Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bait and Switch

Back in the summer of 1989, I was walking out of the most ginormous superhero movie ever made. Actually, it was the most ginormous movie release ever, at the time, bringing in $40 million its opening weekend. All of my friends were ecstatic and cheering, and my cousin wouldn't shut up about how the Joker had pulled that three feet long pistol out of his pants and shot down the Batwing, a moment I'd thought was especially stupid, and I wasn't really happy.

Yeah, I know. I hear all of you out there being oh so shocked.

But, see, the thing I kept thinking, the thing I still think today, was, "Maybe, if Burton had just been honest and called the movie The Joker, I would have liked it." [And I could go into a whole thing of all of the things wrong with having Burton make that movie to begin with and how the Joker was the only character he found interesting and how he didn't (and doesn't) like the movie nor, even, the idea of making it--he just wanted to be a part of what he expected to be a vast pop culture phenomenon. But all of that is for some other time.]

And that's how I feel about Man of Steel. If Nolan wanted to make a movie about General Zod, he should have just called it General Zod. As it is, I'm left with feelings of dissatisfaction because Superman was only included as what amounts to an afterthought. He's the guy that's going to defeat Zod, and there's only just enough information in the movie to let us know who he is.

Which brings me to what I think is the biggest issue with Man of Steel, which includes Nolan's abuse of the title (and let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this was not Nolan's movie, even if Snyder directed it. The story and style was Nolan's, which makes it his). Nolan exploits our outside knowledge of who and what Superman is to skimp on the origin, which he then changes. It's sloppy storytelling. Worse than sloppy. And I don't like feeling exploited. The truth is, if I didn't already know Superman's background, I would have had a difficult time with the movie.

For instance, my sister-in-law is a Marvel girl, so she doesn't really know about Superman, not the details, anyway. Her entire exposure to Superman was the godawful Superman Returns, so there were parts of Man of Steel that she didn't get. Like why we should care about Perry White. Within the context of the movie, the fact that we spend so much time watching Perry and friends run away from falling buildings makes no sense. We have no reason to care about that character UNLESS we already know about who he is from the comics (or previous movies or whatever). And she didn't feel any real connection to Clark because the whole reason we care about Clark is we know the Kents took him in and raised him as their own. They accepted him. But what we get from the movie is Jonathan Kent constantly telling Clark what an outsider he is. And don't get me started on the ridiculousness of Jonathan sacrificing himself to the tornado to "protect" Clark's secret. All of this includes the lack of context for calling the movie Man of Steel, which does not come from the movie. Unless you know that Superman is called the man of steel, there's no reason to understand the title, so, again, outside knowledge. Also, the name the "Man of Steel" was given to Superman when humans thought Superman was actually human. They never think that in the movie, so that particular moniker becomes inappropriate, so, in effect, it's a stupid title for the movie and something only chosen to distinguish it from the other Superman movies. He should have just gone with Superman or, even better, General Zod.

So, with all of that in mind, no, I did not like the middle of the movie. I thought the origin part of the origin story of Superman was very poorly handled. We have no idea of who this new guy is, no idea of the strength of his character, no idea of why we should trust him. Other than, well, he says we should, and that after trashing Metropolis (at least, I suppose it's Metropolis--the movie wasn't explicit with that). What we do know is that, when he was a kid, he saved a busload of kids and got in trouble for it. Later, after having a fight with his dad, he allowed his dad to be killed by a tornado.

Also, the idea of Clark having spent 15 years as a drifter while looking for his origins is... well, it's dumb. Why didn't he ever stick that key into the spaceship in the barn? The technology should have been exactly the same. Or is it that the spaceship was "broken"? I'm just not buying that explanation. And why would he even expect to find anything else on Earth from wherever it was he was from? There's no good logic for any of that. It's just a contrived way to bring Lois into contact with Clark and not a very good one at that. And I have nothing to say about the "symbolism" of having Clark be 33 when Zod comes to Earth. That, also, was just dumb. As was Clark learning to fly, basically, because daddy left him a super suit. For which, by the way, there is no good reason for it to have been on a spaceship buried under arctic ice for 20,000 years.

The beginning of the movie, though, I liked. Mostly. It was good to have a back story for Zod beyond "space criminal." The swimming scene and the codex being a skull, though, was, again, dumb. As was depositing the codex within the body of baby Kal-El. The rest was pretty cool, even if it was rather like watching Star Wars what with the big battleships while Jor-El flew around on some kind of giant insect. Yes, I'm overlooking the part where, basically, the entire population of Krypton chooses to stay on Krypton and die rather than evacuate despite having the technology to do so. [I'm also overlooking the fact that, evidently, every single Kryptonian colony failed despite having huge world engine terraforming machines.]

So... we open the move with Zod, and we end the movie with Zod. It was a movie about Zod. And the end of the movie just went on and on and the destruction was beyond my ability to accept. See, here's the thing, we, as viewers, accept that Superman is a good guy, because, well, we know he's a good guy. We have 75 years of prior knowledge that tells us he's a good guy. But the people of Earth in the movie have no such prior knowledge. They don't know who Superman is any more than they know who Zod is. What they do know is that two aliens showed up and destroyed a major city and tried to destroy the world. But, yet, they just accept that Superman is a "good guy," and Nolan gets away with it because he bases that on our knowledge of the character, not what's revealed of the character in the movie (who, remember, allowed his human father to die because of an argument).

But how was Zod? So much of the focus is on him, so how was he? Michael Shannon was, actually, very excellent as Zod. If you've seen him in Boardwalk Empire, it's apparent why he was chose, and it was a good call. He brings just the right amount of zeal to the role to make it believable.

Russel Crowe, whom I generally dislike, was pretty good in his role as Jor-El. Well, except for the hide-and-seek bit in the spaceship, but that was hardly his fault. Seriously? The virtual Jor-El is going to play hide-and-seek with his son upon being uploaded? Another bit of contrivance to get Clark out of the way so that Lois could injured. [And, um, just why didn't Clark hear her coming down  the tunnel? It's not like she was being quiet. Or that that should have mattered at all.]

Henry Cavill was adequate as Superman, although I think he really got the part due to his resemblance to Tom Welling from Smallville. They have the same "farm-boyish" grin. I liked Costner as Jonathan, even if I didn't like the part, much, as it was written. I don't have, however, have strong positive feelings for Diane Lane as Martha. I also thought Amy Adams was good in her role. The rest were non-spectacular.

The final result is that I have a lot of mixed feelings about this newest Superman, which is a far cry better than how I felt about the last Superman. This new one is just too much Nolan for me, who seems to be more concerned on an ongoing basis with what seems cool rather than what makes a good story. Seriously, I didn't need more of the Inception-type building collapses. I am interested to see where Nolan is going to take the story, unless this just ends up being a setup for the JLA movie that DC and Warner Brothers are still trying to get off the ground, at which point, I will decide that DC needs to scrap all the previous movie history it's developed and start over, just like they keep doing with their comic book world. Maybe, someday, they'll get it right.


  1. I haven't seen the movie. After reading this I doubt I will. My youngest son said something to me awhile back about heroes in comics. I can't quote it exactly but the gist was this: He had much rather see a story about why a character was a hero than one about a hero doing things. I think that applies here.

    The thing that really bothers me though, if I understood correctly, Superman has no real character you can get a handle on. It seems his actions range from criminally petty (negligent in his father's death) to misguided (destroying a city) to heroic. No I didn't the heroic part but assume there must be one.

    Thanks Andrew. The reading was fun and informative!

  2. You really need to learn to shut your brain off for certain movies.
    I didn't think it was all about Zod. Although the tornado scene was dumb, I'll grant you that.
    The new Superman is based on The New 52 DC comics, which is why some things were different. And no, I haven't read them. Like to find someone who has and see what he thought of the film.
    It wasn't the best superhero film by a long stretch, but it was good enough to fuel a sequel. And get us past the origins story.

  3. Your post here is a great example of what I am talking about in my own post today - pop culture. I can't comment on this post b/c I know nothing about much of what you wrote.
    I put myself outside the culture when I don't stay on top of this stuff but really? Really, I would rather read James Hillman or go over to Salt Point and take a hike.
    But then I whine about not being in touch with the popular culture. Go figure.

  4. Can't argue with most of your points. There were some headscratching moments and others where I just sighed. Diane Lane sucked in that role. Is she married to Zack Snyder? For some reason I kept thinking that and figured that's why she got the role, like why Winona Ryder played Spock's mom. (Turns out she's not. She had to be screwing someone at the studio to get that part.)

    In the New 52 Superman finds the suit inside Brainiac and it's just a normal Kryptonian spacesuit; his father didn't give it to him. Though really the idea it has an English "S" on it is ridiculous. It's as ridiculous as the idea that Jonathan Kent dies in a tornado to save a freaking dog. I think in the New 52 he dies of a heart attack, which was better because it illustrated the idea that even with all his powers, there are some things not even Superman can do.

    Anyway, you should check out this author blogger's series "The Superman Rebuttals"

  5. I did NOT share your same dismay with the movie. I liked it, and it made me think - I've been working on a whole post that will be insanely long and I'll publish it, but it won't be a rebuttal to yours, which is well-written, etc., as usual.

    But a few thoughts:

    "hey don't know who Superman is any more than they know who Zod is. What they do know is that two aliens showed up and destroyed a major city and tried to destroy the world. But, yet, they just accept that Superman is a "good guy," and Nolan gets away with it because he bases that on our knowledge of the character, not what's revealed of the character in the movie (who, remember, allowed his human father to die because of an argument)."

    I think that's wrong: The humans know that Zod showed up and demanded Superman, and Superman turned himself in, and they know then that Zod set up the two machines and began attacking. Those that didn't see Superman going to destroy the machine in the Indian Ocean would have certainly heard about it later. So while they initially wouldn't know that he's necessarily good -- as was explained when they cuffed him-- they'd at least have a reason to think he's on their side as the fight starts.

    As for wandering for 15 years, I didn't think that was to find Krpytonian stuff. I thought he just wasn't sure where to fit into the world, and was trying to figure out what to do. He knew he was an alien, but didn't know anything else, and wasn't even sure what his powers might be. He'd also spent his entire boyhood being told to be careful about revealing himself to the world, and yet obviously had a strong desire to help people. So I took it as he was wandering for a while to try to figure things out, without any real guidance. The fact that he found the Kryptonian thing seemed a coincidence -- he overheard those guys at the bar telling about it.

    (He may have been wandering and looking for things to help him figure it out, thinking that if HIS ship crashed here, maybe other things did, too, and been on the lookout for such information.)

    I didn't hate the movie, at all. I found it very thought-provoking and an enjoyable couple of hours.

  6. I agree with everything you've said here. I really didn't like the Man of Steel movie and have told people I know to stay away from it.

  7. If MoS had been called General Zod instead, I would have been WAY more excited about seeing it. The Zodishness of the thing was pretty much the reason I liked it, but I've always enjoyed the villain's perspective more than the average superhero's.

    I mostly enjoyed watching it, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. Weirdly, I'm glad I saw the film so I could more completely appreciate this takedown. Huh.

  8. David: No, he really doesn't have any development in the movie; that's left to be supplied by our outside knowledge of the character.

    Alex: My brain doesn't really have an "off" switch. There have been times when I've wished that it did, but, overall, I'm fine with it.

    Graciewilde: Maybe you should look into some Joss Whedon.

    PT: I'm okay with the Kryptonian symbol looking like an "S," but I don't really know why we have to have it be that way. For more than 50 years, there was an "S" on the suit because Marthe Kent put it there; I'm not sure why there is a need to change that.

    I'll check out that series.

    Briane: See, the movie did not make me think. At all.

    And, although I agree that mankind may have at some point come to see that Superman saved them from Zod, that is not how humans react in the moment. Zod had played it up as if Kal-El was some kind of criminal hiding out on Earth, so, even though Zod attacked and all of that, the natural reaction of people would be to blame Superman for being here and causing all of the destruction. It would take a long time for the truth to get out there. It just... works better... to have Superman already being Superman and having the world's trust if you want him to have the world's trust.

    And I think the blatant implication in the movie is that Clark was wandering around the planet looking for clues. And, then, oh, look! a super suit and I can suddenly fly.

    I didn't hate the movie; I just don't think it's great. It wasn't on par with Dark Knight Rises as far as logic goes, which isn't that far.

    Michael: I think if it's a movie you're going to see, you should probably do it in the theater. At least, that way, you get the big theater experience for the parts that benefit from that.

    Elizabeth: LOL Well, that works for me. And, now, I can I say I took down the Man of Steel, right?

    I think part of the problem with DC is that, pretty much, all of their heroes are "average." They don't tend to have characters with complex motivations the way Marvel does.

  9. I'm afraid my son would argue vehemently with your last statement and I have to say of the little I know about comics and comic book character movies, I thought "Watchmen" was very good with several good/great characters. The greatest of these being Rorschach.

  10. Haven't seen it. Now I'm in no hurry. Damn. I thought maybe it would be good. I generally like Nolan...
    Tina @ Life is Good

  11. at which point, I will decide that DC needs to scrap all the previous movie history it's developed and start over, just like they keep doing with their comic book world.

    It seems that both DC and Marvel's behavior in the comic book world translates over pretty equally to the way they go about movies. I am very skeptical of the success/quality of a JLA movie. DC needs to find a way that works for them instead of scrambling to copy Marvel's success.

    Also, great review. Kind of cements my resolve to wait for the DVD to see the movie.

  12. Not seen it and now not likely to. Christopher Reeve was Superman to me, don't want to see anyone else in the role.

  13. I haven't seen the movie, but from what I've gleaned from friends, it seems like it's trying to be another Batman rather than starting with Superman and building out from there. The character has to be racked with guilt, constantly questioning himself, blah blah blah. I think Nolan should've tried to build on the Superman mythos the way he did with Batman, making it appropriate for the character and his feel in the comics.

    And look how much I've gone on about a superhero movie. Well, in any case, you must be a great critique partner.

  14. David: Watchmen isn't part of DC's universe. Superman is a good guy because he's a good guy. Wonder Woman is a good guy because she's a good guy. Green Lantern and the Flash are good guys because they are good guys. The most complicated you get are Batman, who watched his parents die (but who isn't out for revenge (like the Punisher)), and Green Arrow.

    Those heroes just don't exist in Marvel. The closest you get is Captain America, who is a good guy but who stated out as someone completely without power but wanting to make a difference.

    Tina: Nolan's last movie that was any good was Batman Begins.

    Lauren: It has so far, yes. Marvel has done an incredible job of integrating their movies and forming a cohesive history. DC just doesn't seem to be able to do that. (I actually did a series of posts on that some while back.)

    Jo: See, I liked George Reeves. I grew up watching him as Superman.

    Jeanne: I wouldn't actually know. I do do some editing, but I also get asked to be gentle.

  15. I'm with you on all the mixed feelings. It's so surprising to me how different this is from Batman Begins, which was a wonderful origin story. I felt like I was starting over and learning a new face of Batman with that film. This time around with Man of Steel, I agree if you don't know a lot of Superman stuff already, this felt very muddled. I wanted to like it so much! It was casted well, shot beautifully, lots of action, an alpha-Lois who was easy to root for, and yet. It was like all flash for me and no story. I agree that Clark/Kal-El did not feel like the main character of the story. This was more like the Star Wars prequels where lots of characters have air time and we are looking in on everybody without really getting close to anyone.

  16. Stephsco: Back when Nolan did Batman Begins, he was still trying to prove himself. These days, it feels like he thinks he can just do whatever he wants, so why bother with having a story that makes sense or that people can relate to, because everyone will go see it anyway. It's unfortunate.

  17. I basically thought it was average at best. I really like some of the performances, like Amy Adams, Lawrence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and others, but I just don't really care for Superman in general.

    How did you feel about the complete retelling of Lois' relationship with Clark? It was an interesting idea for a twist, I suppose, but I'm not sure it worked that well.

  18. Matthew: I did not like that she already knew who he was upon his arrival at the Daily Planet. Of course, I have issues with the fact that he, basically, just walks in and gets hired at the Daily Planet with, from what we can tell, no experience whatsoever. It's one of those things where Nolan is relying upon our outside knowledge of the character (he's -supposed- to work there) rather than setting the groundwork for it.