Sunday, June 16, 2013

You'll Believe a Man Can Trash a City! (Man of Steel)--Spoilers!

You ever notice how, when you have lots of good things to say about something, it seems harder than when you get your back up about a given topic?  When I realized Iron Man 3 wasn't working for me, I actually had to sit up after the film and work through my issues with the movie.



I've been thinking, and talking, a lot about Man of Steel.  Just not here.  The movie gave me a lot to think about, and I think it did a lot of things right, but I've wanted to make sure that I can see the potential warts as other people see them as well, so I've been reading a few less flattering reviews of the movie to "ground" my own opinion.



Let me just get this out of the way--I though Man of Steel was great.  I think it's easily on par with Nolan's Batman movies  (not as good as Dark Knight, but even the rest of the Nolan Batman movies weren't), and one of the better super hero movies that I've seen.

It's not perfect.  Not unlike the Nolan Batman movies, the serious, stylized storytelling isn't as "light" to watch as the Marvel movies.  This isn't a condemnation of the Marvel movies, or a statement of superiority one way or the other, but the tone of the movie, as with the Batman movies, almost requires you to pay attention to the movie, and rules out lightly watching the movie in the background.

Sometimes it hits those thematic beats a bit too hard.  While I think the film makers had to really nail down just how much power is involved when you have multiple Kryptonians flying around, there may have been a skyscraper or three too many that didn't need to be leveled.  I also think that Jonathan's emphasis on Clark hiding his powers until "the time is right" might have gone just a bit farther than it needed to go.

What Worked For Me

Yes, Superman is really strong and can fly and has lots of powers.  You get that from any media you've seen him in.  What you haven't really gotten is just how powerful Superman is, and how far above the mundane his powers scale.  Between Snyder's "violent flight" technique, the ability of the Kryptonians to utilize multiple powers at once in the big fight  (can you say flying while using super strength to punch someone utilizing super speed?), and the fact that our world doesn't hold up well to Kryptonian power, you can't help but really "get" what Superman was talking about in the Justice League animated series when he talks about a world made of paper.



I've never been a fan of the Space Messiah take on Superman. You would think that I wouldn't like the obvious imagery that invoked just this very concept, a connection between the messianic and Superman.  But the touch was very light and very specific.  The stained glass window that evoked specifically Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane worked very well, because it specifically underscored that Clark was agonizing over sacrificing himself for the well being of others, and that he had to have faith that it was the right path to day.

The Space Messiah Digression

Forgive a slight digression.  In some ways, I really enjoy the 1978 movie, and in some ways, I think it saddled Superman with as much baggage as Adam West's Batman. The Space Messiah theme in the 1978 movie and its sequels went a little more like this--Krypton was perfectly evolved, and Jor-El was all knowing and all wise.  Even though he was clearly saving his son by sending him to Earth, Jor-El also knew that his perfect son would do perfect things on Earth to teach the silly apes there how to live the right way, so long as little Kal-El wasn't stupid enough to consider himself one of them, sullying his perfect status as a Kryptonian.



Heck, the theme of almost every movie was that the more distant and "above" humanity Superman remained, the more he could accomplish the impossible.  Bryan Singer almost perfectly completed this thematic beat when he showed that, if Superman just remembered that he could never ever be with his son or the mother of his child, he could even lift an island of Kryptonite into space without killing himself.



So how is this baggage as bad as Batman being associated with Adam West for decades?  To this day, people have it in their head that Superman is this guy that was, from conception, perfect, and that the only way he can do the wrong thing is to act like a human being.  While a lot of versions of Superman have done very well by actually showcasing how human Clark Kent is, and how much his humanity makes him who he is, the biggest media portrayal of Superman for decades was of a perfect Space Messiah that acts like a bumbling, two dimensional fool when he masquerades as a human.

While I still have a certain affection for the 1966 Batman and for the 1978 Superman, they both have very specific quirks, and with that one media version of those iconic characters dominating the public imagination for so long, those quirks get blown way out of proportion, rather than being incorporated into a averaged whole.

Er . . . More Stuff That Worked

The emphasis was firmly on Man of Steel being 1)  a science fiction story, and 2) a super hero story.  There are all sorts of undercurrents and themes you can come up with to put in the story, but if the story isn't primarily those things, I don't think it's going to work.



Jor-El's opening scene was epic, and firmly painted this as a science fiction movie.  Krypton isn't this sterile, sacred utopia.  Thank goodness there wasn't a crystal in sight.  Krypton was alive, and seemed like a real place, because it had colors and geography and native animals.  It had a history that went beyond, "we were perfect, excpet for Zod and his bunch, and then we blew up."



I was also happy that Snyder and company seemed to be able to pull of what DC has been struggling with for a few years now. How do you create tension between the military and the powers that be and Superman, without undermining Superman as the best of the best good guy, or making The Military as the bad guys.  At DC, failing to answer this question well has pretty much led to Sam Lane turning into Thunderbolt Ross.

In this movie, it makes perfect sense that the military is worried about Kal-El, and it makes perfect sense that he's worried about what the military will do if he turns himself over to them or trusts them.  The fact that the movie actually spend time on making sure that you saw this convergence in the middle was the best resolution to this situation that they could have come up with.



Another "coming together" moment was that while Jor-El clearly saw Kal-El as someone that could lead humanity and guide them to something better, he also recognized that Krypton made mistakes, and that Kal-El's greatest strength was going to be learning from the mistakes of Krypton and Earth and finding a better way than both.

What Could Have Worked Better




I think by the time we saw Smallville trashed, and saw what the World Engine was doing to Metropolis, we had a good idea of the stakes of the movie, and how seriously the Kryptonians could trash a place.  There was a bit of overkill with the number of buildings that fell during the Zod and Superman fight.

I guess at this point in time, I'm so used to the Superman origin that it's a given to me that Jonathan and Martha taught Clark to be a good man, and that it's because of them that he had that drive to help people whenever he could.  The movie didn't spend a lot of time on this.  It did show us that Jonathan and Martha loved Clark and cared for him, and it really emphasized that Jonathan was worried about Clark using his powers publicly.



While I assumed that the message from Jonathan was always, "be a good man and do the right thing, but never let anyone see you use your powers until you figure out your grand purpose," I can see how some people may not have taken it as a given that he ever taught Clark that first part.  I've seen people criticize the movie because they felt that Jonathan was only teaching Clark to hide, and it's a valid point, but I think it was  more a matter of what they were emphasizing to tie into the larger story.  In other words, I'm not assuming that everything important that Jonathan ever taught Clark was shown in the movie, but I get where you could acquire that idea.

I do think that the scene where Jonathan died could have been done better.  It felt too much like Jonathan was intentionally sacrificing himself to force Clark to realize that his life (Jonathan's) wasn't as important as Clark's destiny, "and by gum, I'll prove it by making you watch me get killed by this tornado that you can't do anything about."

I think it would have been possible to pull off that same concept by having Jonathan go somewhere else to save someone, and never come back, while telling Clark not to risk it himself, and had the same impact on Clark, avoided the weird "hey Clark, look me in the eyes while I die saving this dog to prove a point" moment.

The big reveal of Clark showing up at the Planet was great to close out the story, but doing something, anything to look less like Superman wearing glasses would have been good.  His hair, posture, and mannerisms all looked the same as Superman's.  I know he doesn't have the greatest cover for a super hero, but several sources have shown him at least slicking back his hair and holding himself a little differently.  Maybe next movie.

Crisis on Infinite Movies

I like that Superman gets to be the big reveal, the thing that changes everything.  He should be.  But it does mean that any hero that comes after him doesn't get the same treatment that Snyder wanted for Superman, meaning that their movies have to reference the events of this movie.  No one else's movie can be 100% only about them, because the world knows, in a big way, there we are not alone, there are super heroes, and there are really big threats out there.  None of that can be credibly ignored.

That having been said, I'm a lot more optimistic that we'll get to see good DC Comics based movies that don't involve a rich vigilante from Gotham City.



Hm . . . I wonder if that Guillermo del Toro "DC Supernatural" movie will be set in this universe?


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