June 24, 2013

So Let's Talk About MAN OF STEEL (Spoilers, Indeed)


"They will race behind you.  They will stumble, they will fall.  But in time, they will join you in the sun.  In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."
Before Bryan Singer's X-Men ushered in the modern comic book movie bonanza, there were two gold standards when it came to big screen superheroes in my lifetime: Tim Burton's Batman and Richard Donner's Superman.  I saw both when I was very young and each left very different yet equally indelible marks on my cinematic tastes.  Over time, the popular sentiment has seemed to favor Gotham's Dark Knight, especially after the overwhelming success of Nolan's trilogy, but I've always had a tremendous soft spot for the Last Son Of Krypton.  Meanwhile, my wife Jamie has always had trouble with the character because she finds his invulnerability to be dramatically dull, whereas plenty of others have told me that he's "too corny" or "kind of silly."  While Jamie makes a valid point, I would submit that those who have a problem with the tone of the character are really basing that stance on their remembrance of the four films starring Christopher Reeve, which spent a lot of time focusing on Clark as a bumbling fool and eventually got bogged down by absurd side characters like Richard Pryor's computer hacker or John Cryer's Lenny Luthor.  And while I maintain that Singer's Superman Returns is a gorgeous film that gets a lot of things very right, tying itself so closely to Donner's version of the character was ultimately a mistake.  The character has been long overdue for a completely fresh take, something that feels current but maintains the optimism that Donner and Reeve made so endearing.  Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel is a fairly radical departure from everything that's come before, and while not every change to the character and his familiar origin completely works, at the very least they're all interesting choices that add up to a compelling hero who is sure to dominate movie theaters for many years to come.

Let's talk about what works.  First and foremost is the film's cast, of which there is really no weak link.  Every one of the leads absolutely knocks it out of the park, and I love that the supporting cast is full of familiar faces like Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, and two cast members from both Battlestar Galactica and Smallville.*  And the very concept of Richard Schiff channeling Toby Ziegler in the midst of a Superman movie is endlessly entertaining to me.  (I kept waiting for him to pull a pink rubber ball out of his pocket.)  The first fifteen minutes of the film take place on Krypton and it's absolutely breathtaking stuff, full of ornate headpieces, floating robots and harnessed flying dragon beasts.  You really feel the withered age of their civilization, which is a pretty important part of Kryptonian society and why it's about to be destroyed.  Russell Crowe is superb as the stately warrior-scientist Jor-El, even when saddled with unfortunate dialogue like, "We've had a child.  A boy-child."  Kudos also to Ayelet Zurer as his wife Lara, who manages to convey a deep and palpable love for her infant son and an empathy for his future struggles with only a few scenes.

Amy Adams is wonderful as probably the best version of Lois Lane that's ever been committed to film.  While there was something rather adorable about Margot Kidder's brash and spelling-challenged take on the Daily Planet's intrepid reporter, when I first showed the movies to Jamie she had a real problem with Lois.  Specifically, Kidder's Lois was head over heels in love with Superman and completely ignored the bumbling Clark Kent, which made her feel totally superficial and seriously undermined her relationship with the character as a whole.  She wasn't in love with the actual person so much as the heroic ideal.  But this new Lois feels much more well rounded.  While she's always right in the thick of the action, the only time she's seriously in need of saving is when some sort of aircraft malfunctions and/or explodes and sends her falling through the sky.  She's almost never the damsel-in-distress, she's always an active participant in the action.  And Lois is not just a good reporter, she's a great reporter.  How do we know this?  Well aside from watching her toss back whiskeys and go toe-to-toe with the military, when she gets saved in the arctic by a mysterious stranger with superhuman abilities, she manages to track him all the way back to Smallville despite the fact that he'd been hiding his identity and traveling under assumed names for years.  Lois literally uncovers his secret before he ever puts on a cape.  That's some investigative fucking journalism.  But moreover, it fundamentally changes her relationship with Clark.  In bypassing all the secret identity nonsense up front, the connection between Lois and Clark becomes inherently stronger, especially since she managed to figure out his origins and track him down but then chose not to expose him to the public.  I think the romance angle is a little underwritten here, but this is a version of Lois and Clark that I can't wait to spend time with, one in which she's a true partner and confidant, as opposed to someone whom he's constantly lying to and manipulating.  The comics figured this out back in the 90's and I'm glad to see Snyder pick that thread up right from the outset.

A big part of the reason for Christopher Reeve's success in the role was his ability to not only embody the forthright heroics of Superman, but to be so thoroughly entertaining as the klutzy Clark Kent.  Most people tend to think of the character as split in two, but I've always considered him split in three, with Kal-El as the real, grounded, and conflicted person caught between two extreme public personas in Clark Kent and Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer make an extremely smart choice here, forgoing all of that to give us one guy, Kal-El, searching for his place on an adopted homeworld.  He's still got an inner conflict between his human upbringing and his Kryptonian roots, but it doesn't manifest itself in silly disguises and split personalities.  Henry Cavill is utterly fantastic in the role, bringing a deep humanity that many would argue the character has lacked over the years.  Young Clark has often been portrayed as a typical all-American kid, but this Clark had a fairly terrifying childhood courtesy of the incredible powers that he couldn't always control.  He therefore turns into an outcast who's literally uncomfortable in his own skin.  It's little wonder that the adult Clark ends up wandering from job to job in isolated places, compelled to help people but unwilling to reveal himself to humanity because Pa Kent instilled in him such a fear of how mankind would react to the news of an all-powerful alien living among them.

The idea of humanity's reaction really drives a lot of the story here, but it's largely dictated by one somewhat maddening storytelling decision.  Even though the Jor-El hologram explicitly tells Clark that he's meant to serve as an example of inspiration and leadership to the people of Earth, he's so paralyzed by Jonathan Kent's protective paranoia that he's still nervous about showing humanity what he can do.  The audience is thus robbed of one of my favorite bits of any Superman movie: the montage of Superman zipping around Metropolis and engaging in some old-fashioned do-gooding.  I love the bits where Superman foils a bank robbery, or prevents a plane crash, or rescues a kitten from a tree.  It's a little old fashioned I guess, but it's also an essential part of who he is as a character.  Clark chooses to be a force for good and therefore takes it upon himself to suit up and help people from tragedies both large and small, and by revealing himself to mankind as a beacon of hope and justice he wins over humanity and becomes the people's champion.  But in Man Of Steel he only reveals himself when Zod holds the world at gunpoint, hacking into anything with a screen and broadcasting a threat to destroy the planet unless Kal-El surrenders.  Clark is so concerned with revealing himself at the right time and making the right impression on people, but the choice is essentially taken away from him here.  When a giant starship shows up and demands the planet turn him over or be destroyed, I'm sure most of humanity is thinking, "I don't know what you're talking about, but if there is a secret alien hiding out somewhere you're welcome to him.  What do we care?  Also, please don't blow us up."  Since Kal-El is still essentially a hidden refugee, I'm sure that plenty of people (i.e. Fox News talking heads) would have been incredibly distrustful of Superman when he did finally make his presence known.  It instantly colors the relationship between Superman and humanity in a weird light and I'm curious to see how Snyder intends to handle it going forward.

That potential distrust will most likely be fueled by the astounding devastation wrought at the end of the film.  I've simply never seen destruction on this kind of scale before.  Superman gets into a brawl with a few of Zod's henchmen that practically wipes Smallville off the map, but that's nothing compared to what goes down in Metropolis.  Zod sets up a terraforming device in the middle of the city that fucks with gravity, a device that is eventually brought down by creating a goddamn black hole that sucks the Kryptonians and their ship back into the Phantom Zone and, in the process, levels half the city.  As in, flattens many square miles to dust.  In the midst of all this chaos we have Laurence Fishburne as Perry White along with Intern Jenny (Olsen?) and Other Daily Planet Reporter scurrying between falling buildings and getting trapped in the wreckage.  But since they're not actually tied to the action going on in the skies overhead and we've only had a cursory interaction with the characters up to that point, it's a bit of a narrative dead end.  Clearly the only reason they're included is because A) they're canon characters that need to be established so they can have more to do in future movies and B) Zack Snyder wants us to focus on these three civilians who survive Zod's attack to distract us from the fact that tens of thousands of people are clearly dying all around them.  What's more, Superman seems unconcerned that he's causing mass casualties every time he punches Zod through a building.  At one point the two fly toward each other and collide full speed and the ensuing force collapses an entire building facade.  Sure it's awesome to watch, but it's also more than a little disturbing to contemplate the obvious toll it's taking on Metropolis.  When he fights in Smallville (a town SURROUNDED BY EMPTY FARMLAND) Superman offhandedly tells some bystanders to get inside the surrounding buildings, and within ten minutes every building has been knocked over or had a train thrown at it.  While I unabashedly tip my cap at Snyder for delivering the biggest superhero battle of all time, (Jamie remarked, "It's as if he watched The Avengers and said, 'I can totally blow up more stuff than that.'") it's also extremely frustrating to see Superman act with so little regard for the safety of those he's trying to protect.  I expect the sequel will feature Lex Luthor leading the charge to blame Superman for the unfathomable loss of life that resulted from Zod's last stand.

And speaking of loss of life, there are two deaths that I had a real problem with.  First is Jonathan Kent.  The death of Pa Kent is a crucial moment in the development of the character.  He's traditionally died of a heart attack, which is a formative experience for Clark and teaches him that even with all of his powers that there are some people that just can't be saved.  Instead, this Pa Kent runs out in a tornado to save the family dog while Clark stands by and watches as his father is swept away.  I'm sorry, but that's just stupid.  Maybe Clark couldn't have run out into the whirlwind and saved his father without giving away his powers to the crowd of onlookers,** but he certainly could have told his father, "No, you go wait under the overpass with Mom and I'll go save the dog because I CAN'T BE KILLED."  While it's still a powerful dramatic moment because Kevin Costner is so great in the role, the underlying moral is totally lost because his death was 100% preventable.  Instead it just becomes one more reason for Clark to resent his powers and his place in the world, and it makes me resent this version of Pa Kent as written.  He basically comes off like some kind of self-hating xenophobe and while that might feel like a more realistic depiction of a Midwestern farmer, it's a really bizarre choice for Superman's father.  Perhaps he should have imbued young Clark with a little more optimism and a little less distrust of humanity.  At least then Clark wouldn't have had to go see that priest and we could have been spared that subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-face shot of Clark with a stained glass Jesus over his shoulder.

Finally there's Zod.  Michael Shannon is nothing short of brilliant in the role of the mad general who will stop at nothing to protect Krypton's legacy and ensure the survival of his people.  It's infinitely more interesting than Terrance Stamp's "I will conquer whoever happens to be standing nearby" iteration of the character, as much as I love all that "Kneel before Zod" stuff.  No matter what this new Zod does, he always believes that it is right and necessary for the good of the Kryptonian race and Shannon fills the character with such righteous fury that you simply cannot look away whenever he's on screen.  The only thing disappointing about his character was his eventual resolution.  First of all, between this and Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm really sick of the good guys finally retrieving whatever Macguffin they've been searching for or destroying the enemy's doomsday device, only to then cram in one more superfluous set of fisticuffs after the fact.  I'm all for Supes and Zod slugging it out one-on-one in the skies of Metropolis and it's a fantastically staged fight, with a lot of great little touches like Superman floating in place when the floor falls out from under him, or using his heat vision to melt away the steel beam that Zod is swinging at his head.  Every punch sounds like a sonic boom and is accompanied by bright impact waves in the air.  It's a stupendous brawl.  But if there's one thing Superman has always held sacred above all else it's the sanctity of life.  It's why he always goes out of his way to protect civilians during a battle and it's why he doesn't kill his enemies.  And, much like his newly minted cavalier attitude towards collateral damage, here Superman is forced to snap Zod's neck before the villain can occularly roast a trapped family of four in Metropolis's Grand Central surrogate.  That decision might hold more dramatic water if they hadn't just inadvertently massacred a quarter of the city's population.

And aside from any logistical issues I might have with the method of execution***, it feels like an unnecessarily dark choice.  In this version, it's not enough that Superman doesn't kill people because it's morally wrong, instead he has to be tortured by the emotional scars of the one time he actually killed someone with his bare hands.  The moment is played dramatically, (before being abruptly dropped for some jokey shit in the desert) with Superman dropping to his knees and releasing a cry of anguish before clutching the nearby Lois Lane.  This feels like Batman's territory and it's precisely the reason that Superman and the Caped Crusader make such a potent pairing: Batman is cold and pragmatic with a deep inner turmoil, while Superman is warm and idealistic, an icon of hope in an uncertain world.  Cavill's Superman is meant to serve as the cornerstone for Warner's eventual Justice League movie and one of the keys to that film's success will be how they differentiate all the different characters.  They can't all be so dour.  I'm okay with scuffing up Superman's image a bit, but I hope that in the already-greenlit sequel we'll see a Supes who is not only a little more comfortable in his role as Earth's protector, but also properly earns the nickname "The Big Blue Boy Scout."

Zack Snyder became an easy target after the double whammy of Sucker Punch and that animated owl movie, but you simply cannot deny that the guy is a master of the visual medium.  He can compose the hell out of a shot and for all the kinetic insanity of Man Of Steel's finale, it's the little stuff that I've found has stayed with me, like the butterfly flapping its wings while stuck in the chains of a swingset, young Clark playing outside with a red cape pinned to his shoulders, or Jonathan Kent silently waving off Clark's help and accepting his fate.  Donner's scenes set in the fields of Kansas are some of the most memorable of the whole film and Snyder proves a worthy successor in that regard.  He doesn't shy away from the emotional side of Clark's journey but he also manages to keep the story from feeling truly overwrought or mopey.  And while he's abandoned his usual affinity for speed ramping, he seems to have developed the same obsession with dust motes floating through beams of light that J.J. Abrams has with lens flares.  But it's just a minor textural thing and I actually kind of dig it.  (Just like I secretly dig those lens flares.)  Oh yeah, and I simply cannot say enough good things about Hans Zimmer's incredible score.  I got obsessed with it after seeing the third trailer (embedded below) and immediately downloaded the entire deluxe double album.  In many ways it reminds me of his score for Nolan's Dark Knight movies, where there isn't exactly a catchy single melody like John Williams' Superman theme or Danny Elfman's Batman theme, but there are instead a series of variations strung throughout the film that add up to a complete musical landscape which defines the character and his world.  Zimmer's work here is absolutely soaring and propulsive and goes a long way towards setting the overall tone of the film and keeping things uptempo and inspirational whenever possible.  You might not walk out of the theater humming a specific tune, but when you hear this music you'll instantly recognize it as belonging to Superman.

The final scene is brief but perfect, with Clark showing up for his first day of work at the Daily Planet, lending further credence to the feeling that we've essentially been watching Superman Begins.  It's easy to connect the dots from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy to Man Of Steel, especially considering that Nolan and Goyer shepherded both characters into theaters.  And while I wouldn't describe Man Of Steel as "grim and gritty," it's certainly taking itself extremely seriously.  The moments of levity are few and far between, and while Cavill's Clark Kent remains upbeat, some of the character's trademark altruistic hope and unbridled optimism still feels missing.  It's as if DC decided, "Well, Marvel has cornered the market on flat-out fun, popcorn-munching hero yarns, so instead we'll be prestigious and classy and IMPORTANT."

If I sound overly critical, it's only because I love Superman so damn much and I want him to always be awesome.  I really did enjoy Man Of Steel thoroughly and in a lot of ways, this is the Superman movie I've long been waiting for.   While the Reeve era certainly had its share of super-powered fights, the effects really have not aged well and I've always wanted to see Superman face off against a real physical threat.  Lucky for me, Snyder delivers enough bone-rattling combat and destruction here to make Roland Emmerich blush.  Perhaps next time we'll get an intellectual challenge as well?  A puzzle for Superman to solve?  The ancient Kryptonian scout ship featured an open, empty pod, so perhaps there's another Kryptonian roaming around after all.  Folks seem to want it to be Kara/Supergirl but I'm hoping for Braniac.  Much like Abrams' Star Trek reboot or Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, I think DC has assembled the exact right collection of talent and they've established characters and a world that I want to see more of, so I'm willing to forgive them for a few choices that seem interesting and well intentioned but ultimately don't play out as well as they'd like.  All the moving pieces are in place to deliver something truly spectacular next time out.

But in the meantime, Man Of Steel is thrilling, emotional, ambitious and just plain entertaining.

Welcome back, Superman. 

We've missed you.





*Well, three Smallville cast members if you count Amy Adams, who appeared in a fat suit as an overweight girl who gets slim and crazy courtesy of some kryptonite-laced veggie shakes.

**He totally could have.

***Doesn't that imply that, with the proper amount of force and leverage that Superman's neck could be snapped just as easily?  That seems pretty fucking vulnerable to me.


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Title: Man Of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX 2D