Sunday, June 16, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel

On February 13th, 2010, I wrote a blog-post about the news that there would be a new Superman film, "rebooting" that franchise, and that Christopher Nolan may be attached as a story producer. Among other things, I wrote this:
"Real bad guys don't think they're doing bad things!  They think that they are saving the world. They almost always have the best of intentions, not the worst... Lex Luthor believes (not unreasonably, I might add) that Superman is the advance guard for a malevolent alien invasion. He's a little paranoid, he's holds many grudges and he's an egomaniac - but his motivation is often well intended... At least in his own mind.

Hollywood doesn't do that kind of character complexity very well most of the time... Especially not in movies produced by Jon Peters. But as a result, the whole thing [Superman Returns] is laughably stupid. And yes, I know I'm talking about "comic books".

But like any fantasy & science-fiction writing, the issue isn't about the believability or reality of the technology or magical abilities - it's about the human character development. Sci-Fi is allegorical... That's kind of the whole point!


Christopher Nolan seems to grasp this concept. The powers, the fantasy, are not what's important - what's important is that the world itself has internal consistency and that the people who inhabit it behave like real people. None of the Superman movies have succeeded on that score. Characters have been one-dimensional, the internal logic of the world Superman inhabits has been repeatedly violated, and directors, writers & producers have chased after cheap laughs and idiotic plot lines.

So yeah, I really hope that Nolan can bring the understanding of character and realism to the franchise - as I am still waiting for a Superman movie that isn't completely absurd - but I worry that he will take Superman into the darkness in a way that is inappropriate."
I was a little worried that Zack Snyder wouldn't get that... and that he wouldn't really get who Superman is. I am thrilled to say that I was (mostly) wrong.

Paging Alex Ross.
The story itself isn't linear, which I liked. Rather than drag down the film with 40 minutes of exposition, we jump straight into the action on the dying planet of Krypton, then cut right to a 33 year old Clark Kent (or we may assume) working as a fisherman in the arctic. It's only in flashbacks spread out through the film that we get to see the story of Clark's upbringing in Kansas... His childhood, his interactions with his adoptive father (played perfectly by Kevin Costner), and his gradual discovery of who he is and what he can do.

As I suspected, "Man of Steel" is a lot darker in certain ways than you might expect to see with Superman, but overwhelmingly, the essence of what Superman is and the kind of story-writing I always want to see with that character is what you get with the movie.

I've been talking about this, for a long, long time... But stop and really think about who Kal-El is, and you'll understand why I've been so let down by the writing for Superman.

First off, he's not actually "alone" like so many of the iterations of the story foolishly portray him to be.

"I grew up in Kansas, I'm about as American as it gets."
He's got wonderful, loving and inspiring human parents who are all he knew since he was an infant, and who played a profound role in his morality and character development. Then, as he grew up, he gained access to archives prepared by his birth-father Jor-El (played by a hammy - but good - Russell Crowe) & mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer), and ultimately learned that his Kryptonian parents loved him just as much as Jonathan & Martha Kent (Diane Lane) did.

Most human children should be so lucky.

So to play him off like some sad - or even creepy - lost puppy (like Bryan Singer did in Superman Returns) makes absolutely no sense.

Clark's struggles are much more interesting than simply being an "orphan". Superman may be the child of a doomed planet, but he's not alone and he was raised in a wonderful home with good values, so he's not really all that much of an orphan anyway.

What he actually is, is a man with unbelievable power.

But what's equally uncommon, is that he's also a man with unfailing integrity. Truth, Justice and the American Way (I know, my libertarian friends, nationalism sucks, but what we're talking about here isn't that Supes is a stooge for the state, but that he actually really does believe in freedom & self-determination). He's the guy who actually understands that with all his immense power really did come immense responsibilities.

This is Superman's struggle... and while I think Snyder could have developed this point a lot more, "Man of Steel" was the first movie I've seen to even deal with the issue at all.

This Superman is a man who struggles with not fully knowing where he comes from and what he can do, his need to keep that part of himself a secret, while still trying to protect the people around him. Kal-El's power means that every single choice he makes is hugely important - yet, he's not omniscient and struggles with knowing for sure what the right choices even are. And most of all, Clark must tip-toe through the world, just to interact with people safely. He lives in a perpetual state of extreme self-control. In one flashback, where Clark is getting bullied by some of his classmates for being a weirdo (and honestly, teenage Superman couldn't be anything but a weirdo), we get a great moment where as an audience, we can do nothing but empathize with how difficult it must be to be one of the most powerful beings in the universe and yet be just as emotionally vulnerable as everyone else.

Few people could handle that kind of pressure, let alone actually live up to it without simply going crazy and wrecking the world - and that's what's interesting about the character.

It's what I love about the character. Superman is far more complex emotionally than most modern writers and comic book fans give him credit for... at least, he should be, and is when written right.

So to see these kinds of questions even brought up in "Man of Steel" is so exciting to me, and Henry Cavill turns out to be a spectacular casting choice for this role. He's confident, kind, and utterly believable. And it doesn't hurt that when he's shirtless, he looks like this:

Man of Steel, indeed.
But that's not all... Superman is nothing without a good villain!

Comic book writers at DC have struggled with this problem for years, but given how powerful Superman
actually is, having him battle some local thug is usually pointless. He's an intergalactic powerhouse, not a beat cop. The threats he deals with need to be correspondingly huge if the challenge is to be remotely believable. So for approaching a century, writers have racked their brains trying to find worthy adversaries for the Man of Tomorrow.

Lex Luthor's ruthless genius and expertise in science, engineering & business make him a good human nemesis. Doomsday's Kryptonite knuckles and mindless brutality made him a formidable enough foe to actually kill Kal-El... And really, that's nothing compared to Darkseid's Omega Force.

So... Go back to what I said at the beginning.

A real bad guy isn't a cartoon. People who do bad things don't usually wake up in the morning and go,
"And so he says to me, you want to be a bad guy? And I say Yeah Baby! I want to be bad!"
(Only the Evil Midnight Bomber does that. Boom, baby, boom!)

Seriously though... People who do the most damage in society are the ones who single-mindedly believe  that they are doing the right thing, and (this is important), that anything they do to achieve their goals is justifiable.

Michael Shannon's "General Zod" is that villain. And, he's easily the best part of the film.

Here we have a man who was genetically designed by the central planners on Krypton to be Krypton's military leader. His sole purpose is to be the man who protects the Kryptonian people from all enemies - foreign and domestic - and he takes that job very, very seriously. When the council of politicians (who seem to be just as big of asshats on Krypton as they are on Earth) fails to act decisively in preventing the imminent collapse of the planet - after taking actions that Jor-El, chief scientist of the planet advised against - Zod attempts a coup d'├ętat, killing the head of the council.

Why? Because he's "evil"? No. Because his job is to save Krypton and "that's what needs to be done".

"I will find him!!!!"
Then, when Jor-El takes the Codex (a skull-like object containing Kryptonian genetic material and which is clearly of high importance to the survival and expansion of the species) and sends it to Earth with Kal-El, Zod chases Jor-El back to his house, attempts to stop the launch of the spaceship and ultimately vows to find Kal-El, wherever he ends up.

And 33 years later, he does.

Oh boy.... He does.

Michael Shannon is fantastic in this role. I imagine he doesn't especially like being type-cast as "crazy intensity" guy, but he really does it better than just about anybody, and this is so, so, soooo important to a story like "Man of Steel".

Superman needs an adversary who is not only powerful enough to be a legitimate threat to the world and to him (and the sheer destruction in the 2nd & 3rd acts is proof enough on this point), he needs an adversary who's motivations actually make sense. Zod is saving his people. Even though Kal-El is Kryptonian, Zod sees him as collateral damage to a mission that is absolutely crucial to the greater good of the Kryptonian species.

He is - in his mind - the good guy. The entire time. And that's really important!

At this point, you're probably thinking that I see "Man of Steel" as a near-flawless film. Unfortunately... It is not. For one thing, while I actually think Amy Adams did the best job of anyone who has yet played "girl reporter Lois Lane", her character was still a bit under-developed and when it's clear that she and Clark are going to be more than "reporter and source", it comes a bit out of left-field. For another thing, there's a lot of dialogue that goes a bit over-the-top in the cliche department. I don't mind it that much, and I didn't come to see the film for it's riveting dialogue anyway... but still. It is a weakness.

Oh, the things I know about the history of  media...
Another weakness is that the US Military sucked up a boatload of tax-money for promotional tie-ins with "Man of Steel", and it shows. Given the screen time they got for their contributions, US Air Force logo might as well be on the damn cups at every movie-theater showing this flick. The National Guard is now using this promotion as a recruiting tool with their cringe-worthy "Soldier of Steel" campaign. Of course, that's hardly the only product-placement in the movie. IHOP gets some noticeable (although often kind of hilarious) screen time as well.

Don't get me wrong - I've got nothing against product placement. Superman Radio in the 1940s was brought to my grandparents by "Kellogg's Pep" after all!

But it shouldn't take you out of the story, and here from time to time, it does.

All in all, though, most everything was handled pretty well.

We didn't get stuck with a painful origin story for the millionth time. Lois & Clark don't spend the movie making googly eyes at each other. Clark doesn't spend his time whining about how he really wants to tell Lois the truth, but can't (*ahem* Smallville). We aren't subjected to camp and obvious ridiculousness the whole time at the whim of producers who didn't even care about the source-material. The villain is appropriately badass, and represents a serious challenge to Superman. Superman himself is incredible, human, inspiring and has an emotional core that will be easy to develop in further installments. The casting is bang-on. The effects work - while a bit overplayed - is all top-notch, and most everything about the plot mostly makes sense... With the exception of a few "Jor-El ex Machina" moments.

Oh, plus!

Let's all breathe a collective sigh of relief for the fact that neither Tim Burton, nor Nicholas Cage, were involved and not once do we get a giant spider, or polar bear wrestling. All of those things could have happened in this movie, but didn't. Whew!

Best of all... "Man of Steel" isn't just another dumb re-hash of a movie from 1978 that never deserved the acclaim and adoration it's still clinging onto in the first place. Yeah, I know. Blasphemy. Whatever.

If you're looking for practical advice on whether or not you should see the movie, all I can say is that I will definitely be seeing it again in theaters, and I sincerely hope the powers that be let Zack Snyder continue with the franchise and build on what they've done here in a way that gives the progenitor of all superheroes the respect his character's legacy deserves.

I'm hopeful.

This guy sits on my desk. In case you hadn't figured it out yet... I am actually a really big fan.
[PS. The film also brings up another topic that I won't spend any time on right now- but on which I'm very tempted to devote another post to, or perhaps make a video about, very soon. That topic is one I've discussed on this blog before: "Sci-fi and Inconceivably Advanced Societies". The last time I talked about this issue was years and years ago, and this film provides an excellent opportunity to update those thoughts.]

1 comment:

Anthony Andrews said...

Thanks for the review, I found it informative and helpful, and the minor spoilers were just what you promised...minor and not enough to mess with the suspense.