Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Strange Visitors from Another World (MAN OF STEEL Reviewed)


I have a bad habit of mitigating flaws with movies I want to love. Particularly with big genre blockbusters, the carefully orchestrated hype mechanism does its job on me almost every time. Despite my efforts to remain objective and cautious and keep my expectations in check, I almost always walk into an anticipated extravaganza with unreasonably high hopes. And it’s not just me; It’s a common malady in geekdom.

Inevitably, as the story unfolds onscreen, I get wrapped up in what I’m watching, being dazzled by the spectacle while abandoning all critical objectivity. Even after I leave the theater, my wishes for a great cinematic experience can overwhelm anything my subconscious is trying to tell me about what I actually just saw. It happened with BATMAN. It happened with SUPERMAN RETURNS. It happened with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and most recently, albeit just briefly, with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.

With MAN OF STEEL, though, despite my oft-(some would say monomaniacally)-stated affection for the title character, I made every effort to not get my hopes up, and for the most part, I was successful. Unlike last time, I didn’t gather a big group to go see it (just my pal and fellow Superman aficionado, Gary). I braced for the worst. Which is a good thing, because MAN OF STEEL may be the most polarizing adaptation in the character’s 75-year history… How you feel about it says more about your feelings towards the superhero genre, and, moreso, the character of Superman than it does the film itself.

For those of us who so, SO wanted to love this latest adaptation of the first true superhero, the movie is an enormous mixed bag that causes no small amount of consternation. The good is pretty darn good, but the bad… is horrifically bad.

On the upside, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Henry Cavill is easily the best Superman since Christopher Reeve’s iconic standard-bearer. He plays the role with understated fortitude and charming nobility, while still being able to believably kick ass when the need arises (and, spoiler alert, it does). As Lois Lane, Amy Adams (one of my picks for the role when Kate Bosworth proved inept) strikes the perfect tone: smart but headstrong, intrepid, and a little bit reckless. While I never liked the idea of Lois knowing Clark and Superman were one and the same in the comics, it totally works here, and I’m curious to see what comes next with their relationship.

Both sets of parents do a nice job, despite the treacly speechifying that makes up most of their dialogue. And while they barely have anything to do (aside from dodging debris), the rest of the Daily Planet staff seems to know their stuff. Michael Shannon as General Zod wisely chooses not to replicate Terence Stamp’s scene-chewing theatrics, but ends up seeming—despite lots of shouting—a bit detached. Still, he gives the villain a chilling, self-righteous malevolence that would make Dick Cheney proud.

I thought that the science fiction aspects of the film worked really well. Drawing from John Byrne’s vision of a cold, sterile Krypton (where natural childbirth is an ancient concept), the movie managed to make an origin story I’ve seen / read / listened to / ate for breakfast a thousand times seem fresh. The alien biotech is gorgeously rendered, and the destruction of Krypton is presented in a new way that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

It was a smart decision to jump straight from Kal-El crash landing in Kansas to the adult Clark working on the fishing boat, telling the bulk of his childhood upbringing in flashback. After the Reeve films and SMALLVILLE, I don’t know if the audience would’ve had the patience for a linear telling of the development of Clark’s abilities.

But the flashback scenes contain one of the larger problems with the film: Jonathan Kent. Superman’s morality stems not from his Kryptonian heritage; it’s what he learned from the couple who took him in as their own. The notion that you use your powers to help other people without hesitation is the basis of what makes the character so inspirational (and so confounding to his misanthropic enemies). MAN OF STEEL’s paranoid version of Pa Kent, who thinks it might be okay to let a bus full of kids drown, who sees the worst in people rather than the best, is impossible to imagine as the moral compass for Superman.

Still, I was willing to forgive this veering from the mythos (maybe Clark learned his morality from his mom), as—aside from the handheld camera—everything else up to this point was working for me. I loved Hans Zimmer’s percussive score. I thought this version of the Phantom Zone was the best I’d ever seen (and it made sense how its prisoners escaped). I liked the elements that screenwriter David S. Goyer lifted from Mark Waid’s SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT (Clark traveling the world, finding his way). The oil rig rescue was fantastic. I was happy with the ancient Kryptonian ship at least temporarily serving as the Fortress of Solitude. I wasn’t annoyed with this incarnation of the artificial Jor-El, and even (as I had hoped) accepted the retooled costume within the context of the story.

Right up through the point where Kal-El puts on the Superman suit and learns to fly, I was sitting there thinking, “Damn, I’m really liking this movie” (I'm pretty sure I even leaned over to whisper as such to Gary).

And then, like the planet Krypton did so spectacularly, MAN OF STEEL pretty much implodes. Once General Zod and the Phantom Zone exiles land in Smallville and start trading blows with Superman, destroying everything in sight (including Sears and IHOP), the movie becomes an almost relentless assault on both the senses and the spirit of Superman.

Like so many other fans of the character, I sat there bewildered, wondering why this Superman seemed to have no compunction whatsoever about the absolutely devastating collateral damage that his battles were incurring. Buildings are demolished, vehicles are tossed into crowds and structures, gas stations and silos explode, and there’s barely a hint of concern on the part of our supposed savior.

Things get a thousand times worse when the action moves to Metropolis, where the devastation makes New York City’s trashing in THE AVENGERS look like the wee bit of carnage caused when Supes battled the Phantom Zone villains in SUPERMAN II. It's yet another disturbing 9/11 exploitation in a movie obviously made by people who weren't here on that day.

And this is the most aggravating thing: The movie would have been SO MUCH BETTER if director Zack Snyder and his crew had done LESS. Why on Earth did they think that we needed to see seemingly half of Metropolis destroyed in order to grasp the gravity (no pun intended) of the threat? Surely one building toppling would’ve been enough (and as we learned in real life, two is too much). The destruction is so over the top that it becomes not just mind-numbingly repetitive, but annoyingly meaningless. We get it! The Kryptonians are powerful and ruthless! This battle is important!

But of all the thousands of deaths in MAN OF STEEL, the worst one is the last: Superman kills General Zod. Kills Zod dead. Kills the shit out of him. Superman kills. I keep writing it because I still can’t really believe it.

This is the moment where MAN OF STEEL loses the core audience who so desperately wanted to love this movie. This is the moment where David Goyer and Zack Snyder seem to flip the cinematic bird to everyone who really cares about how this character is presented. There were other options. It’s almost impossible to see this as anything other than a chickenshit bow to the formula of practically every superhero movie in the past few decades.

(Of less overall importance, one has to wonder, how exactly did Superman snap Zod’s neck? They’ve spent the last half of the movie smacking each other with planes, trains, automobiles, and entire BUILDINGS, to no avail. But when it suits the story, suddenly Zod’s neck becomes vulnerable. And why, after thousands of people are dead, does Superman only reach his breaking point when he sees Dick and Jane and their parents [seriously, where was Spot?] about to be heat-vision-vaporized at the train station?)

Now, you’d think that, as someone who’s written about how Superman’s refusal to take a life is one of the key tenets of the character, I’d be among the very vocal chorus who flat out decry this movie as an abomination.

But here comes some of that mitigating I mentioned at the top: While I hated Zod’s death, I’m going to cut it some slack in the larger context of MAN OF STEEL, based on an interview with Goyer and Snyder for EMPIRE MAGAZINE (which also reveals that producer Christopher Nolan was against the controversial ending, but lost the argument).

Snyder’s defense is thus: “I felt like, if we can find a way of making it impossible for him–like Kobayashi Maru, totally no way out–I felt like that could also make you go, ‘Okay, this is the why of him not killing ever again, right?’ He’s basically obliterated his entire people and his culture and he is responsible for it and he’s just like, ‘How could I kill ever again?’”

There is precedent for this. During John Byrne’s run on Superman, there was a storyline in which Zod, Zaora (not Faora, although she did exist in the comics) and a third Phantom Zone villain named Quex-Ul destroy every living being on an alternate Earth in a “pocket universe.” Superman (summoned from his Earth in a last ditch effort to defeat the villains) ultimately decides he has no choice but to execute the criminals before they can escape to another world and wreak the same havoc.

In the comics, the story had ramifications that lasted for years, with Superman suffering a crisis of conscience that cemented his resolve to never again take another life, no matter how vile. It’s interesting that this story took place in 1988, during the celebration of Superman’s 50th anniversary… now here we are, 25 years later, having the same discussion. It just shows how the more things change, etc.

So, if we discover in the sequel to MAN OF STEEL (MAN OF TOMORROW?) Henry Cavill’s Superman has learned a painful lesson from killing Zod, then I’m willing to grant the filmmakers some latitude. Continuing in the EMPIRE interview, Snyder says, “I think that when you really put in stone the notion that he won’t kill, it erases an option in the viewer’s mind… That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t now have a code that ‘I just won’t do that; I have to find another way.’”

True, it’s not optimal that I had to read an interview after seeing the movie to have my biggest complaint about MAN OF STEEL somewhat tempered, but there you go.

While I hope the inevitable next installment does deal with Superman’s killing of Zod, overall it had better be a lot less gritty and humorless. MAN OF STEEL could certainly have benefited from one or two more moments of heroism that didn’t involve the demolition of a city block (remember the montage in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE where Superman captured the cat burglar and the bank robbers, rescued Air Force One, and got the cat out of the tree? Something like that, maybe). And please, for the love of Rao, can we have some more laughs next time?

I hesitate to compare MAN OF STEEL to Richard Donner’s 1978 classic and its first sequel for many reasons. Despite telling the same basic story, they are disparate animals in practically every way, made by a wholly different generation of filmmakers for a different era. Those of us old enough to have seen Christopher Reeve take flight on the big screen have a stubborn tendency to decry anything that doesn’t kneel at the altar constructed by that seminal superhero film. But those movies weren’t perfect, either (Hell, one could even argue that Superman casually let the de-powered Ursa, Non, and General Zod die of hypothermia or whatever in the theatrical cut of SUPERMAN II with nary a second thought). Nor, of course, was Bryan Singer’s noble, yet ill-advised attempt to craft a simultaneous sequel and ode to the first two Reeve movies in SUPERMAN RETURNS (which was as morose and uneventful as MAN OF STEEL is angry and apocalyptic).

In the larger sense, mixed feelings about the new movie aside, I have to accept MAN OF STEEL as perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the classic ideal of Superman that I and so many others hold dear. This noble idealist, the staunch optimist, clad in bright primary colors (red shorts and all) has given way to the more modern, grimmer, armored superhero that populates comics, toy shelves, and now film. Those of us who lament this new Superman’s presence as an insurgency run the risk of coming across as nothing more than bitter, cranky old timers fighting against the inevitability of change.

Maybe instead of quixotically weeping over the loss of “our” Superman (for whom mountains of material in all forms of media will always exist), we should instead try to find and encourage others to find in these new iterations the kernel of what made Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s character so enduring in the first place. Despite my sizable issues with the movie, I did see that kernel more than a few times in MAN OF STEEL.

And I don’t think I’m just mitigating flaws. At least I hope I’m not. Time will tell.

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