18 June 2013

First Impressions: Man of Steel

There are fewer cultural icons that have had more longevity or cultural impact than our big boy in blue - Superman. Whenever a Superman movie drops, then, it's a pretty big deal, except for those two. Man of Steel (2013) seemed to position itself as the movie of Summer in an attempt to strike at the lofty position attained by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012) in years past. So, what of it? Man of Steel is certainly a better film than a lot of the schlocky Marvel carbon copies of late, but ultimately it's still just not very good. There are problems with tone and characterization, but ultimately there just aren't a whole lot of significant themes to latch on to. Rachel Edidin of Wired described it best in her review here, critiquing the film is exciting but not interesting. We'll discuss this concept and many more today - needless to say, SPOILERS abound from here on out.
I actually think he looked better in the red underpants.
Jeez look at that codpiece.

Man of Steel comes as this reboot of the Superman mythos to seemingly let it fall more in line with the Chris Nolan-crafted Dark Knight Trilogy, which is now ostensibly designed to lead into a Justice League team-up movie that will mimic the success of Marvel's Avengers. None of this is really clearly successful. The tone and world created doesn't really match that of Batman, there isn't any real significant groundwork laid for a shared universe, and there's no sense of a coherent theme beyond big things fighting and crashing into each other. As Justin Craig at Fox News described it, there are no overarching themes, messages, or consequences.

Now, there are some very good things about this flick that we should talk about first. Better than perhaps any other Superman Origin story, Man of Steel does actually a nice job showing the realistic development of Superman's powers and how much hell he would go through as a kid without any sense of control. It also makes a nice initial weakness for Zod and the rest of the Rogue Kryptonians who come down and initially get kind of bonkers when suddenly exposed to the crazy level of sights and sounds they can sense.

This is also possibly the best acted Superhero movie of all time, with just about every actor putting in really great performances. Kevin Costner, playing Clark's adoptive Robin Hood father is particularly memorable, even if his logic doesn't quite make sense. He teaches Clark not to kill or fight, for sure, but also not to save anyone and let everybody drown rather than expose who he really is. I suppose he does have a point, though, because Superman's presence on earth attracted evil aliens who destroyed Metropolis. More on that later.

It's a bizarre, if not compelling reason for Clark to have laid low for thirty years. Costner's Jonathan Kent fears that everyone will freak out and that the world isn't ready for him yet. There are a few big issues with this - for one, when the hell will the world be ready? Also, if he's instructing Clark to never save anyone, why the hell does he save everyone all the time anyway? Clark Kent becomes this kind of crazy wilderness drifter who occasionally rescues oil drillers and pulls school buses out of rivers. This is actually a neat way to see Superman as the quiet, humble, anonymous savior of the world, but it doesn't actually gel with what Jonathan instructed him to do while that instruction is made out to be a huge part of why he's saving this way in the first place. It's kind of a mess.

Kal-El's biological Robin Hood father is played by Russell Crowe, who acts the hell out of Marlon Brando's original, phoned-in role. He's still kind of in that Man with the Iron Fists (2012) weight class, though, but that's okay. His best scenes may be when he starts acting like a kind of Ghost-R2-D2, opening up doors around the alien ship and helping out Lois and Clark.

Amy Adams also improves on Margot Kidder's Lois with a perfect blend of feisty yet likeable, arrogant yet honorable. And don't even mention Bosworth. As part of many ways this movie screws with normal Super-continuity, thought, it features a Redheaded Lois, in addition to a Black Perry White (who no, is not named Perry Black) and a female Jimmy Olsen (who is named Jenny). The thing is, though, that all of these decisions worked pretty well. Laurence Fishburne's Perry White in particular leaves a much more memorable impression than Frank Langella in Superman Returns (2006). Diane Lane does a really nice job,  too, but she's way to hot to play an old woman, although the make-up effects here are pretty good and far better than a trainwreck like J. Edgar (2011).

Michael Shannon as Zod is suitable, and he never really tries to channel Terrence Stamp's iconic performance, which is a good thing. In general, one of the better things going for this flick is how it really tries to strike out on its own, rather than tether itself to earlier Superman mythos like Returns did. Zod does fall victim to general accusation rather than actually proving his evil, though, which is somewhat similar to Benedict Cumberbatch's villain in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), who everyone just warned was bad without him really proving it. Jor-El accosts him of being a megalomaniac, and later he's suitably menacing but doesn't really do anything. He's later destroying a big chunk of Metropolis and then the world, but this also doesn't really make sense. Didn't he want to salvage the codex from Superman's cells? There isn't a lot of merit in that McGuffin anyway. How would using that World Engine work to his goals? It doesn't, but it gives Supes the "big feat" or "test of will" that Superman Returns did far more naturally when he lifted the big Kryptonite rock.
Supes is like "kiss...kiss...kiss..."

Hank Cavill himself is a pretty natural fit, but there's more a problem with the script that doesn't really give him any character. Superman, even though he gets a tremendous amount of screen time, just tends to keep doing different stuff without much dialogue or insight as to why, and so never really seems like an actual  human character. There's also no humor and no wit at all, rather a consistently maudlin atmosphere. We don't really get the dopey Clark till the end, which is fine, but there could have been some respite from the dreariness.

Most of this film a trademark case study of director Zack Snyder's penchant for style over substance. There is nothing to this movie. There's no real deep messages or anything. It's just kind of world-building, but as said before, it seems to be for a specifically Superman world, which is fine, but makes me concerned for the inevitable Justice League team-up that will be forced into this world. There is apparently a Wayne Enterprises Easter Egg that I didn't even catch the first time around, along with a Lexcorp Egg, among others that we really shouldn't care about. I mean really, Booster Gold? At some point it's not like we need a Justice League movie, but Warner Brothers needs to get their act together pretty damn fast. It would also be pretty rad to at least get their act together for a World's Finest flick.

The worst parts of the Superman mythos has always been his very dense Kryptonian heritage. There has always been a lot of weirdness in the design there, which Returns lovingly avoided, but Man of Steel plunges in immediately. The entire opening on Krypton was entirely unintelligible. It's full of sudden dense exposition and conflict between characters we have no reason to care about, and then some crazy action sequence that involves one of those flying monsters from AVABAR (2009) for some reason and lots of nonsensical explosions. Snyder's claims that this film would be "grounded" and "realistic" thus prove to be a huge load of horseshit.

The action sequences later on, including the Battle of Smallville and the Battle of Metropolis are a bit easier to follow, although a lot of it starts to become a retread of The Matrix Revolutions (2003), which itself resembled live action Dragon Ball Z. The same thing happens here, and eventually, after punch after punch without any real consequence at all, it's difficult to still care. It was actually interesting giving Zod a weakness that he didn't foresee (although is he a brilliant tactician or a brutish warrior? Snyder doesn't know) when he can't deal with his own superpowers, but for some reason, Kal-El told him how to focus, and later they match up pretty evenly.

During some of these parts, and the weird Superman fight against the World Breaker and its tentacles (The Incredibles [2004], anyone?), I kept thinking back to the Legend of Superman's Development Hell. The long story of Reborn, Lives, and Flyby has been documented many times, but I thought that this was very much the successor to all that crazy shit more than Returns was. With that understanding, I can't even believe that Returns was made at all. With Giant Tentacles that looked a bit spidery (Jon Peters' obsession as documented by Kevin Smith while writing Lives), crazy mid-air martial arts moves and a vague Kryptonian Army that seemed to clearly be left over from Flyby, and the vengeful, darker look to Supes himself all seemed to have carried over from the Hell. It's almost unbelievable that they actually pulled off Zod.

Until of course, Superman kills him. That's right. It's a pretty good example of the limits of Snyder and Goyer's imagination. Instead of bestowing Superman with any kind of wit or smart thinking, he's forced to kill his enemy. One of the other interesting limitations of Superman is his guilt over not actually being able to save everyone. That's why Jonathan Kent's original death from a heart attack was far more interesting than a tornado, because Superman was powerless. It's interesting to see him deal with this. And why fuck did the Pa Kent go back to get that damn dog, anyway? Some of the rationale has come out for Superman killing, and while even a show like Justice League has dealt with the pretty severe ramifications of Superman losing control in interesting ways, it's clear that Snyder and Goyer have no intention of exploring that.

Still, Zod's overall scheme reads a lot like the same alien invasion bullshit from Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). His goal is to rebuild the planet and race his people destroyed while the heroes abandon their native race in favor of their adopted homeworld. This is really a pretty American concept, right? When you emigrate here, you shift all your talents towards America and neglect your home country. What is interesting is what Zod decides to do once he has no more hope, although the fact that Superman kills just about all the Kryptonians left makes him seem more like Lobo than the Big Blue we know and love.
Did you notice that only his hair aged thirty years? And it was only slightly gray?

And on that note - why would anyone favor Superman on this planet? Metropolis is significantly destroyed, and one estimate puts the death at a few hundred thousand, and the total economic costs in the trillions. This is clearly all Superman's fault, although the city getting wrecked is actually pretty par for the course in any Superman comic or animated TV Show. It's also about the closest we're going to get to a live action battle like his bouts against Darkseid or Doomsday. If this movie has any point, it's that the world wouldn't trust this strange outside alien if he actually came to earth. What could be a bit of brilliance, though, is that this paves the way for a seamless introduction of Lex Luthor, since that last sentence exactly fits his modus operandi. A pissed off Lex that gets into an "everyone else is taking crazy pills!" kind of mood, that's not too shabby a set up for Man of Even More Steel (2016).

Finally, it's worth noting the heavy dose of uncomfortably with those Metropolis destruction scenes really giving off a distinctive 9/11 vibe. From the ash and paper littering the city, to helpless citizens trapped in the rubble and Zod acting as a fearsome, unstoppable terrorist, nothing was really appropriate for a stupid comic book film like this that didn't have anything actually intelligent to say about, say our perceptions of terrorists or place in the world (like Iron Man 3 [2013] did). Especially given this film's also not-so subtle Superman / American Jesus connotations, there are all kinds of really awkward inferences to be made. Congrats, Zack.

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