Wednesday, June 19, 2013

That Superman Movie...

Let me start off by saying that I liked Man of Steel.  The film boasted stunning visuals, strong casting, and some very bold twists on the familiar Superman mythology.  But although I found the movie enjoyable, I didn't love it, and I was really hoping that the movie would have evoked such affection in me in spite of my skepticism going in.  We diehard DC fans have had to watch all the Marvel-philes bask in the glory of their cinematic success for over a decade, so we really want the few Batman and Superman movies we get to be something special. I think I appreciate Superman more than most people, and I'll admit that I have my own conceptions of what he should be (without dropping spoilers, I think his portrayal in this movie at times contradicted my beliefs about how Superman should act).  But my qualms about Man of Steel aren't so much about any drastic changes they introduced to the Superman mythology so much as they are about the cinematic structure of the film.  Basically, the film didn't quite realize the fullness of its potential. Unlike Jor-El, who hoped that his only son might dream to be more than what society intended, Man of Steel seems a slave to the conventions of contemporary "epic" action movies.

There's a number of really nice little scenes in the film, especially the flashbacks to young Clark Kent's coming-of-age moments in Smallville.  My favorite is when he is upset that the world seems "too big" (since the poor kid can literally see and hear everything around him), and his mother instructs him to focus on specifics and thus "make it small."  There's such great wisdom and power in that line, and I wish Zack Snyder and crew had heeded their own advice through the last half of the movie.

The last half of the movie is certainly a visual sight to behold, leaving no doubt that the special effects crew squeezed every penny out of their reported $225 million budget.  Super-powered entities punch each other around, stuff blows up, buildings get knocked down, and alien death machines try to turn the planet into the equivalent of Gravity Man's stage from Mega Man 5. I love all that stuff as much as the next guy, but this movie's biggest problem is that for all the destruction that takes place in the name of "Action!," little of it really has any emotional resonance.

Snyder's Man of Steel takes place on an ambitious scale; there's epic battles that take place in the glistening skyline of Metropolis, a little farm in Kansas, the frigid wasteland of the Arctic, and a galaxy far, far away.  But for what feels like an hour, all the locales kind of blend into one another as Superman's various super-battles seem to take place simultaneously.  At one point, I was confused on where exactly Superman was supposed to be while all the action was going on someplace else.  He was off risking his life trying to destroy some death machine in a remote spot over the Indian Ocean while a building almost fell on some key staff members of the Daily Planet.  But suddenly, he was conveniently back in Metropolis in time to catch Lois Lane who just so happened to be falling out of an airplane.  (A blatant Mighty Mouse homage probably wouldn't have been out of place there.)

The plot featured some fantastic moral dilemmas for Superman such as whether he ought to secure the survival of his Kryptonian race or else doom his blood brethren to extinction because such a fate might be in the best interests of the the Earthlings who raised him.  That's some pathos almost worthy of Shakespeare!  Regrettably, all the emotional weight of that decision was thrown by the wayside in the name of packing the movie with seemingly endless fight scenes and "disaster porn" (that was accomplished comic scribe Mark Waid's term).  We never really had time to worry about how Superman would solve his no-win situation; there was always another building toppling over to distract us from feeling any anxiety.

This movie had some clever ideas on how to do Superman "different but good" in the year 2013. However, I can't help but think that Snyder may have decided to quit work early on this flick and just entrusted the CGI wizards to finish out the 2.5 hour run-time with oodles of action that doesn't necessarily have any point to it.  That mentality has become the industry standard for most big-budget action movies over the past decade or so, and that's too bad since Superman deserves better.  Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner famously made us believe that a man can fly way back in 1978, while Snyder and crew apparently wanted to convince us that a flying man can single-handedly fight off an alien invasion and devastate a major American city in the process.  Truth be told, Joss Whedon and those plucky Avengers did a much better job at damage control and collateral damage than Superman (and given all their wisecrackin' antics, they probably had more fun doing it too).  And despite all the flurries of furious fisticuffs exchanged between Superman and Zod, sometimes it seemed the characters (and, by extension, we the audience) forgot why exactly they hate each other so much.

Back when Nicholas Meyer directed The Wrath of Khan in 1982, he had to make do with a reduced budget and a general populace that doubted whether the Star Trek franchise had any long-term viability.  Meyer's strategy was to make the most of subtlety so that the audience's focus was always fixated on the personal conflict between Khan and Captain Kirk. Though the two spacemen never physically confronted each other during the course of the film, even the mundane scenes in that movie resonate on an emotional level.  Because Meyer was of the opinion that the best acting usually takes place in confined, small spaces, most of that film's "Action!" took place within a small room, and entire sets were reused with simple cosmetic changes.  The end result is that nothing distracts you from being aware of how much the protagonist and antagonist hate each.  That's the cinematic application of Ma Kent's advice to take the great big world and "make it small."

Man of Steel is an exciting film to sit through once, but I don't really have any compelling reason to sit through it again. It's a movie that hits you in the face with everything on the first ride, and I didn't sense enough subtlety to warrant giving it a closer inspection.  Even though this movie wasn't the film I hoped it would be, I hope it continues succeeding in the box office in order to lay a sustainable foundation for sequels and the off-chance of a good Justice League movie. Lukewarm "critical" reviews notwithstanding, most people I know who have seen the movie say they like it. To borrow an expression from Nolan's The Dark Knight (and I'll defend that movie as high cinema no matter what anybody says): Man of Steel may not be the movie long-time DC fans like me deserve, but it might just be the one we need right now.