July 1, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

I really hate being a curmudgeon old dude but it seems every time I go to the movies these days, with the exception of kid's fare, I seem to leave grumpy and unsatisfied. Mostly it is because of lingering disappointment in what was presented to me as a whole (Iron Man 3) or watching my youth die on screen (Star Trek Into Darkness).

But I left Man of Steel yesterday feeling disappointed not because of what was presented, which was actually very well done, but with how it was presented. Usually a rebooted film franchise will gut what makes it intelligent and appeal to the common denominator (once again, Star Trek Into Darkness). And while many of the characters, zombie-like shells of what came before, do seem alien, the effort to recreate them, perhaps with a little more 'edge' or whatever you kids call it these days, seems faithful.

In Man of Steel, Superman has been gutted of what made him interesting (a god-like man with humanesque emotions who uses his powers for good, out of choice and from his birthright) and turns him into a genocidal ideologue who is, with the exception of those he wants or those he grew up with, a selfish sociopath.

Superman? Are you talking about Superman?, you likely say. Yes, I am talking about Clark Kal-El Superman Kent himself ... the almost-fascist. Sure, Superman has his moments of 'aw-shucks' boy scoutness. But, for the most part, Zack Snyder, Man of Steel's director, provides us with a god-child who drums to his own beat, with disastrous consequences.

For the purposes of this review, no other Superman exists, just this one. I'm throwing out all continuity and what came before since Man of Steel (wisely) does the same. And in this interpretation of Superman, especially if you know NOTHING of who this man is, Kal-El comes off as somewhat terrifying.

The film begins with a restrained (and brilliant) Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Superman's dad. He argues peaceful science and exploration but also believes in the natural, unmechanical birth of Krypton's children ... something considered as heresy to most Kryptonians.

General Zod, who sees the destruction of his planet as imminent, decides to launch a coup and try to forcibly change Krypton's destructive ways (wasting of natural resources and seeming obliviousness to its own destruction). Both Zod and Jor-El are renegades to the true culture but, seen in certain eyes, are also revolutionaries. The problem: we are to assume that Jor-El's way is the only just way while Zod's is maniacal. The problem: both seek the rebirth (or course correction) of their species.

Jor-El assumes Zod's intentions are evil since his pre-determined creation made him a brilliant tactical genius and warrior. We are never able to see what Zod's true intentions are because judgement is passed too quickly. Zod is punished for his coup, as he should be (while the surviving Els are not for their equally illegal activities) and while the planet dies, Jor-El, in death, kind of gets a 'I told you so' moment (all for not).

These opening sequences, coupled with breathtaking visuals and endless action, gives you the idea that Man of Steel could be a marvelous piece on philosophy. Really, with the exception of just assuming Jor-El is right, there are many scenarios here. Both men, Zod and Jor-El, break rules to achieve their goals and both fail.

In a sense, if Man of Steel stole Demolition Man's premise and had the two fighting for redemption, it might be more interesting than what comes for the rest of the film. But alas, we come to meet Kal-El who ends up living out The Last Temptation of Christ: a reluctant savior who helps in the shadows and asks for nothing in return.

Kal-El, raised by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, is taught to never reveal his true self. Kal, starting out as selflessly helpful to even those who treat him poorly, ignores some powerful advice from his foster father on Earth. When Kal asks his father if he should have let the children die, Costner says, with breathtaking reluctance, 'maybe'.

It's interesting because this is the divergent point between selfless Superman and the Terrible Els whose ideology ends up becoming more skewed, especially in comparison to General Zod's simple, perhaps brutal, but effective approach. See Kal-El does not listen to his dad in this instance and begins to go on his journey of self discovery, abandoning the principles his father tried to teach him in that moment.

See, General Zod has a similar approach, albiet in a more aggressive way. He saw militaristic revolution as a means to change his planet's ways. Keep in mind, despite Jor-El's unproven declarations to the contrary, Zod is trying to protect his people. And if he has to let some die ... 'maybe' that is the only way to save everyone. It brings up a concept brought up in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and which is brought up in a half-assed way in Star Trek Into Darkness): the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

But whereas some of Kirk's actions in Trek II and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock can be seen as heroic, Zod's actions are ultimately villainous. And this is where the producers of Man of Steel made a, narrative wise, DEADLY mistake in casting Michael Shannon, the enigmatic and brilliant actor behind Zod in the film: you create a sympathetic villain and the hero can become undermined a little.

Yes, I think Zod is immensely sympathetic. Because as his emotions unboil and we see his true soul, Superman becomes more ... distant. And that distance is frightening. In a sequence in which Superman lets himself be arrested he tells Lois Lane he is allowing humanity some semblance of comfort and he makes evidently clear that no one will stop him and his decisions, which, luckily are for the good of humanity (if not Kryptomanity), will NOT be stopped.

Superman then continues to make a few highly questionable decisions throughout the film that makes him more terrifying. The most telling is the final scene when the military general (or admiral or whatever the hell he is) has one of his spy satellites shot down by Superman. Superman, without a trace of charm or a sign of the humanity he grew up with, says, essentially, he will do what he wants on his own terms and be damned if you try to do anything otherwise.

Our judgment of Superman becomes a little blurred with Christopher Reeve and the hunky-dory doo-goodery we see in other installments so when you take Man of Steel on its own, without any past history, this is quite disconcerting. The General/Admiral, justifiably, says 'look, how do I know you're not going to fuck us later?' Superman just kind of says "I'll have to trust ... you". Us? Trust US??? The ones that can't and are not allowed to stop you? I might be the only one, but this came off as quite menacing to me.

Especially in light of Superman's actions in regards to his own world. When Zod starts terraforming Earth to create a new Krypton, a rather indefensible move seeing as it kills a lot of humans and all, Superman comes to the decision that while this must, of course, be stopped, so does the birth of Krypton all together!

See, Zod plans on growing Kryptonians again. Superman says fuck that and destroys ALL of his planet's future survival. Now, I can see Superman embracing Jor-El's philosophy of natural birth. But at what cost? The entire planet's civilization? Wasn't that what Jor-El was trying to STOP? But then you have to go back and look at Jor-El's actions again too: he create a heresy and then chose for that creation to represent his culture alone by sending him out the universe.

Is it just me or couldn't they have shot some more Kryptonians out into space and maybe preserved things a little more? Also, didn't ANYONE have any frickin' clue that once the world blew up the Phantom Zone would cease to work?

Anyway, let's assume Jor-El's actions are just: didn't he intend for Kal-El to be the bridge between Krypton and Humanity? I'm pretty sure when he said that he didn't mean for Kal-El to blow up the bridge and curse one culture into complete annihilation.

This is what makes hating Zod so tough. Yes, he kind of kills lots of humans and that might be unforgivable but, in a telling scene towards the end, Zod, after seeing his entire civilization die, confesses that his main goal in life was to protect and resurrect his people ... and now he has nothing to protect or resurrect. Is anything more hauntingly sad? Because while Superman can sleep well at night realizing his own philosophy is more popular and, in his own mind, justified (with no chance of being tested), Zod has watched everything he was born for, including some (or most) of the ideals (albeit in a more violent way) of Jor-El (the preservation of Kryptonian culture) die because of ONE man's decision.

Yeah, I'm incensed too!
The girl I saw the film with brought up a great point: would all of the Kryptonians born have been bad? Let's say Zod is dead and Superman can resurrect his species, couldn't he start from scratch and go to another planet and make less-Zod like Kryptonians? While this brings into play even crazier philosophical issues, don't you think those risks are greater than just simply blinking a culture out of existence?

Lastly, you can't help but notice, and this has been mocked aplenty in memes across the internet, that if Superman cares about humans so much, don't you think he'd kind of tone down the city-wide punching? I was reminded of the opening sequence in Team America: World Police where the heroes, after blowing up the entire city to stop the terrorists, scream 'we saved Paris'. Yeah, Superman saves Metropolis but, uh, what is left of it???

Anyway, enough of that malarkey. The film is exciting as shit to watch and the music is top notch; probably some of the best stuff Hans Zimmer has done in years. Plus, has any superhero film had this much Oscar clout in its acting ranks? Russell Crowe (one time Oscar winner, three time nominee), Amy Adams (four time nominee), Kevin Costner (two time winner, three time nominee), Diane Lane (one time nominee), Laurence Fishburne (one time nominee) and Michael Shannon (one time nominee), not to mention well-established, Emmy winning/nominated actors like Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni? Wow. This is some powerhouse acting on display here.

Of course, the winners on hand are, besides Shannon, the incredibly beautiful Antje Traue, who nearly steals the show as Zod's second in command Faora-Ul. I can't emphasize how sexy and badass this woman is in this film; her and Meloni have three altercations in the movie that give you goosebumps.

So do I recommend Man of Steel? Yes. It is a great film to watch, visually, and it at least brings about discussion. And when was the last time a popcorny summer blockbuster did that?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent look at this event film, Will. I agree with much you have to say. about the film. Fascinating take on the Els vs. Zod dichotomy. Here are some of my thoughts on MoS:
    • it is an interesting backstory; made for an intriguing reboot of the franchise
    • Russel Crowe manifested some of General Maximus, too, with his performance and presence
    • Michael Shannon made for a stellar villain and keeps getting better and better in the films I’ve screen
    • the Nolan/Goyer influence a very good one on this franchise
    • I see why a number of folk are talking Costner up for Supporting Actor nom
    • Cavill as Superman was a solid win for casting
    • Diane Lane as the Earth-bound mom another, too
    • a more than solid Lois Lane is critical for any great Supes flick (animated or live action) and Amy Adams, and the writing of the character, in the plus column (and a prime reason ‘Superman Returns’ suffered as J.D. recently wrote up)
    • Chris Meloni’s small character arc was a wonderful touch, and he had the best line reversal in the entire movie

    But what knocks a good bit from a great film, as compared with the 1978 original for its time…

    • blunt force trauma of action sequences – way, way too much. As Hannibal Lector once said,

    “Tedious, very tedious.”

    • my wife complained of too many ‘climaxes’ and I’d have to agree; what, MoS tried to top LOTR: Return of the King for number of false endings?
    • Zimmer’s score of the quiet scenes was good, but overall it disappeared among all those explosions and sound effects
    • and why, oh why, deploy shaky cam at the start…though I’m quietly thankful they limited it to only there
    • the Zack Snyder excesses (especially in making almost two different films in one with the heavy-handed action sequences in the third-act) makes me want to campaign for his removal from future sequels. There, I said it. Keep Nolan & Goyer, though.

    I gave it 3.5 stars, a trend I’m afraid. I reappraised Iron Man 3 and ST: Into Darkness to this same rating after giving them better, too. Good, solid entertainment, but didn’t live up to the hype. It’s been a summer of disappointment in expectations for me with the big tentpole season films, I’m afraid. Belief it or not, the only film that hasn’t disappoint was Fast & Furious 6. And I pretty much expected what I gave it. Again, another 3.5.


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