But How Does He Save?

Man of Steel isn’t an unqualified success, but get this, nerds: it’s still the second best movie about Superman.

Lots of comic book nerds are upset about the new Superman movie Man of Steel. They say it’s tone-deaf and not true to the spirit of the comics and the spirit of the character and it’s not even a super-hero movie at all.

And they’re mostly (but not entirely) wrong. It’s far from flawless, but it’s perfectly fine as a post-2001 franchise reboot. And even with all its problems, it’s still the second best Superman movie ever made. But that’s admittedly low bar, because Superman is an absolutely terrible character to be making movies about.

Before anybody argues that point, I’m going to remind you that the best Superman movie ever made ends with Superman flying around the earth so fast that he turns back time. Not to mention the scene with Lois speak-singing “Can You Read My Mind?”.

You won’t believe that kind of thing will fly in 2013, and we comic book nerds have ourselves (and Richard Donner’s Superman, for that matter) to blame for that. Decades of being defensive about comics being “not just for kids” means that nobody’s going to approve of Silver Age hijinks anymore. Or the Batdance. Or, for the love of Pete Ross, amnesia kiss powers and a de-powering ray with inside-or-outside-the-booth settings. It also means we get movies like the first two X-Men and The Avengers, though, so: net win.

The reasons that stuff worked in Superman were because: a) it was the 70s; and b) Superman wasn’t really about Superman, it was about the boundless spectacle and wonder of comic books. The most successful modern adaptations of the Superman story have been either: a romantic comedy disguised as a Superman story, a millennial Buffy-inspired teen action/drama, or animated.

Stories about Superman are notoriously difficult to make interesting, because he can do just about anything, and because there’s little dramatic conflict to be found with a character who always does the right thing. It’s easier to do in comics and animation than live action, but even in the comics, the most memorable “classic” Superman stories have been meta-stories.

So I don’t think that a more straightforward, less fantastic version of Superman — comic creator Mark Waid said that Man of Steel was fine as a sci-fi movie, but not as a superhero movie — was a bad decision at all. I’d say it was all but essential in an environment where comic book movies have become the norm instead of a novelty. I’ve complained several times about the Dark Knight series for being so preoccupied with making Batman “realistic,” but I think that approach mostly works for Man of Steel. I definitely don’t think Batman needs to be campy, but I do believe that when you remove that layer of the fantastic, it becomes just a story about a mentally disturbed billionaire orphan who dresses up in a weird suit and beats up psychopaths in Chicago. Even when you try to make Superman “realistic” though, it’s still about an alien from a doomed planet who hides among Earthlings in order to save them. The fantasy’s baked in.

Just a Friend from Another Star

Usually, Superman’s origin is just used as back-story to set up the interesting part of the story, which is his adventures in Metropolis. In Man of Steel, they went with the idea that Superman’s being an alien is the interesting part of the story. It becomes a mash-up of Superman, Superman II, and, for some reason, David Lynch’s Dune.

When I’d heard that the new Superman reboot was going to be executive produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder, I’d expected to see the worst excesses of both. All the dark, ponderous joylessness of the Dark Knight series combined with Snyder’s pretty-but-vapid mishmash of scenes designed to appeal to sexually confused fourteen year old boys.

And Man of Steel is indeed almost entirely humorless. I counted exactly two moments of light-heartedness in the entire thing: one was a character simply stating the obvious (that Henry Cavill as Superman is impossibly hot); the other was a startlingly tone-deaf attempt at romantic banter between two characters standing in the desolate ruins of what was once a city with millions of people.

And the movie is indeed full of scenes that try far too hard to be spectacular and just end up feeling stupid. Especially during the last thirty minutes or so, which stops being “climactic clash of titans” and starts just being “Tim the Enchanter.”

But somehow, the excesses cancel each other out. As much as I tend to dislike Snyder’s movies, they are usually filled with some fantastic imagery, and that layer of fantasy helps keep a “realistic” take on Superman from being just tedious. And as much as I tend to dislike Nolan’s movies, he is an extremely good storyteller, and he along with screenwriter David Goyer manage to make the entire thing make sense. More or less. It establishes a central theme for the movie — pre-destination versus choice. And that’s always been one of the most interesting things about the Superman character: he’s not a hero because of his powers, but because he always chooses to do the right thing.

(Spoilers follow)

Can You Break My Neck?

The two most common complaints about the movie have been about the crass and excessive disaster-porn that make up most of the last half of the movie, and the climactic scene in which Superman kills General Zod by snapping his neck.

There’s definitely something to be said for the former. The scenes of destruction just go on and on, even after huge stretches of Metropolis are shown to be a smoldering, post-Apocalyptic crater. And the way many of the scenes are filmed is simply tasteless. They show frightened people running down towards the camera as clouds of smoke come barreling down the street and skyscrapers collapse in the distance; it’s unimaginable that it wasn’t intended to evoke memories of 9/11. Even without the offensive imagery, it’s numbing in its excessiveness. It feels like someone wanted to see stuff get blowed up real good and didn’t know when to quit.

That said, it does strike me as deeply hypocritical to complain about the concept of a city being devastated in a superhero movie. What did people think was happening in The Avengers, or any of the thousands of Superman stories that have larger-than-life threats to the Earth that only Superman can stop? The message from these complaints seems to be that mass destruction is fine as long as you don’t actually show stuff being destroyed. Violence is okay as long as it’s without consequence. It’s A-Team morality: you can show someone firing a missile into a truck and the truck rolling down into a ravine, as long as there’s a shot of everyone getting out of the truck and brushing themselves off.

And it’s similar to the complaints about Superman killing General Zod. Superman never kills people! Except, of course, in Superman II, where he breaks all of the bones in Zod’s hand and then tosses him (now de-powered) down a bottomless pit. Where it’s played for laughs; the villain getting his comeuppance. Unless I suppose the Fortress of Solitude has cushions and safety mats at the bottom of all its bottomless pits?

According to Comics Alliance, Christopher Nolan wasn’t happy with the scene, either. Which is kind of odd, since the entire theme of the movie made the ending inevitable. It’s not a subtle screenplay; Zod comes right out and says exactly what his motivation is, and it’s to “preserve Krypton” no matter the cost. He’s programmed to do it. In a movie that’s about Superman as an alien more than Superman as a generic all-powerful super-hero, it’s the point that defines his character: he’s not just a super-powered outsider sent to protect the Earth, like Martian Manhunter or Doctor Manhattan. He was given the choice between Krypton and Earth, and he chose Earth. He tells a soldier, “I grew up in Kansas.” (Again, not a subtle screenplay).

To compare it with Superman II again: as fantastic as Terrence Stamp’s performance as Zod was, the character was still nothing more than a sneering super-villain. There was the potential for an interesting message there, in that it’s not Superman’s powers that make him great, but his morality. The movie didn’t do anything with that, however, and even violated that entire premise with its finale: it’s only by keeping his powers and removing theirs that he’s able to defeat the bad guys. I’ll take a scene with him frustrated and outraged at being forced to kill an unstoppable monster, over a scene where he uses an implausible gimmick to trick the bad guys into losing their powers and then casually throwing the villain to his death.

The real problem with all the destruction in Man of Steel is that it undermines Superman’s role as Earth’s protector and savior, since he does a pretty lousy job of saving people. While they’re casually blowing up buildings and crashing jet fighters into streets and tossing each other through architecture, there’s almost no consideration for who all is getting caught in the crossfire. (That’s one of the reasons The Avengers worked better as a super-hero movie; during the finale, half the team stayed behind just to rescue people). When Superman catches Lois after she’s thrown from the tail end of a bomber, it doesn’t seem heroic so much as inept. He’s only rescuing the important people. Sorry, Richard Schiff! That’s what you get for being a supporting character!

You’ll Believe A Dong Can Fly

So far, I’ve just said “better than Superman II,” which is a very low bar to set. What about Man of Steel makes it any good on its own merits?

Here’s what I disliked about the movie:

  • Kal-El as Messiah: Superman as Secular Jesus isn’t a new idea, and if it’s done subtly it can actually be a good idea. Man of Steel doesn’t do it subtly. Instead, we’re told that he’s 33 years old, he has to walk the earth on his own to test himself and find his purpose, and there are lots of scenes with him floating in mid-air, legs together and arms outstretched. For anyone in the audience who still doesn’t get it, there’s a scene in the church with him framed against stained glass depictions of Christ.
  • It’s Not an S, It means Exposition: Kudos to Russell Crowe for actually walking and flying on things and jumping around, unlike Brando’s pontificating in a white pantsuit. But an unforgivably big chunk of the movie is Jor-El just repeating back-story that we’ve already heard while CG nanobots recreate backdrops from the BioShock games behind him.
  • Tentacle Boredom: Apparently, Krypton exploded because they’d over-mined the planet’s core for its rich supply of tiresome CG effects. They overdid it with the liquid-metal display things, but it’s somewhat forgivable as consistent alien art direction. Where it’s not okay is when you have Superman fighting character-less CG tentacles for what seems like an hour, while all the interesting villains are literally on the other side of the planet.
  • Would You Just Put the Peg in the Hole Already: When Jor-El was explaining phantom gates to Lois Lane, it looked like she was actually going to get the chance for some action hero stuff for once, instead of just being The Woman Superman Keeps Rescuing. But as it turned out, all she did was say “phantom gates” to a couple of people, and then try to put a pentagonal peg into a pentagonal hole. And fail to do it, until she fell out of the plane so that a man could come in and figure out what was the problem.
  • Smallville Moments Brought to you by the Foundation for a Better Life: There were tons of cool, albeit disconnected, moments designed simply to be iconic, and several of the best were used in the trailer. But that means there were also several cheesy moments, like young Clark running around the Kent farm using a red towel as a cape, while someone played a heartwarming tune on a piano. Or the aforementioned scene in a church, which went nowhere and accomplished nothing.
  • Everything’s repeated, and everything’s told a second time: I can’t think of a single plot point, character description, or concept that was delivered once and left to stand on its own. Every single thing, from the fact that Kal-El was Krypton’s first traditional birth in centuries, to the hand-waving explanation of how to defeat General Zod, was repeated at least twice.
  • Krypton as 70s Prog Rock Album Cover: I had a similar problem with Sucker Punch, where the imagery was kind of cool while still feeling somehow familiar and unoriginal. Like an album cover, or a painting in OMNI magazine. Krypton gets similar treatment here, but it’s hard to be too upset about it, because it’s one of the first attempts to make Krypton actually interesting, instead of just “alien.” (Grant Morrison’s new Action Comics has done a lot with it, as well). And it’s better, albeit less memorable, than just saying “CRYSTALS!” for everything and making all the equipment look like stuff from The Container Store.

But here’s what I liked:

  • Outstanding casting: Henry Cavill, in addition to being astoundingly hot, does an excellent job as Superman. As a friend said on Facebook, he does all the standard Superman poses but somehow manages to make them look natural. As he’s discovering his powers, he genuinely seems like an alien; when he’s in Smallville, he genuinely seems human. Laurence Fishburne is excellent as Perry White, an unexpected bit of casting for what’s usually a cartoonish character. Diane Lane is another bit of unexpected casting as Martha Kent, and it’s one of the most honest and believable portrayals of that character that I’ve ever seen. Amy Adams is naturally fantastic in everything without even trying. And Russell Crowe is very, very handsome.
  • The Top Gun Effect: Ever since 300, Zack Snyder’s movies have always had this layer of homophobia about them, but I’ve never been able to take it too seriously. I mean, Frank Miller can go screw himself, but Snyder’s take has never struck me as malignant, but just a kind of adolescent posturing. And whether it’s true or not — I’m refusing to read any interviews with Snyder because I desperately want it to be true — it’s hilarious to me to think that he keeps trying to make gung-ho men’s movies that inadvertently turn out hopelessly gay. In Man of Steel, we get a shirtless and impossibly ripped Clark Kent — who just seconds earlier was literally flaming — grunting as he holds up the burning remains of an oil platform, and the camera focuses on his abs as if it were a Calvin Klein ad. Before that, back on Krypton, the movie dispensed with the two-dimensional-pentagon version of the Phantom Zone and instead had Zod and his posse imprisoned in cocoons and sent to a spaceship. And the scene looks exactly like a fleet of dildos launching into the air. I guess this all should be considered a negative, but I just can’t help thinking it’s charmingly inept.
  • Lois Isn’t An Idiot: Yes, she goes out in sub-freezing temperatures and climbs along a crumbling cliff without telling anyone where she is. And the “comparing dicks” line was glaring as Dialogue A Man Would Write. But for the most part, she’s shown to be smart, capable, and fearless, without overcompensating too much to make her seem super-human.
  • “Welcome to the Planet.”: I loved Lois’s last line to Clark Kent at the end of the movie, both as a double entendre and as the absolutely perfect way to sum up the first movie and set up their relationship for the second. I’d been worried, earlier on, that they’d completely blown the Lois & Clark relationship by having her be the first one to discover him in the Kryptonian ship, as opposed to him finding the Fortress of Solitude by himself. But it ended up perfectly fitting in, again, with the central theme of “Is he an alien or is he an Earthling?” And it solved what’s long been the biggest problem of Superman: how can Lois not recognize Clark Kent as Superman without being a complete mental deficient?
  • “You are my son.”: Kevin Costner’s voice cracks as he delivers this line, and his delivery is absolutely perfect. It’s so good it makes up for any number of bad English accents, and almost makes up for Waterworld
  • Superman: Birthright: Mark Waid was taking partial credit for his story being the inspiration for much of Man of Steel. I haven’t yet read it, so I can’t comment on that, but I do like that Man of Steel takes Superman’s origin story, which has been told over and over so many times that I’d thought there was no way to make it interesting, and makes it interesting. Having him as an adult thinking back on his life in Smallville means that we see the pivotal moments that define his character, without having to slog through a story we’ve already seen dozens of times.

So on the whole, I say it’s a positive. Based on the several mentions of Lexcorp in the background scenery (again, nothing in the movie is left to stand on its own), I predict that they’re going to try to give this the same arc as the Batman movies: origin story, strong second part focusing on the hero’s most famous villain, and then some kind of meta-textual finale to end it. If the second movie manages to be as good as The Dark Knight, then we may finally see DC able to hold its own against Marvel in the movie franchise business. I already liked Man of Steel more than I liked Batman Begins, so I’m really looking forward to what comes next.

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