Friday, July 5, 2013

Man of Steel begins (or was that Independence Day 2?)

In The Avengers, Captain America asks Nick Fury if he thinks his uniform is a little too old-fashioned. Fury replies, "People might need a little old-fashioned." Fury's right. Oh man, is he right.

a fantastic trailer mashup

Man of Steel is what happens when you're not confident enough with a legend older than anyone reading this. Give me old-fashioned Spandex and bright red underwear any day of the week. Old-fashioned, as far as comic books are concerned, is often timeless. Twenty years from now we'll laugh at this Superman a lot more than we'll laugh at the old one, believe you me. In due time this near-sighted optimism in our current tastes is going to be as silly as jean jackets and fanny packs.

The old trailers for Richard Donner's Superman promised, "You'll believe a man can fly!" We did. There was so much energy and love wrapped up in the original Superman film it was bursting at the seams with magic. They made no attempt to modernize and thereby dilute the very thing we all wanted to see. In Man of Steel the ingredients are all present, however all but one of the ingredients—the overblown action—is too weak. Considering its many flashbacks and the tiny length of its scenes, MOS is more like listening to Superman's greatest hits album, but finding the songs are all thirty-second samples. And it doesn't have the songs you really wanted to hear anyway. Maybe they'll be in volume II.

a quick reminder of what Man of Steel is missing

Don't get me wrong. It's not a terrible movie. It's pretty good for a summer film, but not as good as this year's Iron Man 3, which also took some liberties fans of the comic were rightfully unhappy about. If you really want to enjoy Man of Steel you have to forget everything you knew about the comics and everything you knew about Christopher Reeve's maiden voyage. I'll do the same for this review in a moment, but there's a few more comparisons to knock out. Indulge me—after this I'll try not to mention the fact that Amy Adams somehow makes a worse Lois Lane than Kate Bosworth, that the film looks and feels more like a Wolverine wannabe than a proper DC adaptation, and that unlike Christopher Reeve you never really believe this man can fly. It's a shame, too, because Christopher Nolan's Batman drew its strength from the comic. Man of Steel seems more interested in duplicating modern Batman than its own source material. That is to say before the halfway mark when it becomes a redux of Independence Day. (I'm happy to say this film is much better than ID4, but that's not much of a compliment, is it?)

And before we begin judging the movie as a standalone, let's just stop for a moment to consider one disturbing fact. There will be a movie in which the current Batman and this Superman meet. Can you imagine how disappointing that's going to be in light of all the dynamic relationships in The Avengers? I loved the fact that Tony Stark and Bruce Banner instantly hit it off while Steve Rogers instantly disliked Tony Stark despite (or maybe because) of his friendship with Howard Stark. That was interesting. When we get the current Batman and Superman together it's going to be more like Butch Cassidy and Butch Cassidy. They're too much alike. Superman should have been The Sundance Kid. 

One final comparison: Zach Snyder's Watchmen, which was also a disappointment for fans of the comics, will give you a good idea of what to expect from MOS. In that film, too, the best part is the opening. Here, Krypton is a fantastic setting and you won't see anything nearly as exciting for the rest of the movie. The special effects and the action in that sequence are downright breathtaking. The entire movie could have been set on Krypton—that's how good it is. I happen to think that alone is worth the price of admission. If you really have nothing better to do, go see the movie and then finish reading this post. I'm just getting cranky because I expected a lot more and wasn't even that hyped up in the first place.

After an action sequence like the destruction of Krypton you need a bit of a break. Instead, Snyder throws more carnage and destruction at us about two minutes later. I'm not exaggerating that time frame. Here's how it goes: Krypton blows up, then Kal-El is an adult. He's working on a fishing boat. A cage falls off a crane and almost squashes him (or so his coworker thinks) and then an oil rig explodes and a helicopter swoops in and... I mean seriously, what kind of pacing is that? In the first half of the movie we'll be reminded time and time again that Kal-El likes to save people. Who would have guessed? And after we see him save so many people there's a flashback to one of the quietest tornadoes you'll ever see. In that scene he literally saves nobody.

Why? Because the script said so. There really isn't a good reason other than a cheap grab at drama. He just kind of shrugs and lets it happen. If anything, the scene is a good indicator that if you want to survive a disaster in a Hollywood movie, strap yourself to a dog because that dog's more invincible than Superman himself. (See: ID4.)

We'll also be reminded, way too many times, that humanity maybe isn't ready to meet Kal-El. Seriously, they have one character after another put it as bluntly as that. Hell, they never even needed a character to put it into words to begin with. We all got it when we saw the scene in the school, the scene in the bar, and the scene after the school bus. You'll roll your eyes when Perry White (Laurence Fishburne... yeah) breaks character to say it, too. 

Sometime later Lois Lane and Kal-El simultaneously discover the ship that stands in for the Fortress of Solitude. It seems less like fate and more like unbelievable screenwriting. That's how compressed this movie is. It just doesn't take its time. It doesn't ever let us get to know who these characters are on our own. Instead it just tells us who they are in dialogue. And that's just boring.

This is all to say the movie is full of shit. At the end of the day it's still Superman and it's not the worst Superman movie, either. I liked it better than Superman Returns even though I think that guy was a better choice. You just can't kill Superman. Try as the numerous flashbacks might, you'd have a hard time keeping this character from making an entertaining movie. But better Superman movies (all two of them) suspended our disbelief much better than this one does. You end up asking yourself questions that wouldn't have even made you bat an eye in the original film.

For instance, how does Superman and Jor-El hold a conversation in the vacuum of space? Why does the military's computer simulation have ready-to-go graphics depicting the intricacies of General Zod's superweapon? Just how many innocent people died in that 7/11? How many people died in the IHOP and the Sears? And how much did those companies pay to get their products placed in the movie? Did Lexcorp have to pay to get their logo in there, too?

I think the biggest question of all is: Why is this film so goddamn dark? That's Batman's territory. Superman's supposed to save everyone, he's supposed to make us forget about 9/11 and war and all the other injustices of the world. Superman's supposed to be a goddamn beacon of light in the darkest of times. It's a good time for Superman, but it feels like this one is an impostor.

You've got jets and alien invasions and all too many shots of people running away from CGI destruction (again, see: ID4). Nothing about it feels like a Superman movie. But this is the direction they chose and, frankly, it's pretty good if that's all they're willing to give us. Future Superman movies really ought to focus on Martha and Lois a little bit more. There's a ton of untapped resources there. And it sucks that Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are dispensed of so early, although I'm sure we'll see them in the sequel, no doubt about it.

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