Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Man of Steel
So. WHERE TO BEGIN?! I wasn't sure I'd bring myself to blog about Man of Steel, but it was in my opinion such a colossal missed opportunity that I think I must as some sort of movie-going therapy, for my own sanity. *wink* This post is going to be RIDDLED with spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
It's interesting how times have changed. Growing up I was addicted to the old Justice League cartoons, and thought the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Flash were the best things going -- though I didn't know it at the time, DC comics creations were, to my seven year old mind, the superheroes of choice, the ones that fired my imagination and play. (Wonder Woman still is the best, just FYI -- and I live in dread of the day a film is produced that just butchers the character.)
But then something happened, and Marvel started to unleash film versions of their own slate of superheroes -- ones I had little to no familiarity with thanks to my childhood obsession with the Justice League, but who nonetheless managed to tap into my love for these colorful character types. Films featuring Iron Man, the Hulk (in the absence of a Mark Ruffalo-fronted Hulk picture I'd go with the Edward Norton film), Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man have all met with my resounding approval. I love these characters, I love these films -- this type of adventure never gets old.
And so it was with no little anticipation that I looked forward to yet another re-boot of the grandfather of all superheroes, Man of Steel -- particularly considering Christopher Nolan's involvement in the project as producer. Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy stands among my favorite films in any genre -- those stories are near and dear to my heart, notably for their character development, world-building, and extraordinarily meted-out themes of sacrifice and redemption. Clearly I pinned too much hope on Nolan's involvement, as despite its history, the strength of decades worth of source material, and a pretty strong cast, Man of Steel was such a disappointment.
Now, to be fair, it's not like everything about this film was a flop -- it has its moments, story beats or brief character exchanges that hint at the film that could have been, and made the resulting viewing experience all the more frustrating. The pieces are there for what might have been a fabulous Superman origin story, but lacking the strength of a strong script and solid character development, the individuals that should make me care about this story are lost in a never-ending (literally, NEVER-ENDING) shuffle and blur of explosions and action sequences. And with a run time of two hours and twenty-three minutes, containing at best roughly thirty minutes of film resembling anything like a compelling story, does not a gripping film make. =P
Perhaps for me what it most boils down to is that the Superman character just doesn't work "dark," i.e. Batman-dark -- and we don't need him to. Much has been written about Superman's parallels to Christ, from the manner in which he is sent to the planet to the purpose he fulfills -- a purpose Russell Crowe's Jor-El suggests when he tells his son that "he'll give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards." If you don't want to look at Superman as a savior-figure, consider him then, at the very least, as the hope of one. That, to me, has always been Superman's defining characteristic, and to see a film that suggests that only to deliver an origin story that is ultimately stripped of hope, and is so bleak is disappointing to say the least. Perhaps that is Man of Steel's biggest downfall -- it suggests a "savior," but then strips away everything that would make him someone to unite behind, someone to cheer for, by making him too human.
This film favors a non-linear approach to telling Superman's origin story, and perhaps if there'd been a greater focus on developing the actual character it might've worked more effectively. As it stands the time-jumps and flashbacks only served to make it harder to really connect with a pre-super Clark Kent. I mean the movie opens with the destruction of Krypton prologue that WILL NOT END and then immediately cuts to an adult Clark, who has apparently been making a living odd-jobbing it around the country. These scenes further support the Superman/Christ parallels, as we see Clark helping and/or saving others in various settings -- and when it is later revealed that he's thirty-three, close in age to when Jesus began his ministry (Luke 3:23), it's suggestive of the savior characterization. But all of that begins to fall apart for me when through various other flashbacks we're told just why Clark left the farm...
Henry Cavill certainly looks like a Superman/Clark Kent, and given his acting resume it's a shame that he wasn't given a chance to bring more to this role than his not inconsiderable muscles. *wink* Now, I get that as a kid Clark would've had a difficult time wrapping his head around why and how much he was different from his peers. I even rather like how the film explores the human tendency to fear the unknown/misunderstood -- that makes sense (especially when you're talking about alien life, ha!). But for whatever reason Clark seems to get stuck in that mindset, obsessed with his differences, and a large part of that blame can be laid at the feet of his earthly parents -- particularly Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and to a lesser extent Martha (Diane Lane). While they certainly love Clark, Jonathan in particular seems to instill in his adopted son this unhealthy fear of becoming known, of hiding the truth from others because of what they might do. Yes, that is the way to live. =P Is it understandable? Okay, sure, but in fiction of this ilk (and I believe it is inherent in the best superhero stories) I want something that encourages me to rise above natural human tendencies and embrace more, to seek possibility, to live in hope.
Further flashbacks reveal that Clark's fellow students and their parents were prone to freak out about Clark's differences (like when he miraculously pulls a bus full of students from the water), but they're hardly marching on the family farm with pitchforks and torches. So while they may not have warmed to Clark, average people are hardly shown to be an active threat -- which makes Clark's actions when his father is imperiled by a tornado all the more incomprehensible. Jonathan actually signals Clark NOT TO RESCUE HIM because there are witnesses, I guess, and Clark (and his mother?!?!) are actually OKAY WITH THAT, so Jonathan dies. WHAT THE HECK?! There is sacrificing yourself out of love, in the face of a real threat, and then there is sacrificing yourself for stupid -- and this falls firmly into the latter camp.
So Clark goes in search of himself or something and after a few years hits the jackpot when he's hired on as part of the crew investigating the discovery of (what turns out to be) a Kryptonian space ship. I suppose Clark was just "drawn" to the area as he goes exploring the ship in the middle of the night, manages to insert the Kryptonian equivalent of a jump drive into the vessel, awakening a recorded version of his father's consciousness. Blah, blah, blah, he gets a super-suit and suddenly, talking to basically a COMPUTER PROGRAM he finds his purpose in life. Never mind how Jor-El can conveniently interface with a ship that presumably left Krypton years before its destruction, or Zod later in the film -- the whole "bestowing of purpose" on his heretofore angst-ridden son is too conveniently played to possess any real emotional resonance. (There is a nice moment as Clark first learns to fly -- the look of wonder on his face as he realizes his possibilities is a moment of refreshing emotional honesty in a film sorely lacking it otherwise.) Clark's sudden acceptance of his Kryptonian heritage just doesn't fly with me, considering the fact that up until this point -- the age of thirty-three -- he's been angst-ridden and disaffected to a point that rivals a teenager. NOT AN ATTRACTIVE QUALITY IN A THIRTY-THREE YEAR OLD, CLARK. *sigh*
Let me talk about Lois for a second, since the space ship investigation is the moment she's introduced to both the audience and Clark. I was so excited when Amy Adams was cast as Lois -- I think she's a fantastic actress, capable of bringing just the right balance of spark and sass to the iconic role. And with a better script this could've worked. It's a different and potentially effective tactic to introduce Lois to Clark in his pre-Superman days. The script is dedicated to giving Lois a more action-oriented role than she's seen in previous incarnations, but when she loudly proclaims to the most TOOTHLESS, BORING PERRY WHITE EVER (Laurence Fishbourne) that he can't fire her because she's a "Pulitzer prize winner" she lost me (pompous much?). I even like the idea of a dedicated journalist like Lois investigating the mystery that is Clark prior to his work at The Daily Planet. However, the moment Clark decides to "out" himself to Lois, thereby removing any mystery about his identity in the FIRST FILM of the series, all of the tension between these two iconic would-be lovers dissolves. There's no tease, no mystery, no tension between nerdy Clark getting on Lois's last nerve. And here, that reduces most of their on-screen relational development (and I use that term VERY loosely, because it is practically nil) to one of predator vs. prey, if you will -- so when the obligatory kiss comes at the end of the film, there's no spark because there's been absolutely NO RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT BETWEEN THEM AT ALL. Is that not the saddest superhero love story EVER?! =P
The movie's final act -- which seems like approximately two-thirds of its run time -- is devoted to basically bringing the apocalypse to Metropolis. People, it just doesn't END. I can't think of another movie where I left feeling so completely and utterly exhausted. There's no balance, no moments of character development that not only break up the relentless action but actually raise the stakes because we then CARE about the characters. Other superhero films feature some level of mass destruction, sure, but I'm convinced that NOTHING compares to the hell that rains down on the hapless human population -- a hazard-assessment team even did some analysis of the damage. One of the characteristics that's always set Superman apart is that he's always seemed to care about each and every human being, going out of his way to STOP chaos. This is just a free-for-all -- but with Zack Snyder directing I don't know why I expected anything less. =P Which brings me to Superman killing Zod -- I'm sorry, but I don't buy that it was necessary. Superman doesn't have to "kill" to put him off doing it in the future -- that is the one GLARING NEON SIGN IN THE FRIGGIN' SAND that Superman has never crossed (on-screen at any rate, not sure about in the comics). Badly done. (Speaking of Zod, all I can say is Michael Shannon really did a great job chewing the scenery, I guess...)
Wrapping this up, I have to give a shout-out to Christopher Meloni as Colonel Nathan Hardy, who was the only character I ended up caring about in this whole mess -- so of course he dies in a blaze of glory. *rollseyes* I also thought Antje Traue as Faora-Ul was nicely villainous as Zod's second in command -- and since she only got sucked into a black hole, maybe she'll return for the inevitable sequel(s).
There's opportunity here, but there is a TON of ground that needs to be made up if any sequels to Man of Steel hopes to restore, oh, I don't know, THE HUMANITY to this character. Cavill could be a good Superman -- if only he had something to work with, instead of merely serving as a prop to be moved around in endless CGI-action sequences. With a character-driven script and a director known for CHARACTERIZATION and STORYTELLING, instead of just elaborate set pieces, a Superman sequel could improve on this mess. But it's got an uphill battle working against it to get me to even marginally care. This cast, but more than that this character and his history deserve better.