Friday, June 14, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Man of Steel

Short version: I liked it! It was pretty good, with some minor caveats.

Long version: spoilers, I guess.

The funny thing is, after I got home and mentioned on Twitter that I enjoyed the film, a couple people said they were surprised to hear me say that, and that they had been expecting me to hate it. That is interesting! Certainly, heading into the movie I wanted to like it, but that should hardly be taken to mean I wasn't trying to be as critical as I often am. I hated a lot of things about Iron Man 3 - it was a pretty awful movie, all things considered, and the fact that so many people embraced it uncritically was - if not surprising - still disheartening. That Man of Steel is a lot better than it needed to be, and that it is being met with a somewhat more muted reaction, is no less surprising. (People on Twitter are quick to respond: fans just like Marvel more, and give them the benefit of the doubt that DC never gets, with the obvious exception of Batman. Very true.)

I mean, sure, in the big scheme of things who gives a shit if one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the history of the world hits their quarterly earnings projections? But since these are the bread and circuses we are given, we might as well have something nice and shiny with which to distract ourselves as we roll over the waterfalls and onto the jagged rocks of cultural oblivion.

Many of the negative critiques I've heard regarding the film seem to be the kind of critiques that you could have predicted sight-unseen. The film is too dour. The film takes itself too seriously. There is too much disaster porn. There are too many obvious Christ references. Not enough Clark Kent. Not enough Daily Planet. Too much Krypton. All of which you could have gleaned from the credits. All of which are certainly true.

But you're stuck reviewing the film you watched, not the film you wanted to see. And while certainly I think the film might have wisely spent more time setting up the adult Clark Kent, or putting some more levity into the character interactions, or even given us a less melancholy version of Superman himself, that's not the film they chose to make. For the most part, the choices the made work within the constraints they've established. The film they chose to make is, for better or for worse, po-faced, sincerely unironic, and very violent. These were conscious decisions made to distance the film from previous on-screen interpretations of the Man of Steel, specifically the associations of Richard Donner's original films and the regrettable Bryan Singer retread. If you want an explanation as to why Man of Steel is the way it is, all you need to remember is that the studio's unambiguous remit for this film was to do for Superman what Christopher Nolan had done for Batman. Why do you think they went out of their way to put Nolan's name on the film? Nolan was very clear about the fact that he didn't want to make a Superman movie, and yet they got him to put his imprimatur on it anyway. They were serious about wanting to make this film work in a big way, and the best way they saw to do that was to make the film serious in a big way.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I am not the biggest fan of Nolan's Batman movies. In brief: too dark, overly complicated, thematically muddy - basically nonsensical when you put any amount of thought into trying to understand why anything in those films happens the way it does. I didn't really see any of those problems in this film. The plot was fairly straight-forward - no annoying third-act "surprise" twists, all the important elements were laid out plainly for the audience to see, all the character motivations were more or less well delineated. I am so very sick of the "puzzle box" school of film plotting, and it was refreshing to see a large film so steadfast in its desire to keep the plot mechanics as untangled as possible. Superman has a clear character arc from the first time we see him through to the last frame. General Zod has a coherent motivation and concrete goals. Although some of the plot points revolve around MacGuffins and Hamdingers (slamming this capsule into that ship will send them both back to the Phantom Zone! Superman has the whole Kryptonian race imrpinted in his DNA!), they're all clearly spelled-out in the necessary comic-book-science fashion.

The story they chose to tell maybe isn't the story a lot of Superman fans wanted to see. This isn't a well-established, super-competent Superman - this is Young Superman's first adventure. Although he's had a lifetime to adjust to living on Earth, which is a definite advantage over the Phantom Zone army (and certainly one of the most clever bits in the film), he still hasn't gotten used to his abilities because up until the moment he puts on The Suit his father gives him, he'd always been afraid to really test the limits of his powers. When he engages with the villains, he's barely competent. He doesn't know how to fight at all, which is why he keeps getting his ass handed to him by people with the same powers who have been trained to fight. His only advantage is that he has a remarkable degree of self-control and patience, skills given him by his Earth parents and developed through decades of hard work and perserverence. I'm willing to overlook a number of problems with those scenes - his relative inability to lessen collateral damage, for instance - by remembering that by the time he first engages with Zod's forces in Smallville, he couldn't have been flying for more than two or three days. Although his moral compass is solid from the beginning, his abilities are not commensurate with his ambition, not yet.

The way the film plots out Superman's first adventure creates some interesting storytelling problems which could either be used as fodder for the sequels or ignored entirely. For one thing, having Lois meet Superman before she meets Clark - and making it explicitly clear that she knows from the very beginning who this Clark Kent fellow really is - sidesteps one of the franchise's most important dynamics. Now, it's important to remember that this movie isn't really setting up the kind of open-ended storytelling engine you might expect to find on TV or the comics themselves: there are probably going to be two or three more Superman films in this series, tops. So maybe it just isn't that important to set up a situation where a Lois / Superman / Clark triangle could exist. That triangle was essential to the franchise for decades, but I don't believe it's necessarily integral to the character, although I know many people disagree vehemently on this subject. I liked Married Superman just fine, and don't think being married hurt Superman at all, certainly not the way it did Spider-Man. Superman isn't really much in the way of a bachelor, anyway - after 75 years everyone knows he belongs with Lois, and having them married for so long in the comics was something out of which the creators actually got a fair degree of mileage (as opposed, again, to Spider-Man, where the marriage was more an impediment than anything else). The fact that the Nu-52 Superman isn't currently dating Lois is just stupid, because every single person reading the books - every single person - knows he's never actually going to marry Wonder Woman, and that he's eventually going to marry Lois - if not actually in the comics, then, you know, "next year," and forever after. It just doesn't do Lois any favors as a character to put her in a situation where she doesn't see that two people with whom she is intimately familiar are one and the same. I like the fact that the movie isn't chary about the fact that Clark loves Lois the first time he sees her, and that also the first time he saves her life she trusts him completely.

Another potential problem is the fact that Superman only actually reveals himself to humanity in reaction to Zod's threat. Now, in the movie, it makes perfect sense: Clark can't become Superman until he learns from Jor-El who he actually is, and learns not to be afraid of his powers, and to trust in the decency of the human race to be able not to lose their collective shit when he steps in front of a camera for the first time. But in terms of the plot, the fact that he comes "out of the closet" at the same moment the Earth is under attack from evil aliens, it seems like it will be that much harder for Superman to gain people's trust. Again, this is another Nu-52 plot point that I'm not happy about: it's all well and good if the average Joe on the street distrusts superhumans or superheroes in general, but Superman should be that one guy that everyone trusts, even if they are afraid of Batman or think that Wonder Woman is a man-hating Marxist feminazi or that Green Lantern is an intergalactic fascist. But looking forward to the sequel, I can see this being a powerful argument for Lex Luthor (because, duh, Luthor is the sequel) - how can we trust this Superman creature when all we really know about him is that his people want us all dead? So again, if this movie were being used to set up a new ongoing Superman serial, that might be problematic, but as a plot point in an isolated film it doesn't pose too many problems, and might be working to set up conflicts for future sequels. I do hope, however, that they don't spend too much time in the sequel on anyone "hating and fearing" Superman - that's Luthor's schtick. In fact, that's Luthor's character in a nutshell. He's that guy who has to look a gift horse in the mouth and remain suspicious of the one man in the entire world who purports to act with no ulterior motive whatsoever, because he is constitutionally incapable of understanding altruism.

Walking out of Iron Man 3 I was just exhausted and fed-up - with the character, with Robert Downey, Jr., with the elements of the Marvel Studios format that were obviously already congealing into stale formula. Walking out of Man of Steel I am eager to see the next one - especially now that they're done with the de rigeur origin story, now they've established the setting and given us a small army of good actors to fill out Superman's universe. The second movie will obviously be Lex Luthor. Since they're following Nolan's blueprint so closely I anticipate them putting a lot of work into making Luthor as impressive as he deserves to be - they're going to want to find an actor who can sell Lex Luthor like Heath Ledger sold the Joker. I want this to work because Lex Luthor is really fucking cool, and deserves to be treated as such. (Also: I really hope the next film is done with Krypton, because I've always maintained that Krypton is actually the least interesting thing about Superman. Jor-El's story ends the moment his planet explodes, so the insistence on the part of successive generations of filmmakers and TV people that Jor-El remain an important figure in Superman's life seems really weird to me.)

But there are other complaints which deserve to be answered. The first major complaint I've seen is that the amount of destruction in the movie is simply obscene. There is some truth to this. Superhero movies are spectacle, and audiences expect (or, at least, studios believe audiences expect) to see every penny of the budget onscreen in the most obnoxious manner possible, and the best way to do that is to show shit blowing up. Now, of course, if a major American city really suffered the kind of damages Metropolis sees in this film, the death toll would be in the thousands, possibly the tens or even hundreds of thousands. (New York gets trashed pretty hard in The Avengers, but it's worth pointing out for the sake of comparison that the Avengers in that film are always primarily concerned with getting civilians out of harm's way.) This is problematic, but pretty much inescapable for modern superhero films, which are essentially old-fashioned disaster films by another name. It says some weird things about our national psyche in the wake of decades of real-life disaster porn on television that this is our cathartic entertainment, but ultimately I think it says just as much about the state of the movie industry. These movies are the biggest entertainment spectacles in the world right now, and the most impressive ways movie studios can imagine to show off all the money they have to spend is by blowing shit up. That's a little bit depressing and speaks to a profound lack of imagination on the part of moviemakers, but I don't see it changing anytime soon.

When Metropolis starts getting (literally) pounded in this film, Superman is on the other side of the world in India trying to disassemble a giant World Engine that is destroying the planet. So, Superman can't be in two places at once - and although a lot of people die as a result of this, I think it's important to remember that one of the reasons why this scene plays out the way it does is that Superman trusts the people he's working with to do the right thing. After the military starts working with him and not against him, they all work together to decide what needs to be done, and he trusts that they're going to to be able to accomplish it because he believes in their abilities. That's a very Superman thing to do, really - we all have important parts to play, and even if he's more powerful he can't do it all, and we need to help each other to succeed. It's important that we see the military trying so hard to take down Zod's flagship, even if they're unsuccessful, for the same reason it's important we see Perry White working so hard to save Jenny the Intern from the rubble - because that's the whole point of the movie. Superman can't be everywhere, but he can inspire us to be better, and to do what needs to be done. That's one of my favorite bits in the movie, actually, now that I think back on it: Perry White and Steve Lombard hear Jenny the Intern (who is hopefully named Olson) screaming under a pile of rubble. Perry moves to help her but Lombard pauses a moment before coming back with a metal pole to use for leverage to dig the intern out. It's great because Lombard's reaction is precisely the kind of thing we want to see happen around Superman - Lombard obviously wants to leave, to get out of there, to save himself, but after a split-second of hesitation he comes and helps. Because it's the right thing to do.

Which leaves us with the last, most controversial aspect of the film - the ending, when Superman kills Zod. Now, watching this film I knew that this was going to be a problem. I knew that this was most likely how the film was going to end, and I also knew this was most likely going to be the single plot element that most fans would have trouble swallowing. But as it played out, I didn't actually have any problems with it. I've already read Mark Waid's impassioned reaction against the film's ending. If there is anyone on this planet who I trust to be an authority on all things Superman, it's Mark Waid, but I'm not going to be a purist about this. It works because even though it's a terrible thing that Superman should never do, the film goes out of its way to show us that this is the only conceivable way the story can end. Superman doesn't kill Zod for convenience, or out of revenge or even as punishment - he kills Zod because there is, in a split-second, no other conceivable choice, and there is no other conceivable choice because Zod wants to die.

Now, think about Superman's character arc throughout this movie. When the movie begins he's already more or less dedicated his life to helping people, even if he's still a bit unsure about the best way to go about doing so. He's absorbed all the lessons in decency and kindness that his parents could possibly have taught him - and Jonathan Kent's death, far from being the afterthought that it is in most iterations of the mythos, is crucial to his character growth. (If you clicked on the link above, Waid does a great job of explaining just how much this plot point helps define Clark.) But he is still missing that one crucial part of his life, the knowledge of his heritage, that is necessary before he can come out into the open as Superman. Finally, when he meets Jor-El's ghost and receives the Kryptonian uniform that becomes his costume, he is ready to take his first steps as a public figure. And then the plot begins, because the moment he dedicates himself to learning the limits of his powers and using them to their fullest potential, in public, is when Zod comes to Earth and states his intention to kill every last person on the planet.

So even though Superman has already made the decision to be good, he is still basically inexperienced, and goes from having no idea who he is to having to make the choice to end his race in order to save humanity in the space of about a week. When Zod comes to Earth, Superman gets his ass kicked at first, for all the reasons discussed above. But finally the tides turn, Superman and his human allies save the day, and the only other Kryptonian left alive in Metropolis is Zod. And I really can't overpraise Michael Shannon's acting enough here, because even though he's playing the character at an almost hysterical pitch, he is still completely lucid, and he lays out in precise detail exactly how the film is going to end: he was born and bred for one purpose, and that purpose was to protect and preserve Krypton, and Kal-El has prevented him from fulfilling his purpose, and so he has no more reason to live. He wants to kill Superman, sure, but really, he wants to make Superman kill him. Because he knows that Superman doesn't want to do it. Zod has been trained to kill, to be as cruel and efficient as necessary to protect Krypton, but he doesn't have any other purpose. He's lost, but he can still make damn sure that Superman doesn't win. The last thing he can do is put Kal-El in a situation where he will be forced to kill the last living connection to his home planet and people.

So at that final moment, with Zod a split-second away from killing four innocent people, Superman does the only thing he can. He makes his choice, and his choice is to protect the people of Earth. Could he have found another way? Maybe a mature Superman could have easily thought his way out of the problem, known how to fly Zod away from a crowded city, been able to more effectively counter Zod's superior tactical ability and fighting prowess. But this isn't that Superman, not yet: this is Superman's first real adventure, and it's also his greatest test. So when push comes to shove, yes, he kills Zod. But you know he's going to carry that moment for the rest of his life, he's going to hear the crisp 'snap' of Zod's neck in his dreams whenever he sleeps. The grief he expresses right after he kills Zod, after he loses the last tangible connection to his birthright, is real. He will do everything possible to never again be placed in a situation where the only possible recourse is to take another being's life. He will do better, be better. And that is Superman.

As for the rest of it? Zach Snyder isn't a half-bad director when he leaves all the cheap junior high fan-service and gay-bating at home. In fact, one thing I kept coming back to throughout the movie was that there was some unmistakeable subtext connected to the manner of Superman revealing himself to the people of Earth - his conflicting desires to come out and to stay secret, and his ultimate heroic choice to reveal his true identity and trust that the people around him will accept that his intentions are noble. Considering Snyder's . . . less than sterling track-record with the gay community, the fact that he was responsible for a Superman movie that acts as an admirable coming-out narrative is pretty fucking remarkable, and surely worthy of some attention.

As for the Jesus Christ pose - well, again, there's only so far you can run from that in a story about an alien who is sent to Earth by his father to help people. There's one scene with Superman falling backwards off a spaceship into the atmosphere with his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross that felt a little bit "on the nose," as the kids say. I groaned a little, I confess. But there is also a scene in a church earlier in the film where Clark's decision to reveal himself is framed in terms of a reference to Jesus' acts of charity, which I thought was a commendable use of religious imagery to communicate the importance of selflessness and self-sacrifice.

So did I like the movie? Yeah. It was good. It's better than it needed to be. I'm looking forward to the sequel. And that is the best complement you can pay a movie like this.


David Bitterbaum said...

I literally just saw it today, and posted my own review on my blog (shameless plug, but I read you enough I think one plug is okay?). I liked it too, but did get bored with all the fighting at the end.

Spoilers Below said...

I find myself recalling the issue where Starman talks about killing The Mist's son with his father. Jack didn't enjoy it, he'd rather not have done it, but he was left with no choice. And he'd rather not do it again. It's a far less utopian thing that Superman usually is, but it works perfectly for the plot and the story they're telling.