Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Man Of Steel

Man Of Steel is Hollywood's latest attempt at making a Superman movie, written by Christopher Nolan (writer and director of Inception and The Prestige) and David S. Goyer (writer of Dark City and Blade) and directed by Zack Snyder (director of 300 and Watchmen). With a pedigree like that, this should have been the greatest Superman film of all time. It ain't.

I still think 1978's Superman The Movie is the best Superman film ever made and one of the best superhero films in general. It isn't perfect of course, but it gets far more right than wrong and those filmmakers obviously understood the character and treated him seriously.

Man of Steel was made by people who are quite obviously embarrassed by the source material. They're embarrassed by the mythology, they're definitely embarrassed by the costume and they're even embarrassed by the name Superman (he's only called that once in the entire film). So why even make the film then? Let people who know and love the character make a Superman film.

The trailer raised some red flags in my mind months before I ever saw the film. Pa Kent telling young Clark he should let people die to protect his secret, the horrible looking Superman costume and the interrogation scene in which Lois Lane is interrupted before she can give Clark the name "Superman" all worried me. The fact that it was co-written by Christopher Nolan (who directed all three no-fun Dark Knight movies) didn't fill me with much hope either. Sadly, my intuition was right.

I could forgive the film its many, many flaws if they'd have just gotten Superman right, but they totally missed the point of the character. Superman is a hero and a protector. He always does the right thing for the right reason. He's someone the common man can look up to. He's not a tortured, brooding mope as he's portrayed here.

It's definitely a good looking film and there's plenty of action, but this is not a Superman movie. It might have been better if the film had been called Dooperman and told the story of a brand new superhero. It still wouldn't have been particularly good, but at least it wouldn't have been the complete failure that it is now.

SUPER SPOILERS BELOW!

The Plot:
The film opens with a video game cut scene depicting the planet Krypton. Scientist Jor-El discovers the planet is about to explode and decides to put his infant son Kal-El into a rocket and send him to Earth to save him. The plot needed more complications though, so he somehow stuffs the Codex (which is the DNA of the entire Kryptonian race, or something) into baby Kal-El. Before the rocket takes off though, General Zod appears and demands Jor-El hand over the Codex. Jor-El refuses and Zod kills him, sending ripples of dismay and anger throughout fandom. Zod and his followers are placed inside giant dildos and banished to the Phantom Zone. Jor-El's wife Lara then sends Kal-El off into space and Krypton explodes.

Cut to Clark Kent traveling the world as an aimless drifter, trying to "find himself" while occasionally saving people and posing shirtless. Every time he looks at anything we get a flashback to his childhood and see Pa Kent telling him to always hide his amazing powers lest the public find out he's an alien. He very coincidentally finds an 18,000 year old Kryptonian scout ship hidden under the Arctic ice. He meets reporter Lois Lane while they're both coincidentally snooping around inside the ship. Inside the ship, a hologram of Jor-El answers all his questions and coincidentally gives him a pair of Kryptonian long johns to wear.

The ship sends out a distress call which attracts the attention of General Zod, who, to no one's surprise, has escaped the Phantom Zone. He heads to Earth and demands Clark hand over the Codex, or something. The two engage in some incredibly destructive battles which kill thousands of innocent people. Finally, after Metropolis has been virtually flattened, Clark/Superman decides to save the day by snapping Zod's neck. Everyone's saved! Except for the thousands that were killed during the battle. Now that I think about it, it probably would have been better if Superman never came to Earth at all.

At the end of the film Clark Kent decides to adopt the secret identity of Clark Kent (though it seems too late for that at this point) and gets a high-stress job in a dying industry.

Pros:
• The actors are all well cast and do the best they can with what they have to work with. Russell Crowe in particular does a great job as Jor-El.

Michael Shannon makes an incredible Zod as well. Zod even looks like a comic book character come to life, like someone Jack Kirby would draw.

Henry Cavill does a decent job as Superman, but he's no Christopher Reeve. It'll be a long time before any Superman actor will ever own the role the way Reeve did.

• Once Superman tries on his off-putting new costume, he goes through a (very) brief learning period in which he makes a few super-powered leaps before finally learning to fly. We see his face beaming with sheer joy as he soars through the sky. Enjoy this scene while it lasts, because it's the last time he'll display anything remotely resembling happiness for the rest of the movie. This isn't your father's Superman, laws no. This is a grim, gritty and angsty Man Of Steel who takes no joy in his powers.

Cons:
• The film is pretty much a loose remake of Superman The Movie and Superman II. Why is it so hard to come up with an original Superman story? If they need inspiration there are 75 years worth of comics from which to draw. I guess we should count ourselves lucky we didn't get another rehash of the "Lex Luthor Real Estate Scam" plot, which has already been done twice.

• Nolan and Goyer have needlessly complicated a very simple story. Kal-El is sent to Earth as Krypton explodes. Under Earth's yellow sun he gains super powers and becomes Superman. That's pretty much all we need to know. 

Here though we've got all kinds of stuff about a Codex, Superman carrying the DNA of the entire Kryptonian race in his genes, an ancient Kryptonian scout ship, Zod wanting to restart his race and terraform Earth… there's just way too much troweled on.

And hey screenwriters, I agree that "codex" sounds like a cool and mysterious alien term. But you do know that it's a real word that just means "book," right?

• We're told that Kryptonians are genetically engineered for specific roles in their society. Zod was bred to be a warrior. Jor-El was presumably bred to be a scientist. Shov-El was born to be a ditch digger. OK, I made up that last one. But despite the fact that he was bred for book learnin,' Jor-El somehow beats the ever-living crap out of Zod in hand to hand combat.

• Zod kills Jor-El before the destruction of Krypton. This is a huge deviation from the comic, as traditionally Jor-El and Lara have tearfully watched their infant son fly to safety and then died in one another's arms. This change totally destroys the "God sending us his only Son" metaphor and robs the film of some much needed emotion. 

The only reason I can think of for the change is so Superman will have a personal grudge against Zod, which wasn't necessary. He just needs to stop Zod, he doesn't need the old "this time it's personal" motivation.

• When the Kryptonian Council sentences Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone, they encase them in capsules that look shockingly like gigantic black dildos. Giant flying black dildos. Just look at those things! They're freakin' x-rated! They couldn't possibly look more like giant penises if they tried! It's like they pulled images out of a sex toy catalog. I can't believe that not one single person on the set looked at these props and said, "Um… is there another design we can use here?"

Additionally when Clark is wandering around in the abandoned Kryptonian ship, all the doorways look suspiciously like giant vaginas. Apparently the fact that Kryptonians no longer give birth naturally has turned them all into a bunch of sexually-repressed pervs.

• The filmmakers decided to show us Clark's childhood through flashbacks instead of a normal linear narrative. We're given very little info as to how his foster parents found him and decided to raise him as their own son. It's almost like they're banking on the audience's knowledge of previous versions of the story to fill in the blanks. Bad form! Saying "Eh, you already know this part, let's skip ahead a bit" is lazy writing.

• The government finds a Kryptonian scout ship that's been buried in the Arctic for 18,000 years. Clark sneaks on board and activates a hologram of Jor-El, which gives him a lesson in Kryptonian history that lasts two minutes but feels like it goes on for fifteen. When you need Russell Crowe to stand in front of a screen and infodump the plot to the audience, that's probably a sign you've made your storyline too complicated.

• At the end of the history lesson, Fake Jor-El provides Clark with a suit that just happens to have their family crest on the chest. Whaaaaa? How the hell did that happen? Why would a ship that crashed on Earth centuries before Jor-El was even born contain a suit with his name on it? I suppose I can be generous here and say Fake Jor-El used the ship's replicator or something to make a suit for his son. Or maybe he's handy with a needle and thread.

• The filmmakers have been apologizing for this dark and dingy new Superman costume ever since the first images of it leaked online. I already expressed my dislike and distaste for it earlier, so I won't go into it again except to say I hate everything about it.

Superman's traditional red trunks in particular seemed to give them fits, as they said they weren't realistic and couldn't justify including them. Because a man who can fly and bounce bullets off his chest is perfectly reasonable, but a man who wears red trunks over his tights-- well that would be absurd. 

They seemed determined to come up with a reason for the suit to exist at all. In fact I get the feeling they'd just have soon had him wear jeans and a t-shirt. Why they're so obsessed with explaining this particular part of the mythos and no other, I have no idea. They don't try to explain why he can fly or fire heat rays from his eyes. But why he wears a costume-- gods yes, that must be justified, and it minute detail!

Their "brilliant" explanation for why he wears the costume? It's a traditional Kryptonian undergarment that all Kryptonians wear beneath their armor or robes. So basically Superman is wearing long underwear. Wearing red trunks over his suit was ridiculous, but wearing long johns in public apparently makes perfect sense.

• Now and then we cut to the Daily Planet, where we see that editor in chief Perry White is now a black man, played by Laurence Fishburn. Hey, why not? Let's update everything for the new millennium! Why should Perry White always be portrayed as a bloated old white man? Now he can be a bloated old black man! Progress! 

"Don't you EVER let me catch you using your powers to save anyone, Clark! You let those weak assholes drown just like they deserve to!"
• In flashbacks, Pa Kent constantly warns young Clark to never reveal his powers to the world. He even bitches at him for saving a school bus full of kids from drowning, saying that "maybe" he should have let them all die rather than risk exposing his alien origins.

What. The. Hell.

This is definitely not the Pa Kent I know. He's supposed to be Clark's moral compass, the person who instilled his values into him. The one who taught him to always do the right thing. Now he's telling him he should let innocent victims die? Worst. Role. Model. Ever! 

Pa fears that if the public finds out Clark's an alien it'll change the world. Bull hockey. It wouldn't change a thing. If tomorrow morning CNN announced unequivocal proof of the existence of aliens, the public would pay attention to the story for about ten minutes before going back to the drudgery of their dull lives. Most people already believe in aliens, so I don't see how Clark's existence would cause any kind of upheaval.

Pa Kent feels so strongly about this that he lets himself be killed by a tornado rather than allow Clark to save him and reveal his powers. This was without a doubt the stupidest scene in the entire film. There was absolutely no reason for him to die as there were at least a dozen ways Clark could have saved him. Hell, Clark could have zipped out from under the overpass, grabbed him and zipped him back to safety while any witnesses were blinking. I'm sure Pa's death was meant to be a heart-wrenching, tragic scene, but the sheer stupidity of it negated any sense of emotion it might have had. Instead of feeling sad that he died, we're left thinking about what a complete and utter idiot he is.

In Superman The Movie Glenn Ford memorably plays Pa Kent in a couple of brief scenes. In that film Pa dies of a simple heart attack and Clark, even with all his powers, is helpless to save him. There's about a thousand times more honesty and emotion in that scene than in this entire film.

• I'm not sure, but I think I might possibly have picked up on some very subtle Christ imagery in this film. Jor-El pontificates that he's sending his only son to Earth, where he'll save humanity. Clark Kent shows up at a church, backlit by a glowing stained glass window. When Superman is on Zod's ship, Fake Jor-El tells him he can "save us all," as Superman spreads his arms wide in a beatific pose and floats majestically out into space. Clark is 33 years old when he becomes Superman. I'm sure there're more instances but I probably missed them while rolling my eyes so hard I sprained them.

• Clark and Lois have absolutely zero chemistry in this film. Are they even supposed to be in love here? If so I surely didn't get that impression. They seemed more like brother and sister to me, or maybe even third cousins. Snyder is good at action and blowing things up, but he's sorely lacking at directing emotional scenes.

• Great confusion surrounds the effect that Earth's environment has on Zod and his minions. In past movies, Earth's yellow sun gives Kryptonians super strength, pure and easy. Of course it can't be that simple in this film. Here it seems that sometimes they have super powers and sometimes not, depending on the whim of the writers.

Earth's atmosphere is poisonous to Kryptonians so they wear special masks in order to breathe. The masks also seem to keep our yellow sun from supercharging their sense of sight and hearing and overwhelming them with input. Yet Zod and his posse seem to possess super strength even when wearing their masks. So I guess their suits allow the yellow sun rays to get through, but not air? Your guess is as good as mine.

• Zod deploys two "world engines," whatever the hell those are, to terraform Earth into a new Krypton. One engine is located directly above downtown Metropolis while the other hovers over the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean that's devoid of human life. Guess which one Superman attempts to destroy first? The one over the heavily-populated Metropolis, right? Lord no! That would be stupid! He goes after the one over the ocean, miles from any populated area. Meanwhile the engine over Metropolis violently destroys several city blocks and kills tens of thousands of people. 

The film offers a very weak and vague explanation for this, having something to do with the Army attempting to shoot Superman's bomb-rigged baby crib/spaceship (don't ask) at the Metropolis engine while he goes after the other one, but… it seems like there had to be a better way here.

• Why does Zod want to terraform Earth into a copy of Krypton anyway? On Earth a Kryptonian has the powers of a god. The atmosphere isn't compatible with their lungs, but they can obviously adapt to it over time as Superman did. Given the choice I think I'd leave Earth as is and keep my superpowers.

• Unintentionally hilarious moment: After a truly epic and destructive battle in downtown Metropolis, Superman defeats Zod and his rogue Kryptonians. One of the characters says, "Superman saved us!" In the background we see the decimated ruins of Metropolis, which look like the aftermath of a thousand 9-11s. Bravo, Superman!

• Once we stop laughing at the unintentional hilarity, Zod gets his second wind and starts up the fight again, as he and Superman battle over the city and cause several billion dollars in property damage. 

At least I think that's what happened. Half the time I couldn't tell what the hell was going on during the battle. The characters were zipping around the screen so fast I couldn't tell who was punching who. Snyder's patented Shakey-Cam™ didn't help matters any.

Superman fought Zod way back in 1980's Superman II and although those filmmakers did they best they could with the technology they had at the time, the battle scenes were somewhat lacking. Still, I'll take them over these new scenes any day. At least in the old movie I could tell what I was looking at. I know, I know, things were better in the olden days. Get off my lawn!

• Zod pauses during the battle and says, "There's only one way this ends, Kal-El. Either you die or I do." Um… I don't know how they do things on Krypton, but here on Earth that's two ways.

• Not really cons, but observations: During a battle at a construction site, Zod throws Superman into a sign that says "It's Been 143 Days Since Our Last Accident." As Superman hits the sign the numbers fall off it so that it reads "0" days. Com-O-Dee! Kind of odd to go for some comedy relief during a battle that costs the lives of thousands of innocents, but what do I know?

At one point Zod throws a LexCorp tanker truck into Superman, indicating that Lex Luthor apparently exists in this world (and is no doubt hard at work on a real estate scam).

Superman and Zod briefly take their battle into space, where they slam into an orbiting satellite that says Wayne Enterprises on the side. So apparently Batman exists in this world as well. I can't wait for he and Superman to team up in some future movie. Two mopey heroes for the price of one!

• This battle, while truly epic in scope, underscores one of the biggest flaws in the film: this version of Superman is not a superhero. He accidentally calls Zod and his minions to Earth. He fights them in a battle that wipes out his hometown of Smallville. His battle with Zod completely destroys Metropolis. Thousands of people die as a result of his actions. And to top it all off he murders his nemesis. He's a complete and utter failure as a hero. Superman is supposed to be the protector of Earth. People are supposed to look up to him, to feel safe when he's around. This Superman is a public menace. Earth would have been far better off if he'd never arrived.

Hey, but he saved Lois a couple times, so all is forgiven!

• At one point in the battle Zod gives a heartfelt speech saying he was bred to be a warrior and he does the unpleasant things he does to protect the Kryptonian race. A race which he loves and for which he would die. I actually felt bad for Zod here and almost came around to his point of view. It's never a good sign when the audience starts siding with the villain of your movie.

• At the end of their battle Zod lies defeated. He makes a last attempt at revenge by attempting to kill an innocent family with his heat vision. Superman grabs Zod's head and holds it in place to try and keep the heat beams from reaching the family. Zod must really be exhausted at this point, because he apparently forgets that he can simply move his eyes. All he has to do is glance slightly to the right and he'd be able to fry the family.

Superman is also apparently tired because it never occurs to him to maybe cover Zod's eyes. Or to even blind him. Would his heat vision still work if he was blinded? Or even better, how about simply flying away with him?

• Now we come to the most infamous and divisive part of the film. Seeing no alternative, Superman snaps Zod's neck in order to end his threat. This is the point where the movie totally lost me. I wasn't crazy about the film up to that point but thought it was at least somewhat tolerable. Sadly, the killing scene completely turned me against it.

Superman does not kill. At least the Superman I know and love doesn't kill. I don't want to know a Superman who kills.

And I know someone's going to point out that Superman has indeed killed in the comics before. I am aware of that. He did it in the early, formative days of the character before his personality had been fleshed out and I'm sure he's done it recently in today's rape and blood-soaked comics. But for many, many decades he swore to never take a life. That's the Superman I want to read about. A Superman who kills is just plain wrong. He's got the powers of a god. It's like a kid stomping on an anthill. What kind of a hero kills people who are helpless to defend themselves against him?

"Oh my god, I've just murdered another being. What kind of monster have I become? Hey look, it's lunchtime!

To their slight credit, the filmmakers do have Superman howl in anguish at what he's done. But then thirty seconds later he's back to normal, the whole unpleasant (and game-changing) business forgotten.

Supposedly Zack Snyder says the reasoning for this scene is that Superman needs to understand how it feels to kill so that he can then vow to never take a life. Jesus Jet-skiing Christ! Did he really just say that? Please tell me he doesn't really believe that!  I guess the lesson here for the kids out there is that killing is wrong, but you can't understand just how wrong until you experience if for yourself. And do drugs too kids, so you'll know how bad they are before you give 'em up! 

• At the end of the film Superman destroys an unmanned drone that the government was using to spy on him. Army General Swanwick asks how humanity is supposed to trust him if it can't keep a watchful eye on him (which isn't an unreasonable question, considering what he's done). Superman says, "General, I grew up in Kansas," which I guess is supposed to imply that he stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Whoops! So he doesn't want the government spying on him, but he just told them where he grew up. He might as well have given them his Zip Code and Social Security Number while he was at it. Apparently super-intellect isn't one of his powers.

• There's time for Clark to have one more soft-focus flashback before the film ends. He remembers back to when he was a kid and tied a red towel around his neck and ran around his yard like he was flying. Just who the hell was he pretending to be here? It's implied very strongly that Superman's the first superhero in this world-- so he can't be imitating anyone else. Somehow he's pretending to be a persona he won't discover for another twenty years or more.

• At the end of the film Clark takes a job as a reporter (wearing glasses!) at the Daily Planet so he'll have access to dangerous situations without arousing suspicion. 

That is until six months from now when the corporation that owns the Planet lays off 65% of their workforce in order to placate the shareholders. Could he have picked an occupation that was any more doomed? I know he's traditionally always been a reporter, but this is one part of the mythos that's due for a change. TV reporter, blogger or something. Anything but a newspaper reporter.

Additionally no mention is made of the widespread destruction Superman allowed/caused, nor acknowledgement of the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. Who cares about that? It's a brand new day!

• Why the hell does Clark wait until the end of the movie to finally adopt a secret identity? He's been walking around as Clark Kent his entire life with no attempt at wearing a disguise or hiding his identity. He then appears to the world as Superman, also with no disguise. It shouldn't be too awfully hard for anyone to realize Clark and Superman are the same person. Pretty much anyone with at least one eye could do so. Lois obviously knows who he is. If Perry White has any sense he'd know too, as he saw Superman up close. Pete Ross back in Smallville knows. Probably the entire town of Smallville knows (if anyone's still alive there after the battle). Why bother with a secret identity now? The horse is not only out of the barn, it's down the road and into the next county.

A dark and dour Superman movie that's ashamed to be a Superman movie. Allowing him to kill was the final nail in the coffin for me. Excuse me while I go watch Superman The Movie again to get the taste of this one out of my mouth. I give it a C.

4 comments:

  1. It's like you were in my brain!! Bravo.

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  2. Heh. Thanks. I hope I don't come off like a cranky old man in these reviews-- I love movies and I really wanted to like this one, as I'm a big Superman fan. How could they miss the point of the character so completely?

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    1. No worries. I've accepted that I'm a cranky old man after worrying about Superman. I remember when the '78 movie came out, all the "old" folks comparing Chris Reeve to George Reeves. I'm doubly biased as I actually saw Superman:The Movie first run in none other than Hackensack, New Jersey!!

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  3. I saw Superman The Movie in 78 as well. I re-watched it last week right before I saw the new one, just for comparison. It still holds up pretty well, even today. It's not perfect of course-- some of the Otis comedy relief is a little over the top and it strays dangerously close to campiness at times (the pimp admiring Superman's costume) and I could do without the whole "Can you read my mind" sequence, but overall it gets far more right than wrong. At least those filmmakers understood the character, unlike the ones who made this new one.

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