Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel

I'm going to endeavor to remain spoiler-free here, and talk about the film in terms of theme and tone, rather than in detail.

I saw the film on Saturday, and have been chewing on it ever since. I have to be honest, the more I think about it, the less I like it. The reason is simple, and becomes more obvious to me as I turn over the decisions made here...

I would say the most human superhero, ever, is Spider-Man. Not only are his powers limited, but he also carries the weight of the lives of all of his friends, even after they might betray him. He is defined by his open heart.

Second on that list would be Superman, and it's not by much. His vast power levels set him apart from humanity, but that is negated by a heart that is more open, more encompassing, than any other. Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent, whatever you may wish to call him, is human because he has chosen to be.

Where the film utterly stumbles is in constantly, and oppressively, reminding us of Supeman's alien nature. There's been talk the film was framed as a "first contact" story, and that's pretty accurate. It's also not what Superman is about.

Superman is not about The Other coming to us and changing our world, but about The Other becoming Us, the best of who we are. The Other who becomes the best of us because he was taught that is how everyone should be. Snyder and Goyer seem to poo-poo the immigrant angle, but Goddammit, that's what the story is.

The film positions Superman as a God...and I hate to invoke Chris Reeve, but he has really given the
only absolutely perfect performance of this role, ever...Reeve, at every, single turn, gave us the man. The man is what we can relate to, the man is who we can cry for, and with. The man allows us to see his limitations. The man gives consequence to action sequences.

Henry Cavil may be capable of that. I liked his performance, but it was a good performance of a character who was almost joyless, emotionless and cold. Superman is none of those things. Cavil is at his best in the moments where we see the man...There is a moment of pure joy upon his first flight that screams out "more of this, please!" Also a reaction to a terrible choice that Cavil nailed completely (a divisive moment, but I liked it), even if the rest of the film utterly let him down.

"All those things I could do, all those powers, and I couldn't save him."

That's one of the two defining lines in Richard Donner's 1978 masterpiece. Why? Because it speaks to limitations, not just of strength, or speed, but that Superman is, simply, not a God. He is a man, with powers and abilities beyond the rest of us, but he cannot do everything. He cannot save everyone. BUT HE WILL ALWAYS TRY.

This is where Man of Steel goes completely off the rails, for me. It's no secret that the third act is, essentially a long fight between Cavil's Superman and Michael Shannon's General Zod. It's a huge throwdown, buildings topple, the two titans smash each other around like rag dolls.

Yes, I am disturbed that buildings are falling, innocent people are CLEARLY dying horribly, and Superman is oblivious. What's even more annoying is that Zach Snyder and David Goyer could've solved that problem easily. We only need to see Superman TRY to save innocents, and we will love him, even if he fails. Why not a moment where Superman attempts to hold up a building, only to have Zod use this moment to take a cheap shot, and the building still goes down. Superman instantly feels more human, on many levels, and Zod more dastardly.

But see, the film isn't interested in that, it doesn't care about puny humans. At all. The Daily Planet staff is pretty much half-baked, aside from Lois, and Metropolis itself is just a city. It has no character. It has no life. It's there to simply be a bunch of buildings to get knocked over. I've never seen such huge scenes of MASSIVE carnage feel so antiseptic and cold. Who cares? The film hasn't even taken a moment to establish a world that feels in any way "alive."

You may think those last two paragraphs contradict each other, but, frankly, the latter just makes the former all the more apparent. It's just so blindingly clear that Snyder and Goyer don't care about people, they care about Gods. This whole film is in service to watching two video game characters (and that is EXACTLY what it looks like) punch each other through buildings, and fly thousands of feet through the air.

Drew McWeeny, over at HitFix, found the fight scenes emotional. I suppose that's true, but the emotion is blindingly self-centered. This movie is about Clark/Superman dealing with HIS issues, and saving the world just sort of happens to be part of that. It's ridiculous, and it's NOT Superman. Superman saves people, and, in many ways, is a servant to humanity. I don't see any of that in this film, his personal trials and difficulties should be attached to that. Which is something that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns TRIED to do, and, ultimately, got lost in reverence to Donner's vision.

Poor Brandon Routh...I maintain he could've been a GREAT Superman, but no one can succeed when the mandate is "play Christopher Reeve playing Superman."

Still, Singer was closer than Snyder. Much, much closer. Mainly because Singer pulled out all the stops to make Superman human. Probably too much, but...I prefer that to a cold, distant alien.

The sweet spot...clearly somewhere in between. Superman: The Movie and Superman II hit it, I think. They proved you can have massive, powerful, superhuman action, and never forget that Superman is here to help. He cares about us, all of us, and he cares even more because he can do more than anyone else to keep us safe. Just re-watch the fight in Metropolis from Superman II, it's full of drama, it's exciting, and it never, ever forgets the humanity.

Hell, that version of Superman RUNS AWAY, rather than risk more lives fighting in a crowded city.

Compare that to the climax of Man of Steel, which is about two men in a personal grudge match. Superman wrecking massive slabs of the planet to "save" it. Multiply that with the almost entirely CGI nature of the sequence. Floaty heads yelling at each other. Big deal.

Of course, at the end of the day, it's not Goyer and Snyder's fault, either. It's the mouth-breathing  crowd and their inane "he has to punch something!' calls. Hollywood, long being the purveyors of groupthink, just gave you what you wanted. A big, loud exercise with loving shots of super-powered beings punching each other. Big whoop.

As a post script - I don't blame Nolan for this, at all. I've long maintained that Nolan had to be hands-off member of this production.  It's Snyder and Goyer's show. I figure Nolan was there for cachet, and got a story credit for an off-the-cuff (which is pretty much how it's described) conversation with Goyer.

 What did I like? I loved the Krypton stuff. I love Russell Crowe as Jor-El. I love Keven Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents (although that one scene with Costner....so dumb, but he was good). I thought the cast was game and handled what was thrown at them well.

I just wish what was thrown at them was more Superman and less "let's smash a bunch of stuff."


  1. So they filmed The Hulk without The Hulk is what you're saying?

  2. What about Smallville's Superman/boy? And George Reeves...on the humanity scale?

    1. Reeves projected a very 50's sort of authority-figure "daddy." He did the right thing because he's the ultimate authority, he loves everybody in the sort of Father Knows Best way. "Do your chores and off to bed," with a pat on the head. Which is still better than Snyder and Goyer take. It just doesn't have the open-hearted love for humanity, and the sheer certainty of it's ultimate goodness that seeps out of Reeve.

      I do find it interesting that Reeves' Clark Kent was so very human and relateable, while Chris Reeve's was basically a cartoon. I think it's based in who each actor treated as the "real" persona.

      Smallville killed itself. It was a nice, long-form, take on Clark learning to be Superman, but you never actually got there. They just drug it out, and drug it out...because, hey, the show was still getting ratings, and Welling just REFUSED to wear the suit.