Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel, feet of clay

So, I went to see Man of Steel with Bug and The Wife yesterday for Father's Day. Anyone keeping score at home knows that I went into the film with wary optimism. I had major misgivings about director Zack Snyder, but was willing to give him a chance despite the so-so quality of Watchmen and the wretched excess of Sucker Punch.

So, the verdict? To be honest, I'm still struggling with it. Man of Steel is, clearly, Zack Snyder's best movie. By far. It's also a better movie than Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns. It was full of great spectacle and epic danger and full-on super-powered Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian fisticuffs we all went nuts for in Superman II (although those battles remain far more dynamic in memory than on repeated rewatches). I found the film thoroughly entertaining.

But when I left the theater, I realized I didn't "like" Man of Steel. I didn't hate it, but felt ambivalent and conflicted. Snyder, see, paid slavish attention to getting a lot of little details right, but misfires at a couple of crucial points that undermine the entire film for me. Mark Finn had a similar reaction, although I disagree strongly with him about his ultimate conclusion. And the great Mark Waid weighs in as well. Although these folks (and others) are far more eloquent in expressing their issues with the movie than I, the internet being what it is, here is my 2¢ worth (along with a truckload of spoilers, so beware).

This version of Superman is simply the most aloof and self-involved of any version of the character seen, period. The younger versions of Clark Kent, seen growing up in flashbacks, come across as sympathetic, well-rounded characters who are struggling with the onset of uncontrolled super powers in addition to the trauma of adolescence and puberty. There's clearly an instinctive drive to help and protect people, to do what he can, but here we hit our first false note. In an apparent attempt to differentiate Snyder's version from Richard Donner's original film, the roles of Jor-El and Pa Kent have been swapped. In the original, Jor-El forbade Superman from using his powers to "interfere" with human history, while Pa Kent urged Clark to involve himself in the world and make a positive difference. In this version, Jor-El urges Clark to become a beacon of hope, lead by example and save people, whereas Pa Kent is... well, pretty much a dick. He rides Clark pretty hard about keeping his powers secret, even if it means letting people die. And Pa Kent's death in a tornado, that Clark lets happen just because Pa told him to, that's not pathos, that's just plain stupid. That's called an idiot plot, in which the plot only moves forward because everyone involved act like idiots. In the comics, and every other dramatic interpretation of the character, Pa Kent dies from a disease/illness that Superman's powers are helpless against. It's a major dose of humility to the emerging super-hero, purging any nascent hubris from his system. Apparently, the need to differentiate THIS version of Superman from all those others was so great that guilt is an acceptable substitute for humility. Look, if they'd wanted a huge tornado set-piece in the film, fine. Simply have Clark--true to character--rescue Pa from the storm in defiance of his dad, and then have Pa die from a heart attack brought on from the stress of the situation. But screenwriter David Goyer is paid the big bucks to come up with these "clever" twists, so what do I know?

Backtracking a bit, even though Snyder's film takes pains to differentiate itself from the Donner film, it makes odd choices here and there that seem designed specifically to bring to mind the earlier movie. For instance, when a school bus carrying Clark and his classmates runs off a bridge into a deep river, it immediately brought to mind the endangered school bus from the finale of Superman: The Movie. It is implied in subsequent scenes that both Pete Ross and Lana Lang piece together Clark's secret afterward, which would make for a nice character arc, but the movie shows no interaction amongst these characters the rest of the way, instead, they stay silent for the most part, all isolated from each other by choice. I found this particularly disappointing with Pete Ross, as he's brought back later in the film but given nothing to do. Echoes of earlier films also come up with a thuggish trucker challenging Clark to a fight in a roadside diner (I could be wrong, but to my ears it sounds like he doesn't even call "Ma" and "Pa" Ma and Pa, which is an unfortunate break from the rural, folksy roots of the character).

From this point on, the social isolation of Clark undoes Superman for me. Henry Cavill cuts a great Superman figure, but he plays the character so stoically, so emotionally distant and deadpan that I never feel a connection with him. I'm never really rooting for him, because there's nothing there to root for. Part of this is because Cavill's Superman doesn't have very many lines in the script--I'll wager that if you count them up in the script, his younger flashback selves have more total dialogue. The adult Clark is the silent loner, moving from odd job to odd job, saving people occasionally, but never making any friends. This echoes the abortive Tim Burton Superman movie from a decade ago, and while "Superman the outsider" can work, I'll argue it doesn't here because we never see why this powerful guy who goes out of his way to hold humanity at arm's length would want to help out anyone. Early on, it seems like he views saving people as an unwelcome obligation, an inconvenient burden he derives no pleasure from, no sense of accomplishment. The more I think of it, the more it reminds me of Will Smith's character in the wretched Hancock movie, but earlier on in that character's career, before he descended entirely into not-giving-a-shit.

This comes into play as soon as General Zod and the escaped Phantom Zone Kryptonians arrive at Earth and demand "The son of Jor-El" turn himself over to them. Clark turns himself over to the humans--who don't trust him--who in turn give him to Zod. This is a bleak and dark part of the movie, and seems to confirm all the negative warnings from Pa Kent earlier. Humans don't trust Superman, but to be fair, he's given them absolutely no reason to trust him whatsoever. Then, when Superman and the villainous Kryptonians fight--first in Smallville, then in Metropolis (at least, I assume it's Metropolis, although the city is never named in the film)--Superman shows absolutely zero concern for the thousands of people being killed as "collateral damage" as the super-powered beings essentially throw skyscrapers at each other. The 9-11 imagery is overt and wielded with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and I've seen it referred to in several places online as Snyder's "disaster porn." That's an apt description. It's dazzling on-screen and brings the "wow!" but as we left the theater, The Wife (who is not a comics geek) said, "That was just wrong. Superman didn't care about any of the people killed in the fight, but suddenly cared about that last family at the end? The real Superman would've taken the fight away from the city, to protect the people." And that's the core of the problem. Superman doesn't give a shit. In Superman II, even when Clark's getting his head handed to him by Zod, Ursa and Nod, he cries out "The people!" as innocents in jeopardy truly anguish him. Faora mocks Superman during their battle in Man of Steel by claiming his compassion is a weakness, which only brings to mind Zod from Superman II again: "This super-man is nothing of the kind. I have found his weakness. He cares for these humans." Even Brandon Routh's Superman from director Bryan Singer's wildly uneven Superman Returns places a priority on his role of protector, for even as he's rushing off to confront one disaster, he uses his heat vision to vaporize a rain of jagged glass falling from a skyscraper, thus saving dozens of people below. That's why it rings so hollow when Superman snaps Zod's neck to save one cowering family at the end of the movie. Superman hadn't shown one iota of concern for people before, but now his compassion drives him to kill? That's a false note. A very false note.

Let me be clear--Superman killing General Zod, in and of itself, is not a non-starter for me. During John Burne's run on Superman comics in the 80s, he actually had Superman execute three evil Phantom Zone Kryptonians in the "Pocket Universe Saga." This was a Big Deal. If you'll allow me to get my comic book geek on, the Pocket Universe was a fragment of the Pre-Crisis DC Multiverse, meaning that General Zod & co. were exponentially more powerful than the current Superman. They beat the snot out of him. What's more, they killed all five billion people on Earth just for the hell of it and promised to do the same to Superman's Earth. Superman and seen and lived their carnage over the span of several issues of the comic, and knew that he was physically incapable of stopping them, knew that the combined might of all the other heroes on Earth would be incapable as well. So he executed them with Kryptonite, and the consequences of his actions were so personally devastating to him that it took the better part of a year for him to come to terms with it. In Man of Steel he snaps Zod's neck, screams in anguish, then happily tells a general not to follow him with drones before getting a job at the Daily Planet and flirting with Lois Lane. WTF? Talk about lack of consequences.

And Zod's neck snap illustrates a more subtle problem I have with the movie overall. It's crude. It's crass. It's thuggish. It lacks subtlety (although I will allow it is Snyder's most subtle movie thus far) but more importantly, it lack cleverness. The big, jaw-dropping fight scenes between Superman and Zod, or Superman and Faora, are nothing more than brawls for all their elaborate special effects. There's a little bit of "Kryptonian kung-fu," which shows me that they cribbed at least a little bit from J.J. Abrams' unproduced Superman script, but beyond that, their lack of imagination is staggering. There's no trickery here, no out-thinking opponents, no using a handy mirror to reflect Zod's heat vision back at him. The entire battle consists of punch, punch harder, and if that doesn't work, punch harder still. This lack of wit extends to dialogue. The first two movies are infinitely quotable, with "Kneel before Zod!" still capable of bringing the goosebumps. Here... I'm still racking my brain, trying to remember a single line of quotable dialogue not from the trailers. Not from Amy Adams, not from Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Lawrence Fishburne or Michael Shannon. That's a lot of great actors without anything meaningful to say.

Which is a shame, because Snyder does get some things very, very right. The opening on Krypton, and the interaction between Jor-El and General Zod is fantastic. Lara, Superman's birth mother, is given more significant face time in this movie, as is Ma Kent. General Zod and his other Phantom Zone exiles benefit the most from the reboot of the film series, gaining understandable motivations for their actions, beyond the simple mustache-twirling villainy of earlier films. The absence of Lex Luthor is a wise move, although the destruction of a LexCorp tanker truck hints that Superman's greatest rival is ready to make an appearance in the next film. They lifted some nice visual cues and nifty Kryptonian elements from John Byrne's Man of Steel series, which I appreciate. The dead Kryptonian colonial worlds were a wonderful detail that added scope to the universe, and the Krypotonian terraforming machine is pretty damn impressive. And Henry Cavill looks more like Superman than probably any other incarnation of the character.

But for all that, this is probably the least intelligent, most joyless version of Superman ever committed to the big screen. At no point did I get a triumphant feeling from the film, a sense of wonder, an uplifted feeling of good winning the day. Folks saying Man of Steel should be nominated for an Oscar should have their heads examined. Folks comparing it favorably to The Avengers should realize that while the destructive spectacles are indeed similar--and Man of Steel might actually win out for the volume of skyscrapers trashed--The Avengers, first and foremost, concentrated on the characters first. Can you have a good Superman movie without Superman? Man of Steel seems intent on answering that question, for good or ill.

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  1. I'll help you come up with a good memorable quote for this movie that sums up the lead character.

    "Hi Ma! I found my parents!"

  2. Being adopted myself, that was probably the most cringe-inducing moment of the film, and demonstrated Clark's utter lack of empathy.