Friday, June 14, 2013

"Man of Steel" Review - Swing of the Pendulum

I don't really think a spoiler warning is necessary for this film, just for the record. There's one bit I'll probably discuss towards the end that I'll mark off with a spoiler warning, but this isn't the sort of film that has a lot of surprises or plot twists in store. However, if you'd rather go into this movie blind, I'll sum up my feelings by saying that if you feel like you would enjoy watching people punch each other through buildings, this movie pretty much sets the new standard for people-getting-punched-through-buildings in film. That alone was enough for me, but if that doesn't sound entertaining to you, you probably won't enjoy this movie. OK, here we go...

I generally liked "Superman Returns", which came out over 5 years ago, but it certainly had its share of problems. While it certainly understood and appreciated the first two Richard Donner films, it treated the subject matter with a disproportionate weight that felt unsettling. The characters felt too serious and burdened with responsibility to really make the film feel uplifting. The best moments came from Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor, but since his evil plan was so dull, it was hard to care even about him.

The way most people articulate their disappointment with "Superman Returns", however, is by stating that in the span of two and a half hours, Superman never punched anything. That may be a bit low-brow and a gross oversimplification, but it's hard to deny.

Bryan Singer's Superman was a shield. A protector. He would swoop in, catch things, take the hits, and save the day. The only memorable fight sequence for me was when Superman was weakened by Lex Luthor's Kryptonite-lined continent and Lex Luthor wailed on him without any resistance. It was a powerful sequence, but Superman couldn't fight back. Granted, that is pretty much the only situation in which Lex Luthor would dare fight Superman, but it doesn't make for terribly compelling cinema.

So when Zack Snyder took the helm for "Man of Steel", we figured that this time around, if nothing else, at least we'd get to see Superman punch things.

And in fact, we do! Indeed, Superman punches a lot of things. Hooray!

However, one might say that this Superman has swung in the opposite direction from Bryan Singer's. While he spends all of his time fighting and taking direct action, he almost never acknowledges the massive amounts of destruction happening around him. This is not a Superman that will take his eye off his opponent to save a bus full of nuns and orphans.

This is actually a rather interesting philosophical point. Can we have a Superman that can both save people and face his opponents head-on? I'm not sure we can. If Superman can literally save anyone without his ability to fight suffering as a consequence, it becomes difficult to develop a sense of difficulty. As I've said before, Superman is about empowerment and what we decide to do with that power. In "Superman Returns", he decided to use that power to save people. In "Man of Steel", he uses that power to beat the crap out of things.

So yes, we have a Superman that is less Goku and more Powerpuff Girls when it comes to collateral damage, but it is important to note that Superman has only just started doing this gig. Besides, he wasn't in much of a position to "take the fight elsewhere". While Zod and his allies certainly needed Kal-El, they knew that he cared about his adopted planet. If he flew off to an sparsely populated area, I'd wager that Zod and Faora merely would have started killing civilians until he came back. This wasn't really a fight he had the power to relocate, even if he wanted to. Still, I think it would have gone a long way to see him try.

But that's a bit of a nit-pick. The larger issues of the film are more in regards to the first half or so. Everything feels a bit out-of-order. The scene where he learns his origin and dons the suit should have felt like an earned payoff, but instead it just felt like a thing that happened. It was crammed in the middle of the first act for no discernible reason.

In fact, pretty much anything that could be considered a "problem" with this film can be chalked up to the screenplay. Basically everything else is golden.

The actors are fantastic, though Michael Shannon maybe tries to chew the scenery a little too hard (but he is Zod). The music is absolutely riveting and (for me anyway) completely blows away John Williams' over-used themes and score. And the action scenes. Oh good lord the action scenes.

Pretty much everyone who was concerned about the choice of Zack Snyder to direct this film was concerned that he would do that speed-ramping thing where it goes into slo-mo and then speeds up. I personally love that trick, but I guess I'm in the minority there. Even so, it appears that Snyder listened to the criticism and gave us action that never slows down for a second, and even more remarkably, every ounce of it is given an incredible amount of weight and clarity. Each punch and throw feels visceral and the fights have an amazing sense of space and scale. The visual direction of this is easily the best I've seen in an action film since the "Matrix" franchise. No more shaky cameras that are zoomed in too much and obscure most of the action. This is top-notch stuff and Snyder has proven to be in a class of his own.

And really, not everything in the screenplay is bad either. David S. Goyer has never been a bad writer. "Dark City", "Blade II", and "Batman Begins" are a few of my favorites. And in "Man of Steel", though he certainly decided to change more than a few aspects of the mythology, I think that most of those changes work.

First of all, we differentiate between Kryptonian super-strength, which is granted from the difference in gravity between Krypton and Earth, and the rest of the super powers, which are granted from having adapted to Earth's atmosphere and exposure to the yellow sun. I personally like this touch, as it gives Superman a different power-set from most of his enemies and a weakness that doesn't involve glowing radioactive rocks. That's not to say Kryptonite may never have a role to play in future films, but for the purposes of this film, just being exposed to Krypton's atmospheric composition is enough to weaken him.

Next, Lois Lane finds out pretty quickly who Superman is. I love this. The idea that Lois Lane, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who can get to the bottom of just about any mystery thrown at her, can't trace Superman back to Smallville is just kind of ridiculous. And the idea that she'll cover for Clark at the Daily Planet also explains how no one else who interacts with Superman on a regular basis would figure him out. Making Lois more of an accomplice really works to this film's advantage and it's a welcome change. As a character herself, she is definitely a step up from Kate Bosworth. Amy Adams may not necessarily "look" the part, but she nails Lois' unstoppable curiosity and inability to flinch in the face of great peril. I wouldn't say she's "perfect", but she's definitely a good fit for the role.

While we're talking Daily Planet staff, I love that they cast Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. He is great in the role. Also, while I wasn't paying enough attention through the credits to verify this, it looks like they gender-swapped Jimmy Olsen. Now the character seems to be Jenny Olsen. That's pretty cool. I'm all for shaking up established character traits such as race and gender and I hope to see more of it.

As for the villains, I've mentioned Michael Shannon's Zod, and if I was to rank him amongst other superhero villains in film, I'd say he's at about the level of Blonsky in "The Incredible Hulk". He's an interesting character and performed admirably, and he's always mesmerizing when he performs, but he lacks a certain degree of subtlety and I just don't know if his character arc matches up particularly well with Superman's arc or the themes of the film itself. The film tries to be about what we choose to be and what society forges us to be, and while Superman is supposed to be a being created explicitly to be whatever he wanted to be, by making him for that express purpose, it kind of ironically defeats the purpose. See, in this new version of Krypton, all life is grown in pods rather than birthed naturally, and all Kryptonians are engineered to fit certain roles. Zod was forged a soldier, dedicated with protecting Krypton and its people. And while Superman is supposedly the first natural-born Kryptonian in centuries (which I don't believe for a second), he was birthed specifically to stand as a symbol of hope, which I'm sorry to say means he was burdened with purpose just as much as any other Kryptonian. If you wanted to create a child that could decide his own destiny, you probably shouldn't have given him a magic rock that explicitly detailed what his destiny is. Just sayin'.

Zod's second-in-command, Faora, is easily the best thing about the movie. She is cold and ruthless, over-the-top and yet subdued, oozing with presence and intimidation from every pore. As if that weren't enough, every fight scene she is in is friggin' amazing. She's like the Terminator if the Terminator could fly and move faster than a speeding bullet. She is glorious and I'm so glad that she probably survived the events of this film. Antje Traue needs to get a lot more acting work.

In fact, Faora is so good, that she almost sets the bar too high for the final battle with Zod to top. Fortunately, the film finds ways.

OK, this is the part where I bring up a spoiler. It's not really all that major (it's not a plot twist or anything like that), but it's one of those moments that is probably more effective if you don't know it's coming. So consider this your one and only SPOILER WARNING.

So Superman is fighting Zod. Then he gets Zod in a headlock. Then Zod starts using his heat-vision to try and kill some random bystanders because he's evil. Superman is doing everything in his power to hold Zod back, but it's not enough.

At this point you can probably tell where this is going. After all, what's a Superman to do? Zod has lost everything. Clark has no way of containing Zod now that he's imploded his ship to send the other Kryptonians off to the Phantom Zone. He lacks Kryptonite or anything else to subdue Zod without killing him. Zod is not afraid of death and he is actively going to murder innocent people.

I know that Superman has always been non-lethal. Part of having unlimited power is that you can afford to be non-lethal without compromising your effectiveness in saving lives. However, that's not terribly believable.

And I'm not talking about "realism" here. There's nothing realistic about "Man of Steel", and thank God for that. But while Superman is a power fantasy, power fantasies should never be about getting to avoid difficult choices. If anything, that's precisely the sort of thing that makes Superman stories boring for people. It's like when you're a kid and you and your best friend are playing with action figures. You pick Batman and she picks Superman. She says, "Superman beats up Batman!" Then you counter, "Well Batman has a piece of Green Kryptonite!" Then she counters, "Well Superman brought his Kryptonite-blasting gun with him!"

It's hard to make the argument that it's more realistic for Batman to have a glowing green rock that weakens his alien friend than it is for Superman to have a weapon specifically designed for destroying such a thing, but even a child can tell that one of those two things is "cheating". If Superman can just side-step his weaknesses, then he might as well have no weaknesses at all, and if he can get through a tight spot through luck and determination, then why even bother?

This moment with Zod is a character-defining moment and giving Superman a way out of it would have been cheating. It was perfectly reasonable that Zod, a man just as powerful as him, would be able to force Superman into a situation where he would either have to let innocent people die, or use lethal force against Zod. This was clearly not an easy decision, but to the narrative's credit, I couldn't really see a way out for Superman. He only just barely had Zod in his grasp, and it was a tenuous hold at best. His options were limited. At that point, if something were to come along to prevent him from having to make the hard choice, it just would have undermined the drama of that moment.

So yes, Superman snaps Zod's neck, killing him, and freeing the innocent squishy humans.

Some people are really upset about this. They are calling this a betrayal. "Superman doesn't kill!" I get that, but as with the TV show "Arrow", just because a character generally doesn't want to kill, doesn't mean that they would never kill someone. I'm not sure what these people want. Do they think Superman would have let those people die? Do they think Superman would have found some other way to stop Zod? I think they are just upset that Superman was forced to make this decision in the first place, and so I have little sympathy for them.

However, others have merely claimed that this scene fails because it is undermined by the fact that Superman apparently doesn't give much of a crap about innocent bystanders before this moment. That it's reminiscent of the part in "Batman Begins" where Batman refuses to kill a criminal in cold blood, but then burns down the building and probably kills the guy anyway. That Superman suddenly caring about these four or five humans after probably thousands of others have died seems difficult to swallow.

This is actually a somewhat valid point. While I certainly don't think Superman could have done much to reduce the collateral damage, it would have been good to see him try. To see him genuinely affected by the loss of human life as a result of his relative powerlessness would have really helped us understand how far Superman would need to be pushed to take a life. It would have given this moment more weight, showing that you don't have to give Superman a glowing rock to demonstrate his weakness.

It is worth noting that in the Alan Moore story, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", Superman was also forced to take a life, but as penance, he used Gold Kryptonite, permanently removing his powers, and he went into retirement. From that perspective I can see a fair argument, but that version of Superman had the privilege of knowing that all of his major villains had been subdued and that there were still many other heroes to take his place. I don't know if this Superman feels he has the right to give up his responsibility knowing that the world could sorely use someone like him. I would like to see him struggle with this in future outings, though.

All in all, I still think this scene works because Superman demonstrates genuine frustration and sadness as a result. He hates having taken a life, even a life such as Zod's. He hates that the choice was stolen from him. He hates that he's alone once again. But he has shown that what matters to him isn't the moral high ground, it's the lives of the people he's dedicated to protecting. And that, for me, shows that Goyer and Snyder still get Superman, even if this is the sort of moment that seems tragically uncharacteristic for him. If anything, it's the ballsiest moment of the film, and I love it for that.


So yeah, this movie is flawed, but in an unusual way where specific elements of it work exceptionally well, while the product as a whole suffers from a certain lack of cohesion and clarity. To be blunt, the story could best be described as "stuff happens and then Superman fights things".

Still, Superman films have always had problems. As I've said in the past, Superman is one of those properties that people want to use because of his icon status, but it's a property that every studio exec thinks needs to be "improved" or made "relatable". What makes this film a triumph in my mind is that it managed to go all-out in focusing on Superman more as a character rather than as a symbol or an icon. In fact, I'd say that the Nolan Batman films treated their character more as an icon than this film did. It's difficult for me to separate my knowledge of the Superman mythos from my judgment of his film, but I feel like this film would work really well for someone who knew nothing about Superman. It takes very little for granted and really tries to build this character from the ground up. I think there's something admirable about that, even if the film doesn't necessarily work for all audiences equally.

It also works as a good starting point for a shared universe. The film makes a big enough deal about Superman being the first of his kind and how it kind of scares the powers that be that it does a decent job of opening the door for more like him. One can see this guy inspiring droves of freaks that have hidden themselves from the spotlight to also don a cape and costume and fight evil.

That said, don't bother staying through the credits. There's no "Nick Fury" world-building moment in this film. I'm guessing DC and WB didn't want to put their chips down until they knew that this version of Superman would work. Still, it was moderately disappointing.

So overall, this is a really fun film if you're a fan of superhero action. I do wish that we could find something in between "Superman Returns" and "Man of Steel". A film that respects Superman, shows his compassionate side, and knows how to earn the big moments, but also shows the character's aggressive side and treats him like his own person rather than the archetype he has become in most people's minds. Maybe a film like that is in our future, but only time will tell.

I will say that I would be eager to see Zack Snyder helm another superhero film. It's hard for me to blame him for anything that went wrong in this film. Sure, the director should probably be willing to chuck a script that isn't working, but given DC and WB's obsession with Nolan and Goyer, I'm guessing that demanding rewrites might have severely impacted the production and maybe would have gotten him ousted. I'd say that Snyder made the best possible film he could have with the screenplay he was given, and that's worthy of praise in my mind.