Monday, June 17, 2013

Join Him In the Sun: Thoughts on the Superman movie, Man of Steel

Greetings! Dave-El here, welcoming you to my blog, I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You.

As you are no doubt aware (and if you are not, I wish you a speedy and complete recovery from your coma), Man of Steel, the new Superman motion picture produced by Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan, directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and starring Henry Carvill as the titular Kryptonian came out this weekend with a  $125 million opening weekend, breaking the opening weekend record for a June release previously held by Toy Story 3. And as a surprise to no one, some of my hard earned money went towards that impressive total.

This was actually my first Superman movie I have ever seen in a movie theater.  All the Christopher Reeve movies were seen on TV or on video. And as for Superman Returns, it still remains in its shrink wrap from where it was given to me as a gift years ago. I actually saw part of the Bryan Singer directed/Brandon Routh starring movie on FX some time ago; nothing I saw motivated me to go pull the shrink wrap off that DVD case.

But this was going to be different.  At least, I hoped it would be different.  Christopher Nolan knows his way around a successful super hero franchise. Writer David S. Goyer knows a thing or two about super hero movie screen plays. Zack Snyder may not have the perfect 
Watchmen movie but considering many thought the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons series to be unfilmable, the fact it got made at all is worthy of some small consideration.  Big name stars attached to the film were actors who had spent some time at the movie blockbuster rodeo: Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne. All of these things came some measure of confidence that Man of Steel might be...just maybe, might be....the Superman we've been waiting for.

In the end, would I believe that a man could fly?

My association with Superman is almost as long-lived as my time as a comic book reader.  In a recent blog where I was going to talk about the Legion of Super Heroes (see here for that full blog), I went off on a tangent about Superman and I wrote this:

 "Kal-El himself, Superman, is right up there as one of my top favorites as a kid and, with some ups and downs, remains so today. While the main attraction was, of course, the colorful costume and the flashy super powers, the part of the Superman mythos that resonated with young Dave-El at a deeper level was Clark Kent. I identified with Clark, the mild mannered schlup, a nice enough guy but he doesn't quite fit in. It goes without saying that I did not have a super suit under my close and possessed nothing like super powers but the very idea that someone could be more than what others suspected was as much of a tantalizing fantasy as it was to watch Clark toss off in that blue suit and fly over the spires of Metropolis."

For the sake of that child who latched on to Superman and has almost never let go, I wanted Man of Steel to succeed.

And there's part of me that doesn't want Marvel to have all the fun.  But other than Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, commercial and critical success have eluded films based on DC characters. When Green Lantern was released, I really, really wanted that movie to succeed, to show that DC too could be a player on the same level as Marvel's comic book characters turned movie stars.  The fact that the best part of that movie for me was I hearing Killowog call someone a poozer is just one testament of a DC fan brought down by disappointment.

But Man of Steel was going to be different. Not just for a DC character other than the Batman to be in a successful motion picture but redemption for Superman on the silver screen.

I've always been amazed by Christopher Reeve's portrayal of Superman and Clark Kent in the four films he starred in. If there was ever a moment that crystalized just how effective Reeve was, check out the moment in the first movie. It's right after the (infamous) "Can You Read My Mind?" sequence. Superman has brought Lois Lane back to her apartment and flown off. Then Clark Kent shows up at Lois' door. While Lois is out of the room, there's a moment where Clark considers confessing his secret to Lois. But the transformation goes way beyond just taking off his glasses; Reeve's entire body stance shifts so profoundly that if it were done today, you might think CGI was employed. But then Clark backs down and Reeve morphs back into Clark right before our eyes. The glasses go back on, the posture changes and the voice goes up a bit. 

But for all of Reeves' accomplishment bringing Clark and Superman, the films he starred in were riddled with plot holes, uneven characterization and an overreliance on silliness.

When Bryan Singer came on board, there was a lot of hope riding on the film auteur who successfully brought the X-Men to cinematic life would breathe new life and launch a new age of Superman films. Instead, Singer inexplicably followed an almost slavish devotion to the Reeve era Superman and created in Superman Returns a film that was...well, having only seen parts of it, maybe Superman Returns wasn't as bad as all that but the constant drumbeat of those who had seen this movie that this was a disappointing mess would suggest that the consensus was correct and what I did see did nothing to contradict that.

So a lot of expectations were riding on Man of Steel.  Would this finally be the Superman film we could point to and say this was good? Or would this be yet another missed opportunity in Superman's life on film?

Before we go any further, I am going to discuss a few specifics about Man of Steel that will be spoilerish (or maybe all out spoiler-tastic) so go no further if you have not seen the movie and do not wished to be spoiled.

When I return from see Man of Steel, I posted the following on Twitter:

Just back from seeing and it was amazing! A perfect Superman movie? Maybe not but it's damn well as close as I've ever seen!

Yep, Man of Steel is the best Superman movie ever.  But given the low bar set by the previous movies, is that damning with faint praise? No, it is really that good. But that's not to say there are parts that may present some concerns to long time Superman fans (as they did for me). But let's take this from the top:

The world of Krypton is realized in such amazing detail: strange & awesome creatures, otherworldly technology and a planet bursting at the seams both literally (Jor-El is, as always, trying to convince the council that Krypton is doomed) and politically (General Zod has his own plans for Krypton's destiny).

Here, Michael Shannon alternates between seething rage and exploding rage as General Zod and it's very effective. You can see why Zod has such strong command of this followers at the same time it is very clear that Zod is wrong and must be stopped.


Standing in his way is Jor-El, Action Scientist!

Russell Crowe delivers a Jor-El who is intelligent, ethical, passionate and fully capable of kicking Kryptonian ass in the service of any of those attributes. And I'm not familiar with the work of Ayelet Zurer but as Lara Lor-Van, she imbues the character with both grace and strength.

There's a moment where she nearly reconsiders the mission of sending infant Kal-El away into space, her mother's heart breaking at having to let her child go but she recommits herself to the plan. This is Kal-El's only hope. It is Krypton's only hope.  Ultimately it is Lora herself who send Kal-El's ship away from Krypton.

Across the void and towards the planet Earth we go. Anyone expecting...and dreading...a long drawn out sequence of young Clark Kent discovering his powers, his destiny, this is wisely sidestepped by interspersing Clark's youth growing up in Smallville with his adoptive parents as flashback segments that flesh out Clark's back story as the events on Krypton are immediately followed by a bearded Clark Kent working on fishing boat.  The next series of events shows Clark wondering the world, looking for answers, looking for meaning as to who he is, how can he do these amazing things.  As he moves forward, we get glimpses into his youth, struggling to cope with his budding super powers (super hearing and x-ray vision are particularly troubling to deal with in one very tense scene). We see the love and guidance he receives from his human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Both Kevin Costner and Diane Lane bring the Kents to life with an innate sense of goodness and wisdom even as they struggle with questions and problems that no parent has ever had to deal with.

There is no parenting guide on what to do when your child can crush iron or see through walls. They are, as Jonathan himself says in one flashback, "making this up as we go along." Jonathan is particularly concerned with what happens when the world learns of his son and the wonderful things he can do. He worries the world will fear Clark, will reject him. But he also knows Clark has special gifts and a special destiny to use those gifts.

Clark's journey of odd jobs and miraculous super feats takes him up north where something most peculiar has been found buried in the ice. A clearly metal construct, a ship of some kind but buried under ice that is thousands and thousands of years old.  Clark's discovery of the ship starts a chain reaction of events that leads to the moment everyone's been waiting for: the red "S", the blue suit and the flowing red cape! Jor-El's narration from the movie trailers is heard here: Superman* is to use his gifts to inspire the people of Earth and "one day, they will join you in the sun."

*By the way, Superman isn't called Superman very often in this movie. Interesting choice but you really don't notice it. Still, my mind thinks Superman more readily that Kal-El or Clark so that will be how I will refer to him through this post.

At this point, I really should take a moment to talk about the star, Henry Carvill. His take on Superman is, in my humble opinion, amazing. He portrays Superman as earnest but not naïve. His surrender to the military is done as a political maneuver. He allows himself to be handcuffed as an expression of his good intent and good faith but nonchalantly shreds those cuffs as a casual but powerful statement of what he's capable of. Carvill's Superman is a very good person but he's not a pushover. As we see in the super powered battles he later fights, this is a Superman who is not afraid to bring his power to bear. But he's a Superman who can will himself to stand and press on when that power is not enough.  He shows considerable intelligence and wisdom but he's also very clearly "making it up as he goes along", as his father Jonathan had once said. All in all, Henry Carvill is a strong and effective Superman in both his power and the humanity instilled in him by his Earth parents.

And what is a Superman story without Lois Lane? Yet Superman purists may question Lois' role here. Lois is, as always, a tenacious reporter going where she probably shouldn't go. As portrayed by Amy Adams, Lois is enterprising, intelligent and dedicated.

But in this narrative, Lois is not just chasing the story of the mystery miracle man; she become a partner in Clark's growth and development in his new role.**

**And none of this "snooping around for Superman's secret identity" business. Lois works out her mystery man is Clark Kent as effectively as one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter.

Meanwhile, the expected narrative takes another turn into the unexpected. Superman is no established super hero before Zod comes calling.  In fact, Zod and his fellow escapees from the Phantom Zone arrive in orbit over Earth and began demanding the return of Kal-El who has been hiding among Earthlings for over 30 years. No one on Earth knows who Zod is talking about. Except Clark Kent, his mother and Lois Lane. It is because of Zod that Superman reveals himself.  Zod has not mellowed in the intervening years since his Phantom Zone exile and the destruction of Krypton. In fact, Zod is even more vicious, more dedicated to his goals and much more powerful than he ever imagined he could be. Zod wants to restore Krypton and neither Kal-El or any force on Earth is going to stop Zod and his followers from doing just that.

General Zod and his minions unleash hell upon the Earth and Superman must stand against them with only a few humans to help him.  Here, things get both awesome and disturbing. On one hand, we get to see something on film that only comic books have been able to replicate: the knock down drag out battle between super power opponents. Thinks of Superman's battle with Mongul in Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything" and ratchet that up a thousand percent as powered up Kryptonians and their super weapons batter at the Man of Steel even has he battles back, over and over and over.

On the other hand, the collateral damage portrayed is enormous. Buildings crashing and toppling, the implication is that hundreds if not thousands die in the battles between Superman and Zod and his followers. If one has seen how Nolan's Batman and his world developed, this should not be surprising. Super heroes in a more-or-less real world setting is what the Dark Knight trilogy was built around and that's where director Zack Snyder & screenwriter David Goyer under Chris Nolan's guidance are clearly taking the Superman mythos as well. I think my problem with the collateral damage is the "implication" of the many lives lost in the rampage of Zod, his Kryptonian followers, their massive and deadly weaponry and Superman's efforts to stop all of that.  This movie wants to have its real world core but isn't comfortable speaking directly to that. Its a movie that revels in the fantastic nature of the powers unleashed between hero and villain yet wants to convey a "this is what would happen in the real world" vibe. But if that death toll is acknowledged, it undermines our vicarious thrill of watching Superman and Zod knock buildings down. I think this problem may have occurred to Goyer, Snyder or Nolan because there's a bit where someone staggers out of the rubble, covered in dust, and pointing to Superman, says, "He saved us all." Yes, he did but it seems like an odd statement to make about someone who is standing amid the rubble that he was just as much responsible for creating. It was, to my mind, a disconnect that was the film's most troubling element.

Oh, then what about...the ending? You know, where Superman has to take one more step to defeat General Zod once and for all? I know there are hard core Superman fans who decry this action, that Superman just does not do that. But what we see in this crucial sequence is that Superman does indeed hold life as important, sacred if you will, even the life of a villain like Zod. But the situation as presented created a choice that had to be made. We do see the results of that choice and Superman's reaction to making that choice. What happens here is that Nolan real world basis AND acknowledging the consequences of the actions taken. This is NOT what happens with the larger death toll implied by the carnage. But in this final moment between Superman and Zod, we see Superman's heart wrenching acceptance of the burden he took on to achieve victory and save lives.

One last thing: Man of Steel really hits you over the head a couple of times with Superman's role as a Christ-like figure. The fact that Clark is 33 years old when he comes to accept his special destiny is just one of the obvious parallels to the story of Jesus. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I guess its just one metaphorical tool to drive home that Superman is here to help and please don't think about all those people crushed under the office buildings and parking decks of Metropolis.

So this brings me to the end of the movie. There is a lot to think about with this picture and there are worst things that can happen to someone after coming to the end of a movie or a book or a play.  There is so much to ponder but my fingers are tired and don't get paid to do this, you know.

But let me wrap this up by going back to that post I made on Twitter:

Just back from seeing and it was amazing! A perfect Superman movie? Maybe not but it's damn well as close as I've ever seen!

There are a lot of both small and significant changes to the Superman mythos; comic book fandom would crack the internet in half if DC Comics tried any of this but they work in this movie. There may be a lot that is debatable on what should happen in a Superman story; perhaps those themes cannot be addressed in a comic book but they work in this movie.

So no, it's not a perfect Superman movie. But this time the opportunity to do something great with the legend of Superman on the silver screen was not lost. Whether I agree or disagree with any particular changes made to the Superman story, any chances that were taken by the film makers, I feel confident to say this: Man of Steel has set a high mark for Superman films, indeed for all superhero films. And one more thing:

I believed a man could fly.


Dave-El, when not patrolling the skies over his blog, can also be found in the Watchtower over Twitter at


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