Saturday, March 26, 2016

Man of Steel

Written at the time of the film's release.

Zod It
The Never-Ending Battle (No, Really. The Never-Ending Battle)

Marvel Comics' film division has so saturated the movie market that its Direct Competition, DC Comics looks like a 98-pound weakling by comparison. Oh, they did well with Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" Batman series (very well), but the Warners film version of Green Lantern was a little dim. So, if they put out any more product, they'd better do it right, or be seen as also-ran's. And the one they HAVE to nail is the DC super-star and cornerstone, Superman. The Last Son of Krypton debuted in comics in 1938, has been on-screen since the Fleischer cartoon days of 1942, a radio series since 1940, on television since 1952, and the big screen since 1980 (ushering the current glut of superhero movies). Superman has had several iterations since, especially on television, starting with George Reeves, then "Lois and Clark," then "Smallville." Much tribute has been paid the last few years to the movie version starring Chris Reeve—he even appeared on "Smallville" a few times before his death—and Bryan Singer's attempted re-boot, Superman Returns, was a slavish recreation with better technology, that, in retrospect, was so slavish, it was a little creepy.
The rumor is Warner Brothers HAD to make a Superman movie or pay out a healthy sum to the family of
Jerry Siegel, the characters' co-creator, and coincidentally, David Goyer gave Christopher Nolan a great idea for how to handle Superman while they were making The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan wants to direct other things besides super-heroes, so he brought in Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) to do the film, and in some ways its a good choice. Snyder knows how to bring comic books to the big screen, transposing the static images to a hyper-dramatic movement, even if he sometimes misses the point of what those stories are saying. The trick was making a GOOD Superman movie—even the Reeve ones corroded after a few years—out of an essentially "old-fashioned" character that is powerful enough that it is a challenge to come up with worthy opponents (on a budget, that is). What can you do with Superman that hasn't already been done? How do you present it/him? Is he Moses or Hercules? Christ or Pro-Wrestler? There have been lots of interpretations over the last 75 years, and Nolan-Goyer-Snyder have snatched quite a few of them to their purposes.
Lets talk about what's good about Man of Steel: they're no slavish interpretations: on Krypton, there are no gleaming towers, head-bands, or crystal palaces, but instead an interesting steel-chrome re-imagining, with no plastic in sight (even their view-screens are pointilated metal images), with no clean architectural lines but re-engineered as if by Frank Geary. Superman's suit is more rococo than Ringling Brothers. 
Casting is uniformly excellent: yes, Laurence Fishburne makes a great Perry White; Amy Adams a spunky, no-nonsense (for once) Lois Lane; and Henry Cavill is empathetic as the many identities of alien Kal-El, preternaturally handsome, almost beautiful, and alarmingly ripped, he never winks, acts cute, and plays it straight and un-ironically, with maybe a little too much furrow in his brow. Russell Crowe's Jor-El is a bit more of an action-figure this time, which seems unnecessary, and Ayelet Zurer has much more to do as Lara than just cry and fret. Kal-el's Earth foster parents, the Kents, are marvelous, both Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, but especially Costner, whose Jonathan Kent is a moral force to be reckoned with, fully aware that his son is not only a special-needs child, but a sociological game-changer, the answer to "we're not alone in the Universe" and all the potential for panic and fear that his very existence might produce. Costner's been waiting in the wings doing good, unsentimental character work in smaller movies, shucking his ego, for many years for the opportunity to do something this good and remind people that, yeah, he's a good, clever, disciplined actor capable of great things.
One of the best things about Man of Steel is its cast, 
including Kevin Costner as Superman's Earth Dad.
The other thing that gave me great hope for Man of Steel was its re-interpretation of the whole "growing up super" problem. Kal-El/Clark Kent grows up with a gradually increasing set of powers—in class one day, he freaks out because he can see the skeletons of all his classmates, a cacophony of sounds from miles around threaten to split his skull, he runs to isolate himself in (as by media tradition) a broom-closet, and when the teacher threatens to open the door, he zaps it with heat-vision. He can't tell people what's going on—Dad's orders—but he has to learn to deal with being different and suppress it, even to the disservice of others. It's the "gift or curse" dilemma, which has been touched on before in the mythos, but never to this extent. 
And the other nifty thing is that more than any other "Super"-movie, this one is more science-fiction oriented, it's an alien invasion movie that "Superman" just happens to star in, and be the chief target for. And there is a concerted effort to make this "THE moment" when Clark becomes Superman. Here, Kent's been going from one job to another for years, hiding from society, and when Super-Opportunity rears its ugly head, he moves on, lest he be found out (it's also the impetus to introduce Lois Lane, who happens to stumble on this urban legend of a "mysterious stranger" and, reporter that she is, tracks him down). But, that "alien threat" text is a great way to keep Superman under wraps,
* dealing with the anonymity, and bringing Lane into it. There's great potential there, as the one person who exposes to the people of Earth that there are "aliens among us," is the picture's chief villain, Krypton's General Zod.

And this is where the movie gets into trouble.  Not that Zod isn't a great character. Genetically-engineered—the Kryptonian way—to be a soldier, he stages a coup in the last days of Krypton in a misguided attempt to keep Krypton "pure." He finds the naturally-birthed Kal-El repellent, Jor-el a traitor, and is single-mindedly determined to return Krypton to its proper way. And as spewed by Michael Shannon (who's terrific here, but then he's always terrific), he is a seriously deranged megalomaniac. And although his plans are simple, his means of doing them are so complex,** they tend to bog the movie down, leading to the worst problem with the film—it's ultimately dull and tedious.
We all remember Superman II—with Terence Stamp as General Zod—and the extended fight between Christopher Reeves' Superman and the three Kryptonian criminals which, while good for its time, seemed to be merely a bunch of fighting Cirque De Soleil wire-work. This time, it's the way it's imagined in the comics, super-fast, punching, punching, punching, the combatants sending each other crashing through buildings and skidding across pavement to screw themselves up and go at each other again...over and over and over again.
Comics-geeks (including me) have always wanted to see this, it's a dream-nightmare come true, but like Hitchcock's retort to why his characters never go to the police ("because it's
bo-oring" and then proved it in Psycho), it's too much of the same thing, no matter how much collateral damage is being inflicted, it becomes as dull as a "Transformers" movie—one shouldn't be looking "up in the sky" by rolling their eyes. 
Someone once expressed a dissatisfaction with "super-hero" movies because Hollywood has turned them from adventure stories to war stories, and the ante is being upped to the point of unsustainability and sameness. It's the familiar (in recent story-challenged movies) city-calving carnage, but just in different costumes, and if film-makers are going to keep trying to tap this dry well, they need to come up with unique stories besides battles royale, ones suited to the particular characters (and not particularly the villains').

And that's where Man of Steel ultimately fails—the screenwriters let the character down. What sets Superman apart is he IS so pure, his intentions are the best, he's "the big blue boy scout," with a moral compass that's been set on both Krypton and Earth, the best of both worlds. Here, Superman makes choices for his adopted home-world that should scare the bejesus out of its citizens, and they're made about twenty minutes of destruction (and how many unseen lives) too late. Forget the considerable property damage sustained—whole city blocks are turned to scrap, buildings collapse, with I'm sure lots of people crushed in the rubble—his ultimate action and the timing of it, is just not what The Man of Tomorrow represents in any of its incarnations. The filmmakers negate what makes the character of Superman so special in that one act, making the character just another guy with too much power in a suit, and not a very good guy at that.*** 
Lots of good things here, but lots of bad things as well, and I argued back and forth with myself over what to rate this, but just because of the tedium factor I chose what I chose, so one could fast-forward—like a speeding bullet—through the never-ending battles.

Direct dialogue grab from Grant Morrison's (and Frank Quitely's) "All-Star Superman"

* The TV-series "Smallville" did a similar thing, hiding "Supes'" as "The Blur," but Clark Kent stayed illogically stationary as a target.

** In fact, it's the same story-line of the recent story-arc "H'el on Earth" that spanned through the comics last year.

*** It's not like the filmmakers don't know it, they're preaching it throughout the entire movie.  In fact, at one point, Kal-el surrenders to the military as part of Zod's ultimatum to Earth.  He sits in an interview room, placidly, in hand-cuffs, the allowance of which is brought up by reporter Lane.  His explanation and one of the best lines in the movie:  "Well, it wouldn't be much of a surrender if I didn't..."

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