Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Man of Steel

Comic Book Movies are big right now, that isn't news to anyone. The trend only makes sense, as the studios love nothing more than an already known property to bring to life via film. Done well, what could be better for a summer blockbuster than super humans in colorful costumes fighting just as colorful villains? This of course means big explosions, lots of action and a good opportunity to push the capabilities of the special effects crew and wow the audience.

Since the big two comic companies (Marvel and DC) are both parts of huge multi media empires, the push from page to film is only getting more urgent. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Companies exist to make money, the alternative is not being a company anymore. We can't fault Disney or Warner Bros, for using their properties to make a profit. We can, however complain when they use a property poorly. That's the other side of using a property that has name recognition before it becomes a film. Since film began, I suspect, people have said "The book was better." That factor is amplified when you're dealing with a story that's been around for decades, and in that time has been revamped countless times to stay in touch with contemporary sensibilities. If you're going to make a movie about Superman or Spider Man, first you have to decide, which one.

I've always been partial to Marvel Comics. Their characters are just more grounded and relatable. I've heard the difference described as, Spider-man Stories are always about Peter Parker, while Superman stories are all about Superman, and for the most part, I agree with that. DC has always focused on the costume side, and I never liked the idea that when I picked up a copy of the Flash, or Green Lantern for example, that for whatever reaso, there's another guy in the suit. I liked Barry Allen (The Flash) and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) so picking up their comics and finding someone I didn't know always turned me off, as I'd invested in these characters only to be told that the guy in the suit didn't matter.

I do understand that many people grew up with the newer characters and felt the same way about the guy I didn't know. I get that, but it never made me feel any better. Combine that with the fact that DC feels compelled to wipe out their characters histories every few years and I just don't have any way to connect to that universe. With Marvel, I always felt that I could pick up a comic at any time and get the same character I knew (They'd put a new guy in the suit now and then, but it was always understood we'd get the "real" guy back before long.)

DC's practice of shuffling history usually spared two of their characters, Batman and Superman. They'd get rebooted but always ended up recognizable, more or less the same guy I always knew. Like Captain America at Marvel, Superman was the impossibly good guy that every hero wanted to be. He's one answer to the nature/nurture debate, an unimaginably powerful alien that gets raised by an outstandingly decent couple in Kansas, and embraces everything he learns from his upbringing, going on to champion "Truth, Justice, and The American Way." Obviously it's tough to tell dramatic stories about a guy that can do anything. I discussed this with my son at great lengths when he was younger and we concluded that most Superman stories consist of Superman getting knocked around by any given street punk until someone is in danger and then he remembers "I'm Superman." and puts an immediate end to the nonsense. That isn't to minimize any of the truly great Superman stories told over the years, just to illustrate that writing for an all powerful character often requires some handicapping.

Not coincidentally, Batman and Superman have been mainstays in the film universe and had film franchises before it was the expected thing to do. The first Superman movie has long been considered one of the finest superhero films ever made. Christopher Reeves seemed like the perfect Superman and the promise of the tag line "You Will believe a Man Can Fly" was delivered on, long before CGI made every visual effect you can think of achievable. There were a few sequels, and unfortunately the quality dropped with every one, but that takes nothing away from the first one. They didn't include every detail about Superman, but they got the spirit right. They tried to go back to the drawing board in 2006 with "Superman Returns" and while they got a few things right, (Brandon Routh, the plane rescue) they had overall disappointing results from the bizarre choice to adhere to the original Superman film universe while going strangely off topic, and being largely unexciting. Of course, when Christopher Nolan made a lot of money with his Batman trilogy and Marvel enjoyed unbelievable success with their Avengers film franchise, they tried to answer the fact that against all odds, "Iron Man," Thor," and Captain America," were massively successful by bringing out the misguided CGI film "Green Lantern." When that tanked, they must have been frantic to get Superman on track again. This eventually resulted in "Man of Steel."

I understand why they chose Zack Snyder to direct, although I had reservations about the result. While I enjoyed his "Dawn of the Dead" remake, I was less enthusiastic about "Watchmen," and "300." That isn't to say I didn't enjoy them at all, but my problem with his directing is that his film technique seemed centered on adaptation, bringing a comic to the screen as opposed to making a new film of the property using his own vision. The heavy handed CGI, and his lack of independent imagination made both of those films feel like a step up from motion comics more than films. Enjoyable in parts, but not a real film experience in my mind. With "Man of Steel" my hope was that he would use those CGI style tools to ramp up the action and since the screenplay wasn't based on a single graphic novel, hopefully put his own imagination to work.

After seeing "Man of Steel," I can say that he's probably made his best film yet. I can't really say that it made me happy though. He gave us an action packed version of Superman and he used his imagination. The Sci Fi elements are great, and without a doubt, the strongest part of the film. The heavy presence of Krypton really works here for the most part, particularly Russell Crowe as Jor-El, who manages to be an interesting character long after he's dead. His rivalry with General Zod (Michael Shannon) is well done. Shannon does a great job with his character, bringing with him a sense of real fanatical danger.

And then we look at Earth where Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) is trying to figure out what to do with himself. He drifts around taking different jobs until something happens and he's forced to use his powers to intervene, saving lives or righting some wrong like Caine in Master of Kung Fu magnified a thousand times. He disappears when the job is done and goes on to the next thing. We also have the benefit of flashbacks, showing us how his Earth Dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his mother Martha (Diane Lane) shaped him while he grew up. Costner and Lane do a great job portraying the Kents as decent people through and through. However, Jonathan is puzzling in parts, such as an incident where young Clark saves a bus full of his school mates and ends up revealing his powers.
"Should I have let them die?" Clark asks his very displeased father.
"Maybe." Jonathan says.
While this is only one moment in the film, it's stressed as a pivotal one, and this answer doesn't match the character we see otherwise. Couldn't he have simply told Clark to be more discreet? This bit of dialogue seems placed there simply to introduce a "grey area" to the film.

We see it again, when he tells Clark  " One day, you're going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it's going to change the world." The character we briefly see doesn't match the character speaking. He raises Clark well, and has no cause to question whether he'll have good or bad character (particularly when Clark only gets in trouble for saving a bunch of kids.) I've often assumed that it was the Kent's conviction that people are good, that instilled the same belief in Superman. Here, that idea gets twisted around a bit. We're shown the goodness of the Kents but then Jonathan feels compelled to say something cynical. This strange character quirk shows up even more in contrast with Jor-El, who hasn't seen his son except as an infant, yet tells General Zod, he has no doubt about his son's goodness or his ability to defeat him.

Still, the relationship with the Kents comes through in tone if not always in sensible words.Snyder and his cast do manage to get the affection between the Kents and their adopted son, who they think of as their own. Jonathan's obsession with keeping Clark's alien origins a secret also makes sense in its way. Fame changes people and the fame of being the only alien from outer space on Earth isn't something you'd want to be known for before you're ready. Jonathan's final scene shows us that he's willing to protect the secret with his life, and that Clark is willing to listen to him, despite his eagerness to help.

When an alien ship is discovered in the Arctic, Clark/Kal-El checks it out and finds his Superman suit as well as the consciousness of Jor-El, which is stored in the ship. He also meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams) there, in pursuit of a big story. After saving her from the ship's defenses, he tries on the suit, and soon discovers that his interaction with the ship has called General Zod and his crew to Earth, in pursuit of the "Codex" which contains the genetic information to restart Krypton on another planet. Zod demands that Earth surrender Clark (although Earth is not aware of his existence.) with a very well done "You are not alone" announcement to the whole planet. Superman decides that he'll split the difference and surrender not to Zod but to Earth's military, who take him into custody while they figure things out. He eventually surrenders to Zod, once he gets Lois Lane into custody. Lois and Clark soon realize they're in trouble when Zod's ship depowers Superman. With a little help from the consciousness of Jor-El they escape. Jor-El tells Lois how to send the bad guys back to the Phantom Zone, but before they can get to that Zod decides to start terraforming the Earth to be a new Krypton, using an Engine in the Arctic which passes energy back and forth through the Earth to Zod's ship in Metropolis.

This process starts destroying Metropolis on a massive scale. Snyder shows us people in the street watching as skyscrapers collapse like dominoes, presumably filling hundreds by the second. Superman heads to the Arctic to stop the engine, although they assume he'll be weaker near the engine as it simulates the atmosphere of Krypton. Lois points this out, and we get a glimpse of Superman as he tells her he still has to try. Superman stops the Engine and heads back to Metropolis which now looks as uninhabitable as the world of Mad Max. The military with help from Lois who has Jor-El's instructions has defeated Zod's crew, with only Zod escaping a black hole created from the Kryptonian technology.

Superman and Zod fight, knocking down most of the buildings that were left. After a huge super powered battle, Superman has Zod in a headlock when Zod starts using his heat vision, attempting to incinerate a group of a few people close by. Superman for some reason, decides he's had enough and snaps Zod's neck, he then sobs about it and Lois shows up to console him.

To me, this final series of events is a black mark on the film. It's here Snyder's fascination with the possibilities of CGI get in the way of his storytelling. While I'm not crazy about having Superman kill the bad guy, there are possible ways to have it happen. This however was not a satisfying way to reach that point. One of the reasons that Superman has all the ridiculous powers he does, is so that he can avoid killing people. By his very nature, Superman is the Deus Ex Machina personified. Even Jor-El comments that "he'll be a god to them." (Not to mention the tons of Christ imagery in the film) Not here though. While Snyder makes it clear that Superman is powerful, he makes that power seem a minor thing compared to the problem he's confronting. While that certainly opens up the possibility for action and high powered fighting, it also makes Superman feel a bit useless.

Scale is the biggest problem when dealing with this film's final showdown. Everybody knows from fairly recent experience what a tragedy it is when one skyscraper goes down. Here, Superman and company seem  unaffected by it. Certainly he rushes to stop the engine causing it, but his mood hardly seems changed by surveying the wreckage of Metropolis. Zod promises he'll kill lots of people and Superman doesn't think to point out that he's already killed many thousands. In the wake of all the CGI carnage, the impact of Zod's laser beam homing in on potential victims James Bond villain style barely registers and the emotional urgency feels contrived as if Snyder, Goyer and company decided while making the film that they needed this scene to happen and then filled in haphazardly to get to it. The combination of disaster overkill and the unclear showing of Superman's abilities, and sense of obligation gives him the weakest possible showing.

Even worse, this lack of impact is added to by Superman himself who gets mad and knocks villains through gas stations, IHOPs and tall buildings. He fights another Kryptonian while surrounded by civilians, which would seem to be asking for casualties to happen. He saves someone who falls out of a helicopter, while letting everyone inside the helicopter die in an explosion. His urge to save people seems inconsistent at best, particularly when it's painstakingly pointed out to us that he is hyper aware of his surroundings. He sees and hears everything, yet decides that plowing through an IHOP is preferable to an occupied building. "Man of Steel's" failure in this respect, is all the more painful in that it's not far from being a great Superman movie. It seems they just forgot that it was Superman. This isn't a Superman that's determined to save everyone, but a Superman who seems committed to Jonathan Kent's "Maybe."

While I typically enjoy anti heroes and stories that deal with moral grey areas, every story can't be that one, or that story stops being possible. I personally don't think Superman stories are the place for those dilemmas. He's supposed to be firmly on the "Hero" side of the equation. Without that certainty, he's just another character, not the icon that DC comics is built around, and has influenced every superhero since.

That being said, the last few minutes seem to introduce the guy who was supposed to show up for the film. "You can trust me. I'm from Kansas." Superman tells the military after all is said and done. They seem to accept that although the clean up of Metropolis is probably just getting started and I found myself wishing the story started there. Maybe he'll be in the sequels, but I don't accept sequel set up as a justification for anything in this film. I don't believe that Superman needs to be mostly ineffectual to be relatable. Save that for the other superheroes, or Superman won't stay Superman for long.


le0pard13 said...

Agreed, Brent. There's so much to like and enjoy in the first two-thirds of the film, and then ZS takes it off the rails. I keep coming back to Rob Bricken's article and quote:

“Dark and tortured” and “Superman” never belong in the same sentence, unless that sentence is “Superman met his dark and tortured friend Batman for coffee.”

Fine write up, Brent.

INDBrent said...

Thanks, Michael! Yeah, it just doesn't work and it's a shame as it could have been great. Love that quote. I do agree! I'll have to check that one out.

Unknown said...

I disagree completely with you on Man of Steel. Superman needs to get out of the good boy status. A hero must rise to the occasion, not be born. That is why I could never ever stomach Captain America. I do not like prissy, corn-fed do-gooders. Superman can get a pass for some extra goodness, but anything remotely human is flawed to nth degree. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous. There is no reason for Superman to be perfect. Superman is just super for his powers, NOT his moral code. I think he should be dark like Batman. If a hero does not rise to the occasion, they are not heroic in the least. They're just snobby true hearts who think they are better than everybody else. And if you think about it, being an alien on a Earth is the perfect source of darkness and binge drinking. He's all alone with no one else like him.

I think Clark should have let those kids die. People die, it is what is. Heroes can save some of the people who would otherwise die, but not everybody. It's just not realistic or believable. My nephews think Superman should be more like Batman, too. We live in a more jaded world and the old Superman just doesn't fit.

Marvel heroes are all great except for Capt. America. He doesn't do a thing to earn those powers, he gets everything he wants in one fell swoop. Then this former picked on nerd doesn't try to get himself some tail or revenge? Bullshit. Any person who got superpowers would immediately seek some compensation for being the loser. And don't try to say that's why he's a hero. ;) He's still human. Besides, if you notice, no one in the Marvel universe wants to hang with Capt America. He's all alone except for Dudley-Do-Right BuckyHe's pure-hearted attitude is assholishness and nobody likes an asshole. ;)

As far as female heroes go, DC has it all over Marvel. All of Marvel's females are brainless twits with more sex appeal than actual physical power. The women of X-Men may have power, but they never really use them. it's all about the Men of X-Men. Sue Storm is the secretary of the Fantastic Four who only frets and goes "Oh Reed," or Oh Johnny." She never ever thinks for herself. Wonder Woman should have been DC's next showcase, but instead we got stuck with Green Lantern. Why? WW is far more popular than than Ring Boy. I don't know anyone who gives a flying you know what about him.

Ok, rant over. This was a great post and you opened up a lot of good discussion.

INDBrent said...

Hi Mel,

I know exactly what you're saying on most of those points, but my feeling is that you can't just add dark to the character to suit the times. If you need to tell a Batman story, why not just use Batman? Or better yet make up another character and call him Superdarkman. The reason the most famous comic characters endure is because they're iconic. While you can tweak their stories a bit, changing everything just dilutes their brand. Every character can't be Batman or Wolverine or else those guys stop mattering too. Why does it matter if Wolverine kills people if everybody's doing it? I'll admit Superman's lighter attributes are part of the reason I've never cared for his stories as much as those of other characters. He's a tough one to get right, especially with the jaded audiences of today as you point out.

People have renamed Superman to tell darker stories in the past (Marvelman, Supreme, and many more.) I don't even think Superman has to be perfect but the devastation witnessed in "Man of Steel" was so much that I have a hard time believing anyone would like having him around. WHen you think about it, everybody in Metropolis should have lost best friends and family. One building going down can be enough to cripple a city for awhile, but scores of buildings, jeez. They'd be too busy mourning to celebrate these ineffectual superheroics. It makes sense in a movie like Pacific Rim, since the world is on the brink of destruction, but with Superman it just makes him look inconsequential.

That being said, they choose to go that way, so ok, but I didn't feel that the storytelling justified the character at all. Jonathan Kent would have made him paranoid rather than "good." He just didn't make much sense to me as far as adding clear motivation.

As far as female characters go, I'm not sure why DC continues to fumble the ball with Wonder Woman. I do agree that she's way overdue for a good screen version.

I didn't outright hate the film, it actually had a lot of good points. I just don't see why it needed to be a Superman movie.

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