Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Official Signal Watch TL; DR "Man of Steel" Discussion

I went to the midnight show of Man of Steel and returned home in the wee hours.  I left kind of a rambling initial reaction here.  I went to work, I came home.  I've seen the movie again (in 3D IMAX with Simon, Angela and Jamie), and I've had time to process the film much, much more.

And, since that first post, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach commentary on the movie.  As this will be one of my final posts going into hiatus, we might as well talk about this movie as the intersection between the two major topics of this blog: film and Superman.

A long time ago someone asked me why I cared that DC was getting rid of Superman's red shorts in the New 52, and the answer is something like this:

If you don't embrace a Superman that is wearing red shorts outside his blue tights, you're either vaguely or explicitly embarrassed of Superman.   Likely, what gets you is what you might see as his naivete, or the ridiculousness of a man who would wear not just the red shorts, but the suit itself.

The primary reason to get rid of the shorts is to ensure Superman can be taken seriously.   The red shorts are the Superman who pulls the proverbial cat from the tree, helps old ladies across the street and smiles broadly while bullets ricochet off his chest while ineffectual mugs named things like "Lefty" and "Bruno" realize their bank heist in the middle of the day in downtown Metropolis has just gone sideways.  These are ideas and concepts that - as superheroes have moved from a genre for children to a genre for adults - couldn't stay evergreen.  Eventually we learned adults weren't good guys and bad guys, they were mostly people pursuing what they thought was right, even if that just equated to self-interest.  We knew shooting at Superman was a boneheaded move when crooks never seemed to learn that lesson.  Sometime in college we heard about "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" and believed we'd discovered some secret of the universe that, because we'd read it, meant we'd uncovered truths about adulthood versus the ideals of fantasy upon which we were raised.

The Superman of the red shorts is the Superman of fiction, who saves the day and nobody gets hurt in the process.  Luthor gets thrown back in the slammer.  Brainiac flees, shaking his fist at Superman in the rearview mirror as he retreats from Earth, and Mr. Mxyzptlk curses briefly as the echoes of his reversed name send him back to the 5th Dimension.  Krypto bounds in from space.  Jimmy turns into Porcupine Boy. Perry smokes a magical cigar and can fly.  Lois grows a giant head when hit with an Evolving Ray.

And in this world, Superman of the red shorts protects the people of Metropolis.  He doesn't dress in paramilitary gear or armor, and his outfit was something thought up by his parents here on Earth.  He stands for truth.  Justice.  The American Way.

if you think this is tough, you should have tried to break curfew at my house in high school

We outgrew it.  Superman appeared on the periphery, but he wasn't out front and didn't make the impact of the de-campified Batman of the 1989 film (which is pretty damn campy by today's standards) and certainly when Christopher Nolan and David Goyer upped the ante with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  How did you argue against the idea that Superman wasn't fit for our times when he wasn't Batman and appealed to our ideas about what we secretly were versus what was out of reach.

I grew up on action and adventure films.  From Schwarzeneggerian action pics to Indiana Jones and Star Wars.  We all did.

The heroes were no further away from Superman or Batman as aspirational folk.  Fist tossing arcaheologists, Buddhist Warriors with star vehicles and droids, high ranking American soldiers with Austrian accents getting people to the chopper...

Back in college I saw literally every movie that came to the Highland 10 theater near my apartment.  I'd see anything and everything, with particular relish for any movie that would launch me into space or include witty one-liners as our confident hero dispatched the bad guys, but I also remember sitting through Con-Air and The Rock and staring at the movies in stupefied puzzlement.  Somehow seeing those two films signaled to me that  I'd already aged out of a certain brand of action movie.  The two films were the vanguard of a new kind of action movie that used the tools available to hide the lack of actual action with a lot of camera movement and chaos.  They featured stories light and predictable as microwave popcorn and entirely intended to just shake the teeth of the audience who might leave feeling like they'd enjoyed the experience of shit happening on screen for almost two hours.

I hadn't seen anything yet.  Of course Transformers would come along circa 2007 and find a whole new way to disappoint.  CGI had replaced reality on the big screen, with a washed out, dusty look to the picture that obfuscated the separation between the cartoon and reality, and that look still pervades.  The story of Transformers - aimed at children - was intensely violent and relied on camera work originally deployed in Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart.  Somehow a movie that felt like watching debris get blown around in a windstorm for two hours with Shia LeBouf and Megan Fox to anchor it made, like, a billion dollars and, in the process, killed some part of my love for humanity.  Utterly lacking in writing, characters, a coherent plot, discernible visuals, and the only memorable joke involving a robot urinating on formerly respected actor John Turturro.

Transformers broke me.  True story, if I hadn't had tickets to see Robosaurus perform after the movie, I would have left.*

Robosaurus at actual Transformers screening on actual day at actual theater of events described

In a lot of ways, action movies never really recovered from the work of Michael Bay.  The man is ridiculed online and in columns, but he makes the studios enough money to keep the execs in mansions, hookers and blow for years at a time.  It seems people like to see debris blow around the screen and robots, super soldiers, people dressed in all black, etc... yell about returning MacGuffins to one another.

That the movie industry has changed drastically in the past ten years, as per the offerings and what people are paying to see - that's not news.  But it's also kind of surprised me what people think is "good" and on a routine basis I'm shocked by what hits number one at the box office and exactly how much the movie makes.

So, Superman. Man of Steel.

I made no secret of my concerns regarding Zack Snyder attempting to direct a movie that would require any depth of character to work.  His Watchmen was a bizarre, slippery failure.  He took the exact material from the page but wherever he was given the opportunity to make a choice, he somehow took the path that showed no understanding of character or the point of the comic itself.  I had a hard time with his 300 adaptation, and, in the end, I think the duality of Man of Steel that's been tossed around so much by critics comes from an honest place:  Zack Snyder really doesn't have a feel for how a story works.  He was always just waiting to get to the big fight at the end, and he was always going to overdo it.  That's what he does.

Snyder is a product of the Michael Bay school, and has spent his career of the last decade making movies with a high sheen gloss that manifests itself here with the hazy tones that permeated that look of Transformers as CGI overwhelms the imagery.  Even the amazing landscapes of Krypton are flattened (even in 3D) as the veneer of the modern CGI-tastic film puts a soft filter over the focus and nobody must worry about seeing a single line in Garbo's face.

"I know it went badly with the puppy, but I really want to shoot this baby into space"

On my second viewing of Man of Steel I realized that Snyder acquits himself just fine when he's handling action scenes, but in this movie he treats every scene as an action scene.  Jonathan Kent can't leave the house without four cuts and percussive sound effects.  He can't talk to his son without the camera shaking like the cinematographer's got the DT's.  It's a lack of focus, and a lack of control on Snyder's part, and it damages good performances.  I can just watch Jor-El and Lara say good-bye to their son, I don't need to see it from fifteen angles in 30 seconds.

And, again, the choices...  He doesn't understand the length of an emotional or story beat.  Nor how to maximize the power of the scene.  What would have been more powerful:  Martha Kent with a teacher and a herd of chattering students crowding her (and she doesn't ask them to leave?) or Martha Kent alone with her son, asking him to be courageous away from peering eyes?  These are a director's options, and sometimes... sometimes you leave the whales out of the shot rather than putting them in because you can.

It can't all be on Snyder's shoulders when the movie is clunky, but there are curious tells.  If you thought Bryan Singer's Christ imagery in Superman Returns was a little on the nose, this movie literally turns on a backlit colored sign on that says "Christ Imagery.  Do Not Miss.".  It's weird and amateurish for a grown-up filmmaker and about as subtle as a crying clown in a student film.  But maybe...  this is the American movie-going public... maybe they need that?

But, almost laughably, there's no follow-up to the Christ imagery.  Superman neither saves no redeems anyone.  If Singer's work was a bit heavy handed...  at least you felt like he understood that death to save everyone is the point - not punching the Roman Centurions and killing Pontius Pilot.  It makes it feel like Snyder read somewhere that Superman was a "Christ Figure" but he couldn't be bothered to understand the comparison.

Screenwriter David Goyer shines both when he's lifting from existing Superman source material he knows already works - but he tacks it together well, and in a few key scenes of his own, but also includes some clunker dialog for poor ol' Zod, making Michael Shannon work for that money.  He cobbles in paraphrased dialog from Superman: The Movie from both sets of parents and he lifts from the comics like Superman: Birthright and John Byrne's take on the origin (and some of the look of the Kryptonian Council seems to come from Byrne-ian headgear) among other sources.  It's fine.  It's all Superman media and mythos.  Motivations for the characters and their concerns about this special child come from a believable place.

One wonders how much studios notes affected the storytelling, and what was studio, what was Goyer and what was Snyder.  Goyer clearly understood the relationships between Clark and each of his parents, but did he envision tossing away the story he started for an hour of spouting exposition between frenetic battle scenes?  Maybe.  Or was that the directive of the studio in the wake of the ponderous Superman Returns in which not a single punch was thrown?

Where Superman: The Movie formed a triptych of Krypton/ Smallville/ Metropolis, all with completely different flavors, it held.  Man of Steel should feel more seamless, especially with its non-linear narrative structure, but instead it takes a hard swing late in the game that feels more like "okay.  You guys have been good.  Here's your unbroken hour of completely crazy superhero brawling".

Lois helps Superman get the pepper out of his teeth
Which, by the way, I won't say the action sequences didn't have their moments.  Much of the action was pretty phenomenal if you didn't think too hard about how a guy who has literally never thrown a punch before is hanging with his fellow Kryptonians who have never known anything in their lives but combat and are, in fact, genetically engineered for that role.  Honestly, I tried very hard to just forget about it and embrace the first real Superman fisticuffs put on screen.  For the first twenty minutes of said battle.

And, I'll echo what I've seen online from more eloquent and greater Superman fans than myself.  It's inconceivable to me that knowing Superman as a character, and being able to think as the character enough as I'd expect someone to do while making a movie about that character, that this wouldn't be more about Superman working to do what Jor-El asks and "save all of them".  But that isn't what we get.

Snyder's Superman doesn't work to take the fight away from civilians by doing what Reeve does in Superman II after begging Zod, Ursa and Non for mercy for the bystanders.  He doesn't move a mile out over the ocean or out to a field away from the IHOP.  He is, after all, the SOLE target of the Kryptonian forces, so removing himself is absolutely an option.  He could move out of town rather than suggesting people lock their doors.  Once he realizes he's going through buildings, he could - with a single leap - get to a safe distance.

While much of the damage in the Metropolis battle is story-driven (sort of), its the Superman v. Zod fight that feels tacked on by the studio and Snyder and which feels the absolute least like Superman.  Standing in the ashes of a major metropolitan area, flattened and no doubt riddled with dead residents who couldn't escape, Superman AGAIN refuses to take the battle out of the city and levels multiple buildings.

Moreover, Snyder, his storyboard artists and his editors didn't include but the fewest, most perfunctory scenes of Superman doing the one thing we sort of expect - and that's to save people from calamity.  Whether it's keeping a tower from falling on the lady and her baby on the street or getting between well-armed bank robbers and some poorly paid security guards - in all the chaos of the 3rd act, Perry White sweats more to protect and save an intern than Superman does to reduce the body count.

That this is brought up a LOT by reviewers tells me I'm not completely nuts for noticing this problem and am left wondering "what happened?"  How do you make a Superman movie and miss this most important role of the character?

And, no, don't tell me he was too busy or too overwhelmed.  It's a story.  It's a fictional construct.

For all the grumbling about Superman Returns, all the character does is work to protect.  He's out over the ocean en route to find Lois and turns around to save Metropolis and its a stunning sequence.  He's introduced back on Earth while saving the passengers from a plane crash.  Our Superman in Man of Steel flies to the opposite side of the globe and turns off a machine that seems like it could have been taken out with some math and a few missiles.

Yes, I know how crazy the idea is, but superheroes in spandex who can shoot lasers from their faces aren't just a few steps above the average person's ability to withstand a gunshot.  At their best, when the writers and creators let their imaginations run wild and dare to imagine what could be - why couldn't Superman save them all?

And, of course, the death of Zod.

I have a theory about the movie, and that is that the movie originally ended with Zod on his knees asking to be sent back to the Phantom Zone as he had no purpose left.  And, I suspect, Superman did so.  After all, we'd already had the big set piece of the film.

But...  this is Hollywood, and in Hollywood, the bad guy HAS to die.  The audience is not going to understand and we'll get the howls of outraged 20 year olds asking their friends as they depart "why didn't Superman just KILL that guy?"  And in this movie, that's a fair question as the movie took no pains to set Superman up as someone for whom the death of even his enemies is unthinkable.  The scene, as written, depended on so, so many factors and it's what appears on screen - and in that, I think Goyer and Cavill, at least, made good choices.  It's not something Superman takes lightly given no choice.  But I question whether that's us saying he had no choice or what we could have gotten from a movie in which Superman found a way.

There's an old game comics fans like to try to play, and it's "who would win?  Character X or Character Y?"  And a few years ago, someone very sage, maybe Kurt Busiek, said "well, whichever character you wanted to write as the winner".  And I think that applies very neatly to how all superhero stories really work.

I go back to a scene in a JLA comic from several years back (JLA 89) in which the JLA realizes that a city is about to be incinerated.  In Joe Kelly's story, The Flash (Wally West) moves at the speed of light and moves a half million residents from the city to safety in the matter of seconds.  It's a brilliant bit exploring of the possibilities of superheroes and the notion that - when pushed to the limits - the heroes can save the day.

Man of Steel IS a fictional story.  It can be shot, cut, pieced together any way the visionaries behind the movie please.  Someone wanted to see that urban, casualty causing mayhem on screen, and so that's what we got.  I have a hard time believing that the finale was that much greater because we saw Superman failing at being Superman for the last 30-40 minutes of the movie.

And construction of the story was something I knew was a problem from the day I heard it announced Superman would be taking on Zod in this movie.

If your hero is doing nothing but creating the problems inherent in the story by merely existing, that's a major problem in the superhero story.

It's not unique to Man of Steel, but the presumably atrocious body count makes it seem like a major issue where it's something to maybe ponder in other movies.   The biggest problem of all three Iron Man films is the fact Tony Stark ever created armor and someone else would want it.  Arguably, Thor's existence on Earth is the biggest problem for everyone in the first of those movies.  And, lord knows, Gotham goes through some serious issues in the two Dark Knight films thanks to the existence of Batman.

Superman has traditionally been a bit different - an alien force halting the machinations of people already on the road to villainy (see: Luthor's real estate swindle in Superman: The Movie).  Superman II has its own issues with whether the Phantom Zone villains would have been freed if not for Superman, but he's off shagging Lois when they go on their rampage.  Superman Returns circles back to the problem as Luthor exploits the unguarded Kryptonian technology (and a major plot hole) to achieve his dastardly scheme.

But, this isn't a Superman who ever has a chance to debut as a good guy.  He goes from pariah to bargaining chip to living WMD in the course of a week of movie time.  And maybe that's fine, but it's almost impossible not to feel like Goyer could have better tied together the Zod and Kal-El bits without Superman's existence on Earth leading to the destruction of Metropolis.  Somehow superhero movie writers, in their rush to make sure everything in the movie is connected, seem to sometimes forget that maybe the best thing we could do is stop being a superhero, and that would solve a lot.  Or just let the bad guy kill us so others can live.

Its not clear why Zod decides to use Earth as his new Krypton (he's already been all over the galaxy and could leave again), other than just to piss off Jor-El and Superman.  But, I dunno...  I've always felt like Zod was a sequel-appropriate villain so his first appearance wouldn't be tied to mayhem related to his existence and old feuds.

The movie runs on the engine written for movies like Con-Air and The Rock, but more finely tuned than its ancestors.  It plays on the built-in sentimentality of the audience while only occasionally earning it (kudos to Costner and Lane here) and a sort of "Rock, flag and eagle" version of America.  Aesthetically, it too often depends on the "I have no idea what I'm looking at" vision of violence and destruction that has the brass ones to reference on the ground footage from 9/11 from cameras rolling while citizens fled the collapse of the towers.  Again, Snyder is both a terrific mimic of imagery and knows how to stitch it all together into a new tapestry, and only once in a while will it set the fillings in your teeth to buzzing.

This is a Superman that fits the billion dollar model of Transformers, not one that tried to be a visual spectacle for the Star Wars fantasy film making era of romance and high adventure.  But in an era when the hottest movies include The Rock and Vin Diesel careening around in "whips", and despite Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder is still the best candidate on your lot to make a bankable actioner - this is where it was all headed from day one.

For me, this isn't the Superman who wears red shorts.  This is the Superman designed and developed by and for the people who found the red shorts an embarrassment.  He's serious, he's as helpless as you or me when it comes to figuring out how to solve a problem except for hitting it until it stops moving.  Even when he regrets his actions - he's not a Superman who seems to carry the weight of the anguish with him in the epilogue, and we don't see him in Metropolis working to restore the city.

Nobody is going to worry about a dog showing up with a cape in the sequel to this movie, and that's okay.  DC's executives can pat themselves on the back and sit back in the glow of appreciation from the movie going public (males, 18-24) for whom superheroes have always been free from the moorings of their origins and seen as material as aimed at them as an X-Box.

So, what did I like?

I'll be honest, I had a very, very hard time with this movie after the first viewing.  The problems I've described broke my heart as a Superman fan.  As the first step toward a Justice League franchise, it will set the tone for what's to come - and I'm already gritting my teeth knowing Barry Allen is ending his film debut by killing Professor Zoom, The Reverse Flash.

But the second viewing, when I knew what was coming, and I could think about all the flaws in the prior Superman movies - issues I sweep aside with no problem as I give the movies a viewing time after time...  I grew to like the movie a whole lot more.

It's a visual spectacle, certainly.  Krypton is wildly realized and doesn't feel so beholden to the previous Superman films asthe wild realization of sci-fi in the 1980's with flicks like Dune.  I'd have liked more originality in the spaceship design, or at least bolder choices than post-Gieger standard issue for some things, but at least it has a specific consistency.

I liked the interspersed, non-linear delivery of the story.  Unlike others, I felt like the death of Jonathan Kent was given new dimension and worked well.

Let's go ahead and get one thing out of the way.  I've seen lots of mixed reviews of Amy Adams and what she was given to do in the movie, but I thought this was one of the most likable versions of Lois since Superman: The Movie or Dana Delany voicing the character.  Adams is invested in a way that I can't fathom Bosworth, and it feels like a modern take of the journalist who isn't defined as "girl reporter".  Just "reporter".  Also: Amy Adams.

And Ayelet Zurer, who plays Lara Lor-Van and whom I had not seen before, has one of the profiles in movies.  They really knocked it out of the ballpark with casting.

Speaking of:

Henry Cavill?  I'm a fan.  He does good in the suit and out of the suit.  He's a burly, big guy and the antithesis of where WB kept trying to go during the early 00's with WB network pretty boys.  And yet, as I understand it, if you're into dudes, he's quite the thing (I know a ruggedly handsome fellow when I see one, and he fits the bill).  We never get a feel for his "Clark Kent" at The Planet, but you can almost guess that the nerdy Clark persona stems almost from his delight at nobody knowing and his chance to just show up and go to work like he's heard people do - all without worrying about figuring out why he can shoot fire out of his irises.  But as Superman and a pre-suit Clark Kent?  Yeah.  Sure.  He's better than just the look, and I feel like he's just going to keep getting better in the sequel.

Michael Shannon as Dru-Zod, as has been commented upon, has a motivation that goes beyond evil, wealth, etc...  and I found it fascinating that in the end, we really come to understand that he had no choice but to take the actions he did, and Jor-El was vindicated in his dream of a child who could live a life without predestination encoded into his genes.  Sure, Jonathan and Jor-El alike more or less shoved Superman into his path of heroism, but it's still about choices - and the first one Superman makes in "public" is to take the action he believes is best for Earth.

Shannon plays Zod well, even when given some lines dripping in villainous mozzarella, but you can't not watch the guy.

The rest of the cast, from the parents (all four) to the Planet staffers (STEVE @#$%ing LOMBARD finally makes it into a movie) to the Kryptonian villains all work.  All in their ways.  Diane Lane and Costner manage to make it all look natural, even going back in to find baby pictures when your pickup is sticking out of the ceiling.

I'm not sure I wanted my first appearance of Superman in public to be a surrender to the military forces of the US, but it says a lot about where our Superman is at, and... oh my gosh, that shot of Superman just hovering 30 feet off the ground talking to the officers is just... wow.  That was some beautifully realized stuff.

But so is much of the visual nature of the film.  I may not have liked how Snyder has previously assembled his movies, but he knows what a Superman walking in the snow should look like, or a Superman suspended in the air.  The flying in seamless and fantastic in a way that Singer wasn't able to pull off with his CGI Brandon Routh.  From his first appearance, Superman does not threaten, but he deals with authorities on his own terms (something that the TV and movie audience has never seen before but which is a staple of the comics).  He earns the respect and trust of the folks involved in the conflict, even if, to the public, I don't know how that would play.

Up until the final, chaotic ending of the movie - Cavill was able to overcome so many deficiencies in Snyder's directing just by playing the character straight and believably.  And the movie manages to convey that Superman isn't the perfect, untroubled fellow jauntily fighting crime that people who know the character as a bumper sticker tend to imagine.  That's a major, major win in what's been a one-sided argument for years, and something Smallville managed to screw up weekly for 7 of the ten years of the show.

The movie also conveyed the scope of the world of Superman, from the home and hearth in Kansas to the alien heritage to the world-bending exploits.  Frankly, in the run up to the movie, it was eye-opening to see so many reports coming out surprised at the Kryptonian background.  When you spend all day thinking about something, you tend to forget what other people don't know.

The movie ends with so much promise for what a sequel, in the right hands, could bring.  Batman Begins has some large issues - not as much as what kept me awake for a while after seeing the movie the first time - but it wasn't a flawless movie.  With a sequel a certainty after a massive opening weekend, I'm hoping that the studio understands the potential for what they could have - if they also let their character grow into the Superman so many of us wanted to see on the big screen.

Where the movie had humor, the rest of the film was so weighed down with such a sense of doom, either the audience wasn't following it or not in the mood for a tension-breaking chuckle.  The humor of Superman has so often come from the dichotomy of Clark vs. Superman that I'm hoping we'll see some of that find its way into the picture, because I really missed it.

And, if I had a note to WB as they think about their sequel:  Amy Adams looks good in a fun, sporty sweater.

*if you've never seen Robosaurus perform, you have not lived a full life.

The lesson here may be:  Transformers will always have sucked.  Robosaurus will live in my heart forever.

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