involved). This results in that the sheer scale of a Superman fight is significantly higher than with most other superheroes, which can be seen in pretty much any example:

I think this becomes even more apparent when looking at the contrast between the fight and the environment in which the fight is taking place; there are cars and tanks getting thrown up in the air, skyscrapers getting destroyed, and one single punch having the potential of destroying someone’s entire home. When the fight is over, the whole city lies in ruins. This is something that I think Man of Steel really managed to pull off; the feeling that ordinary people are nothing more than bugs in the presence of these superhumans. Although comparing the clip above to the fights in Man of Steel, there’s something missing; the scale is certainly there, but it completely lacks the same virtuosity and extravaganza. To find this, we need to begin with taking a trip to China and look at a certain cinematic category called wuxia.

Wuxia is a term that far exceeds the world of cinema. Roughly defined as martial arts stories with heroic aspects, it has been a part of Chinese literature long before film was even a thing. Even though wuxia films have existed since the 1920s, they didn’t gain attention in the west until the early 2000s, with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being the landmark. This movie, alongside Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, are the ones most known to the western audience. What defines a typical wuxia fight scene is that it consists of actual techniques taught within Chinese martial arts, but which are exaggerated to the point of human impossibility. A typical wuxia scene is also very elegant and graceful, being as much a deadly battle as a delicate ballet.

Now, let’s travel to the year 2004 and look at a certain movie called Kung Fu Hustle. Being as much a tribute as a parody on not only wuxia but kung fu movies as well, this Hong Kong action comedy stars Stephen Chow (who also directed, co-wrote and co-produced the movie) as a young protagonist who goes through a typical “from zero to hero”-transition, in a story involving gangsters, martial arts masters, childhood reminiscences, messiah-like prophesies, but above all a lot of kung fu ass-kicking. It has all the traits and tropes for a typical clichéd heroic narrative, but which are handled in the most excessive and self-aware way possible. (Not to mention the movie’s repletion of references to other media.) One could talk all day about how awesome a movie Kung Fu Hustle is, but for now, let’s look at what it did with the fight scenes. As the title implies, the central theme of this movie is kung fu, but it’s in combination with wuxia’s exaggeration of physical ability that it finds its niche. All the fighting in the movie is undeniably within the tradition of kung fu (or at least highly inspired by it), but with strength and speed impossible for any human to achieve. What this results in is that the aforementioned elegance of wuxia is replaced by a much rawer, punchier and more violent aesthetic; the characters don’t fight with carefully crafted samurai swords, but with their fists and bodies. Also, by throwing in cartoon elements into the mix, the gravity defying and superhuman strength is here exaggerated even more to the point of ridiculousness (which is oh so intentional).

Here, we can draw a very strong connection to Man of Steel; the extremity in strength, speed and overall physical ability is highly present in both movies. While the action in Man of Steel is too rough to be compared to wuxia, it can easily be compared to Kung Fu Hustle since what that movie essentially does is taking the action aesthetic of wuxia and making it rougher. But there’s yet something missing. Kung Fu Hustle may have provided us with the right ingredients in terms of physicality, but we haven’t quite reached the right level of rapid spectacle yet. To find it, let’s fast forward a year and look at the 2005 movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is, as you may have guessed from the title, a movie based upon the classic seventh installment in the even more classic game series Final Fantasy. It tells the aftermath of what happened in the game, where Cloud is haunted by grief for his lost ones, a virus is spreading like a plague among the citizens, and a trio of grey haired young men are searching for a particular object that they refer to as “mother” in order to revive Sephiroth. But that’s not what we’re going to focus on here. The fighting style in Advent Children is in a way a callback to wuxia, in the sense that the fights mostly aren’t handled with fists but with, if not swords, then other forms of weapons, as well as in the sense that the overall choreography borrows a lot of wuxia’s elegance. Although it certainly has the same punchiness as seen in Kung Fu Hustle, thus landing somewhere in between.

One significant factor that we want to take from this one is its adding of a lot of acrobatics into the mix – much more so than both wuxia and Kung Fu Hustle. The characters are constantly moving in one way or another; jumping around, flying in the air and doing volts while fighting each other. This is something that can also be strongly seen in Man of Steel; because of the fact that one of Superman’s main superpowers is the ability to fly, a large portion of the fights are taking place in the air. Maybe not Man of Steel is as elegant as Advent Children in how the fighters are moving, but they are nevertheless moving, constantly flying or jumping at a rapid speed while taking/delivering punches. But perhaps the most important thing to take out of Advent Children is the cinematography. Not only do these two movies have a very similar color pallet, but the camerawork is – unlike in both the wuxia films and Kung Fu Hustle – done in a way that the camera is never static, but always moving with the same rapidity and fierceness as the battles. It’s almost as if the camera isn’t simply documenting the fights, but actually partaking in the action itself. This is something that I think more than anything adds to the intensity of the fight scenes, since we as the viewers are being brought much closer to the action.

One last aspect that I’d like to touch upon is the special effects. In Advent Children‘s visual aesthetic I can see a very high influence of modern tokusatsu, a term within Japanese motion picture which is roughly defined by a considerably high amount of special effects, and has since its starting point become a big part of Japanese pop culture with franchises such as Godzilla and the Ultra Series. Contemporary tokusatsu has in itself a very distinct style; as seen in works such as Casshern, Assault Girls and Garo, the use of mostly very cheap computer generated effects is highly prominent throughout, to the point that it almost looks as if the entire footage (sometimes even the costumes) was shot in green screen and then added in. This creates a very weird contrast where the work in question is straddling the line between live-action and computer animation.

Although since Advent Children is completely in CGI, it doesn’t really have that contrast, but Man of Steel in a sense does. Because of its over-the-top nature, the movie uses a significant amount of non-practical effects, but unlike the tokusatsu movies the effects aren’t nearly as cheap. The contrast is still somewhat there, but because of that the effects are much more well made, it’s not nearly as weird and off-putting, and if anything I’d say it adds to what creates the action scenes’ special character. You could almost see Man of Steel as an example on how a modern tokusatsu movie would look like with a Hollywood-level budget behind it.

So yeah, now it seems that we’ve gathered all the ingredients necessary. What I think makes the action scenes of Man of Steel so awesome is the combination of all the factors brought up in this post; from the contrastive sense of scale, to Kung Fu Hustle‘s mix of wuxia and kung fu, to Advent Children‘s fast paced acrobatics and cinematography, to the special effects of modern tokusatsu. I’m actually quite surprised that nobody else seems to have picked up on these aspects of the movie’s fight scenes, as I see them having a highly distinct aesthetic compared to not just superhero movies, but Hollywood blockbusters in general. Personally I see this aesthetic adding a whole new layer to Superman as both a superhero and a franchise, and I’m very interested in seeing how it will be elaborated in upcoming movies.

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