Wednesday, August 27, 2014


The Order vs The Order


Institutions always want to put conflicts in terms of order and chaos. Control is easier to maintain and to justify if you define life that way, drawing a clear divide between the benevolent forces of order and the insidious agents of chaos. This sort of binary conflict is rife throughout the language that defines our world. Dungeons and Dragons, for example. I’m sure there are others. But it seems to me that more often than not, it is systems of order which bring chaos, by coming into conflict with each other. Order seeks to impose control by its very definition, and different systems of control are inevitably and resolutely in competition with each other. History has given us plenty of examples of such clashes; the rigid dogmatism of the Catholic Church against the structured pragmatism of the scientific method. The systematic economic mechanics of Capitalism against the humanist redistribution of Socialism. The machiavellian machinations of big business against the pugnacious discipline of organized labor. The goofy crappiness of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s THE ORDER (2001) against the gloomy crappiness of Heath Ledger’s THE ORDER (2003).

Let’s pick one of those conflicts at random to explore a little further.

The Order (2001)
Dir. Sheldon Lettich
Written by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Les Weldon
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Charlton Heston (!?!), Sophia Milos, Brian Thompson, Ben Cross

First of all, I know what you’re thinking. “Wouldn’t it have been great if Van Damme had been in this and then also in Coline Serreau’s CHAOS that same year?!” I know, I know, maybe he’d have been a little out of place in a movie Stephen Holden called a, "gripping feminist fable with a savage comic edge." But at least he could have gotten on-board with 2005’s Statham/Snipes debacle CHAOS. Or 2005’s other CHAOS, the notorious LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT ripoff from “Demon” Dave DeFalco. Or I guess even the Japanese Hideo Nakata CHAOS from 2000. Or the 2008 Herman Yau Hong Kong CHAOS. Or if he wanted to get creative, he could have Timecop’d himself back to 1984 and starred in the Donatello-award winning Italian drama KAOS. I guess he was already in BREAKIN’ in ‘84, and who can forget his memorable turn as “Gay Karate Man” in MONACO FOREVER that same year, so I dunno, might not want to mess with the space time continuum there, might not be worth it to lose those. But still.

Anyway, there’s obviously plenty of movies about chaos, he should get on one. That’s my point. But in 2001, Van Damme’s mind was on Order, so he starred in this movie THE ORDER.

In this THE ORDER, Van Damme plays Rudy "Can't Fail" Cafmeyer, one of those suave high-class historical artifact heisters that you always hear about in movies but never in real life for some reason. In the first scene, he liberates a Faberge egg from some kind of private museum with lasers and repelling and so on. It all seemed kinda familiar for some reason, until I realized that they use the same footage for a similar art heist scene at the start of Seagal’s TODAY YOU DIE. That ninja-clad stunt double got to play both Van Damme and Seagal in the same scene!

Problem is, his swashbuckling ninja-impersonating artifact-thieving ways are leading to a rift with his studious academic father Ozzie, who gets himself kidnapped by a mysterious Israeli religious sect after he discovers their sacred document.

Oh right, I should probably also mention this one begins hundred of years ago during the Crusades, when a guru-bearded Crusader (also Van Damme) decides to become the Messiah of a new religion and write up some sacred scrolls, only one of which will be important here. The movie considers this an extremely honorable goal, and feels the world writ large is poorer for not having the scrolls around anymore. See, right before his death, that notorious prankster Messiah Van Damme buried the most important scroll in the desert somewhere, and since then his followers have only had the other, less important scrolls to follow, compromising his true goal of a religion which doesn’t suck. It’s like how the studio fired Richard Stanley right at the start of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, and then no one knew what to do and they just made it up as they went along and somewhere along the way it turned into this bizarre and disheartening clusterfuck of people trying to throw their weight around, the true meaning of what they were originally trying to do lost in a churning sea of egotism and bad blood. Or like Christianity. You know, one of those things that would have totally been great, if only dot dot dot.

No Van Damme, don't make a joke about the Holy Land now! ... it's right behind you!

The point is, Messiah Van Damme’s religion gets corrupted because he buried the one god damn important scroll, so that asshole Brian Thompson (Alien Bounty Hunter from X-Files, Night Slasher from COBRA, tough-looking mutha from everything else) takes over and turns the religion into some kind of violent car-bombing conspiracy-having nuclear-bomb-threatening cult. For some reason he wants to destroy the Holy Land, and it’s up to Van Damme (modern day, non-Messiah version) to stop him.

OK, got all that? Flash back to modern times. Van Damme’s gotta go to the Holy land to save his father from the kidnappers, who want to utilize the power of the important scroll for [an important reason, I’m sure]. Who’s there to meet him at the airport but, oh my god, how can this be happening, why it’s Hollywood’s own Charleton Heston (Dying Chimpanzee, PLANET OF THE APES 2001). Chuck repeats what he already told us in the opening narration, carries Van Damme’s luggage, and then dies. It would be the third-to-last time he would appear on the silver screen, and the second was BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, not exactly his finest work in my opinion. Oh well, at least he never had to voice a Transformer.  

Listen sonny, I was in WAYNE'S WORLD II so I don't want to hear any of your lip.

With Heston out of the way, Van Damme is free to get involved in a convoluted conspiracy plot, outwit some corrupt local police officers (plus get freaky with a sexy one), run afoul of a bunch of Serbians, almost get into a fight with this big ass dude but then for some reason never actually go through with it, have a couple low-impact car chases, and, most memorably, get involved in an extended Jerusalem foot chase while dressed as a Rabbi (payot and all!).

To its credit, this movie is less serious and more fun than you might imagine a movie about a murderous sect in the Holy Land which features Van Damme as the Messiah might be. It’s one of the lighter Van Damme characters I’ve seen, he’s constantly quipping and joking around and seeming to enjoy himself. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is exactly as chintzy as you would expect from a 2001 DTV production. Despite the exotic location work, most of the camerawork looks like crap, there’s some dodgy CGI, sitcom lighting, crappy acting, and of course it goes without saying on this kind of thing that the plot leaves a few notable questions lingering, one of which being, “what the hell?” I guess that’s OK, but man, remember when Van Damme used to be in movies that looked like, you know, real movies? I mean, NOWHERE TO RUN isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but at least it had decent lighting and told a complete story. THE ORDER has some smiles in it, but you would never confuse it for a movie that was shown in theaters.

This is totally how FOOTNOTE should have ended.

Fortunately, Van Damme has seemingly picked himself up from his early millennial low point, getting involved in some better and more ambitious pictures like JVCD and the two DTV UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequels directed by John Hyams. That’s good, because while THE ORDER isn’t a complete wasteland of entertainment, it’s not nearly competent enough to really be worth your time, particularly in the absence of him also doing a sequel called THE CHAOS. I was banking on the entertainment value of seeing ol’ Chuck Heston in a Van Damme DTV LAST CRUSADE knockoff* but that’s kinda a wash, he’s not really around long enough to leave an impression. I’m more amenable to the Rabbi disguise, which is a funny idea and also coincides with the movie’s only decent action sequence. It’s probably the only part that merits the attention of anyone but the most die-hard Van Damme fans, although in fairness if you make it to the end you’ll get to see Van Damme in a sword fight, something of a rarity.

Product was as described, would The Order again.

One minor aspect I appreciate: despite the Jerusalem setting and religious cults and mystical scrolls, there’s no indication of anything genuinely supernatural anywhere in the movie. In fact, the lost scroll doesn’t have some kind of magic incantation in it; instead, it advises Messiah Van Damme’s followers to be a little nicer to people. I think we can all stand to learn a little something about that, be it from an ancient scroll or a JCVDDTV flick.

* No, not that KNOCKOFF with the exploding jeans.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Dir. and written by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright

With ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, it looks like 2014 is finally the year for celebrated indie auteurs to give in and join mainstream film’s inexorable slide towards an all-vampire-all-the-time format. And hey, that works for me, at least while they’re making vampire films they can give zombie films a rest for awhile. And since it’s painfully clear that there’s nowhere left to go with the conceit as it was originally envisioned, I suppose it’s the natural order that now the tattered scraps of the concept drift down to the indie underworld to be fully deconstructed and rebuilt as bijou postmodern trifles. Circle of life, I guess; the whale carcass of the Vampire film has finally exhausted the sharks swimming near the culture’s surface and has drifted down to the ocean’s floor so the giant isopods and spider crabs can wrest the last bit of meat from its bones. What a time to be alive.

But hey, there is an obvious upside: we get a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie! Jarmusch has been cool pretty much since they invented the concept (and has distanced himself now that it got popular), and it’s always fun to see him working in quasi-genre mode (DOWN BY LAW, DEAD MAN, GHOST DOG). Even if this one could stand some cheaper thrills, its neat to see how his offeat, conversational filmmaking incorporates something as shamelessly hokey as vampirism. If it doesn’t lend him the same focus and energy that the urban* samurai concept did in GHOST DOG, at least it gives him a few fun gimmicks to play around with, and adds a little color to his typically talky, cerebral slacker screenplay.

Happiness is a warm blood.

What we got here is this guy, Adam (Loki), an eccentric musician who lives in self-imposed hermitude in a dilapidated rowhouse somewhere in the abandoned ruins of Detroit (no, it’s not in the post-apocalyptic future, that’s just what Detroit looks like now). Between this movie and SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, I’m beginning to wonder if the only remaining residents of Detroit are reclusive musical geniuses, but Adam has an extra gimmick up his sleeve to ace out Rodriguez: he’s a centuries-old vampire (I’m assuming Rodriguez isn’t a vampire, obviously. If he is, the movie is uncharacteristically tactful about it). He’s been kickin’ it with the cool kids for the last couple hundred years, rubbing elbows with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, always a delight), Schubert, Lord Byron, etc. and now apparently spends most of his time name-dropping them into casual conversation. But lately, he's in a funk, shirtlessly sulking in his gloomy, analogue-recording-strewn house and glumly bemoaning the current state of mankind. He’s so gloomy he even considers suicide by way of wooden bullet (cool idea, maybe Blade should consider making the switch to wood) and so his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton, another in a string of great performances this year) decides to leave her Tangiers home and fly over for a visit. At least this way, there's someone around who appreciates the names he's dropping.

On the subject of namedropping, it’s a bigger part of this than you might think. “Remember when you gave that string quintet to Schubert?” they’ll say, and we laugh, haha, its funny because thats a famous person from a long time ago. Jarmusch must find that particularly amusing, because he does it again and again. Possibly more times than you will find amusing, and certainly more times than I did. OK dude I get it, you went to college. But it’s not like these are exactly deep cuts. When Eve (get it? It’s a reference!**) checks onto a commercial flight under the name “Daisy Buchanan,” the obnoxious indie snob audience I watched with tittered, haha, its from The Great Gatsby. Uh, yeah, I guess, but so what? Shit, who knows if she even read the book, she probably just saw the 100 million dollar all-star 3-D movie adaptation from last year. Its weird, Jarmusch has never struck me as a guy who felt insecure enough to name drop a bunch of Freshmen historical references, so I don’t know what he was going for here. It just makes these guys seem like total fame whores. In fact, small wonder their lives are so empty these days given the sorry state of modern celebrity. What, they’re gonna go from Christopher Marlowe to Kim Kardashian? All this depression is starting to come into focus here, I think I cracked the code.

There is one celebrity that we know for sure Adam likes: as he gives Eve the Detroit tour, he excitedly points out the house where Jack White grew up. You’d think he’d introduce himself, being a famous musician and all, but maybe he’s too shy. I mean, he hung with Lord Byron, sure, but Jack White? That’s the big leagues. We don’t find out if the lovebirds also stop at Kid Rock’s house, but I figure it’s implied, obviously. The bigger disappointment is that they don’t go visit Iggy Pop! They could have even got a cameo, since Jarmusch knows him from DEAD MAN and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. So no Iggy, no Kid Rock, no Eminem, and to add insult to injury the one band we see in Detroit (stoner rockers White Hills) are from New York, they’re not even locals. They’re gonna have a lot of Detroit musical cameos to squeeze EXPENDABLES-style into the sequel to make up for that one. Adam’s music, incidentally, is provided by Jarmusch’s own band, the excellently named SQÜRL. Seems a little pretentious to attribute your own music to a character that everyone is constantly calling a musical genius, but oh well, they are pretty good tunes. Maybe a tad gloomy for my usual taste, but they sound cool and work nicely with the atmosphere. Hopefully he can throw a couple novelty joke songs or something on there for the kids before the album drops.

Somewhere in the infinity of existence, there is an alternate universe where Joe Strummer lived long enough to play a vampire in a Jim Jarmusch film. It is a happier universe.

Of course, a little levity was probably a good thought, because on their own these vampires aren’t really a whole lot of fun. They’ve been around so long they’re basically just tired of the whole “life” thing, they’ve reached that stage in their relationship where all they want to do is stay in, watch a movie, drink a little blood, and go to bed early. Both Hiddleston and (especially) Swinton do a brilliant job inhabiting these incomprehensibly ancient creatures, turning in performances which reveal the weight of all the years hanging on their still-youthful bodies. There’s a sense of truly profound romantic melancholy that lingers here; these people are too old to be angry, they’re just sad and clinging tightly to the few truly good things they’ve found in a world which experience has taught them is mostly full of disappointment. There are a few magic moments, as Jarmusch makes use of the jaw-dropping urban decay of modern Detroit, where the haunting atmosphere, low-key sexual intensity, and jarring real-world devastation fold sublimely into each other and create scenes of subtle power. But a few transcendent scenes do not a movie make. Loki and Swinton are never less than excellent, but that doesn’t always translate to being interesting to watch. After all, who wants to watch old people lay around feeling sorry for themselves and mumbling about the world going to crap? After a few days with these morose goth kids, you’re starting to eye that wooden bullet a bit more closely.

Fortunately, just as things seem doomed to sink into an abyss of twee artistic sad-sack self-gratification, Ava happens. Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is Eve’s sister, a force of chaos destructive enough to shake these two grumpy cats out of their slump and introduce a note of jagged volatility to the proceedings. Adam is openly hostile to her over an unspecified event from some time ago (dozens of years? hundreds?) but Eve tries to play peacemaker, keep the family together. For her part, Ava can barely contain her glee in tormenting her somber host.  It’s a fabulous dynamic, because Wasikowska is every bit the dangerous live wire, the total antithesis of our protagonists’ staid, intellectual gloom. This is a being that lives for tumult, and every minute she’s around there’s a crackling apprehension about when and how she’s going to bring the hammer down.

That's a helluva evil eye.

Ava’s introduction jars the film to life, stirring conflict and delivering focus to what was threatening to become an atmospheric but impassive affair. She forces Adam and Eve to get off their asses and actually go places and do things, revealing how surprisingly fragile their little world is and pushing them, reluctantly, into some discomfort. Almost against its will, the film seems to summon some energy and even some tension, testing the resolve of its languid protagonists and making them genuinely consider if it's worth fighting to live in this world which so disappoints them.

At first I wasn’t sure the whole vampire aspect really mattered much, thought maybe it was just kind of a romantic conceit that Jarmusch was associating with gloomy emo kids. But actually in retrospect, it makes more sense: the movie is fundamentally about a kind of parasitic entropy. The vamps in question are parasites of humanity, they need them as a source of food and to secure their safety and anonymity. The humans (derisively referred to as ”Muggles” “Zombies” here***), for their part, are parasites on the very planet itself, sucking it dry and poisoning it and themselves in the process, to the point where their very blood is dangerous fodder. And maybe the whole system is starting to come down, just look at poor Detroit, the shadow of its former splendor still unmistakable enough to taunt the locals with a reminder of better times. Just how long can these two parallel vampire cultures persist before the whole thing collapses, and how are we supposed to feel being part of such a horrifying enterprise?

At first it seems like the movie’s answer is my own: if we’re horrified of the system we hide from it, hole up in a house somewhere feeling depressed and superior to everyone, try to imagine we’re independent from it. But that’s a facade, and the movie’s interested in what our immortal heroes will do to survive if push comes to shove. And of course, we Zombies are no different, we just have a few more middlemen in between us and the murderous vampirism which allows our world to function so we don’t have to experience the consequences of our selfishness quite as directly. At least, not until it all comes down.

Cool kids wear shades. 

Still, I don’t think Jarmusch is judging us, or them; he’s simply bemoaning the inevitable nature of entropy, and that no matter how immortal you may feel, someday everything eventually winds down. Detroit, vampires, rock n’ roll, the amount of amusement you can get from repeating tedious freshman lit references to famous historical figures. All you can do is try and find the things that really mean something to you, and hold onto them as fiercely as you can until they, too, are inevitably taken away. If we do that, maybe on some level our rapaciousness is an act of love, even as its destructive consequences pile up.

Anyway, a pretty good movie if you’re in the mood for a somewhat lethargic, atmospheric-laden vampire slacker romance stoner flick. If this is the future of Indie horror genre deconstructionism, well, at least it’s better than having to deal with a bunch of new Dracula adaptations. It’s a bit slow, a bit meandering, but it gradually draws a kind of ephemeral power out of its quiet alchemy of music, darkness, chattiness, and evocative locations. I think I liked more of it than I loved, but even if in the end only lovers will be left alive****, hopefully us likers will still have a good run. Or at least long enough to see what Spike Lee does with this.

"Remember that historical event that we witnessed that one time?" 

* That’s code for “black guy”

** But, Jarmusch says, not exactly convincingly, not to what you think it is. Instead, it’s a reference to Mark Twain’s “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.” Might want to make that a bit more explicit, Jim; its like saying you’re a big Elvis fan, and then acting confused when I play “Hound Dog” and rejoining that you meant Elvis Costello.

*** Oh great, next thing you know Jarmusch is gonna be making Zombie movies too. 2018 EDIT: Ha, I guess I should have known that, like all things that seemed like a hilarious joke in 2014, this would eventually become a horrifying reality.

**** A subtle variation of the oft-repeated HIGHLANDER prediction, of course. Anyone else thinking crossover?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Man Of Steel

Man of 'Supes (2013)
Dir. Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane (holy shit, is she really in there? I have no specific memory of that), Russell Crowe

Oh yeah, that looks cheery.

Well, I didn’t want to have to do this. I saw this one ages ago, got all my bitching about it out of the way at that time. It seemed like by the time I’d gotten around to seeing MAN OF STEEL, people had pretty much universally turned against it, so I thought, why bother adding yet one more negative voice to the internet, surely I’ve got more constructive things to do with my time (I didn’t, but hey, a man can dream). But then the naysayers kinda went off a cliff, started complaining in advance about the sequel which hasn’t even come out, and that led MOS’s few supporters to rally behind a counterbacklash, which in turn led to talkbackers getting even more whiny, which led even the usually cool-headed Vern to review the movie an unprecedented three separate times to address the complaints and then the complaints about the complaints about the complaints. So I feel like I gotta step in and set the record straight. Actually now that I think about it having typed all that, this is starting to sound like a terrible idea, but fuck it, I’ve come this far. Let’s do this.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: this is NOT a sequel to the classic 1997 Shaquille O'Neal vehicle STEEL. Do not go in thinking that, you will be disappointed. I know it sounds the same and it was also based on a beloved DC comic character, but I’m sorry to say that instead this one is based on the little-known 1938 “Action Comics #1 Man” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and rarely seen since except in comic books, TV shows, video games, lunchboxes, action figures, fluffy fluffy beach towels, boxer shorts, posters, limited edition die-cast 1/6 scale replicas, condom wrappers, raunchy jokes, Seinfeld episodes, Quentin Tarantino screenplays, dense postmodern pop-culture academic screeds, lavish coffee table retrospectives, bedsheets, headphones, decorative china, magazine covers, the internet, and of course literally dozens of movies since 1951. So ok, a little baggage on this one.

Secondly, here’s how I feel about this particular movie: Never before has nothing happened as loudly for 143 minutes. While admittedly pretty, this thing was honestly the most ponderous bore that I saw all year. Not since PROMETHEUS have I seen a movie work this hard to do this little. It’s shockingly over-plotted, relentlessly morose, bloated, thematically overbearing, and just fucking joyless. There’s a couple moderately fun, nicely shot action scenes near the end, but by the time you get to them you’ve already had to suffer through nearly two hours of almost pure fat, a desolate non-story that would have been better told in 15 minutes, instead stretched to 2+ hours. I do think director Zack Snyder –a reliably great visualist– has a decent Supes movie in him somewhere, but writer David Goyer (BLADE III) and comic book enthusiast/producer Christopher Nolan are dragging him down by painfully overthinking something that should be simple and charming.

Hmmm... I wonder how I can ruin this.

All that is a matter of public record. But I thought it might be worth exploring that overthinking bit, because I believe the overthinking is at the heart of everything that bored me so direly in this lumbering ambien tablet posing as a movie. Here’s the thing: Superman is an utterly simplistic concept meant to be an empowerment fantasy for children, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Until you start to get embarrassed about it. I complained about that feeling a little with Nolan’s BATMAN films, but managed to enjoy those anyway. This one, though, is probably the worst offender I’ve seen yet; even more than the BATMANses, it feels like here Nolan et al are trying to tart up this cheerfully simplistic empowerment fantasy with a bunch of self-consciously gloomy grown-up claptrap because they don’t think we’ll take them seriously otherwise. Guys, you don’t have to apologize for the material being juvenile. It IS juvenile, that’s why it was made for kids to begin with. But it’s OK that it was, because it has the benefit of being simple and entertaining; it’s elegantly made for cinema already, bursting with iconic visuals and mythic conflict. Why try to cover that up with a bunch of clutter about Kevin Costner trying to save a dog and so on? I mean, what’s next, a 2 1/2 hour epic tale of CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG where they spend two hours establishing that he was tormented as a puppy and writing in dozens of pointless subplots about uninteresting minor characters before the big finale where he kills the guy who murdered his alien father (don’t worry, we’ll spend 40 minutes establishing the father first)*? Maybe make a 143 minute epic gloomfest MARMADUKE movie about the eternal schism between webs of perceptive consciousness?

I don’t know that Superman has any LESS right to be taken seriously than any other comic character, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to turn it into a solemn, joyless and convoluted 2 1/2 hour epic. In fact, I think with the marginal exception of Nolan’s good/sometimes great Batmanses, it’s generally a bad idea to do that to ANY superhero; they’re just inherently too conceptually absurd. There’s simply no way around the fact that Superman as a concept is ridiculous. He’s an alien who looks exactly like a human, is solar powered, shoots (lazer?) beams from his eyes, flies through the air wearing a cape, has super speed, super strength, invulnerability, and a secret identity based entirely on his wearing glasses. I mean, I defy you to try and argue that a hero with those characteristics isn’t outright laughable. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a worthwhile subject for film, it just means that the best superhero films embrace the fundamental silliness of their concept and don’t apologize for it.

Exactly the sort of situation where you really miss the red underpants.

That doesn’t mean the best comic adaptations don’t want or deserve to be taken seriously; quite the contrary. They just refrain from insisting that we’re too grown up to have any fun. I like comic book movies, but there’s a way to take the characters and stakes of the universe seriously without without turning it into an epic mope-fest which puts theme before pleasure. In fact, I think there’s a lot more dignity in that than in sweeping decades of goofball history under the rug and pretending this was always intended for philosophy majors. No one watches a Superman movie primarily hoping to learn something valuable in the human experience which explains why the man-god chooses benevolence over conquest. It’s all well and good if it’s in there, but contorting the whole structure solely to make that point is a dire error. And the biggest reason for that is that Superman already worked just fine. I mean, remember about the beach towels and lunchboxes and everything? This concept already worked on its own, this character has unambiguously come to define the very concept of what a superhero is, and in all that time no one seemed to mind that it wasn’t loaded with a bunch of pop pyschobabble and weighty thematic claptrap. Why the heck would you make a Superman movie if you’re so embarrassed about the character that you’ve gotta load all that bullshit onto him before you figure he’s ready for the big screen?

This to some degree is at the heart of the conversation I’ve been having with myself about the approaches DC and Marvel have respectively taken towards the cinematic remaking of their worlds. Whereas Marvel has tended to more or less directly adapt their colorful, cheerfully absurd universe directly to cinema, DC (perhaps still smarting from the BATMAN FOREVER N’ ROBIN public shaming they took in the 90’s) seems to think it needs to approach these topics with a grimness that would typically be reserved for a candlelight vigil honoring the victims in a recently discovered mass grave. And even then it would have to be a mass grave they were pretty sure was mostly wealthy white girls, no less than four of them at least B-list celebrities. Just like Supes, it’s not that I don’t think Batman deserves to be taken seriously; I just wish the movies would do it on the comic’s own terms. Why adapt such an absurd concept if you’re just going to weasel out of gimmicky villains and magical nonsense, especially if you’re just going to replace it with equally hackneyed bullshit (RISE’s supervillain holding the city hostage with a nuclear bomb) and still try and pretend this is some kind of gritty realism? I mean, the way I figure, you gotta either embrace the pulp or just admit that maybe you don’t want to make a comic book movie after all. This just isn’t the best subject matter through which to examine reality. You can’t just make a big ridiculous thriller full of absurd nonsense and then try and claim it’s an issues movie. No matter how rich your dissertation of modern alienation or whatever is, eventually I’m just gonna notice that there’s a handsome young man in a cape flying through the air in it, and, I’m sorry, that’s probably gonna bring me out of it.

I mean Jesus, is this a Superman movie or a Morrissey album?

By all means, if you’re feeling serious about the character, put some serious drama in there. This year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, for example, does a magnificent job in gilding a fun, action-packed comic book story with some subtle commentary on modern American Imperialism. But let’s start by having fun, not by thinking how we need to turn Superman into SOPHIE’S CHOICE. It feels disingenuous, like they started by trying to think of something heavy and serious to say about the character, and then built the story around that. I think that’s why the PROMETHEUS parallel feels so right to me. Both feel like fundamentally silly movies trying desperately to seem mature and important, and contorting themselves unnaturally and counterintuitively to do it. And this is from a guy who fucking LOVES Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS, which is arguably even less action-oriented and more deliberately plotty. But that one, at least, felt like a natural part of Superman’s ridiculous but earnest universe, not an apology for it. MOS feels to me like an enormously insecure movie, a movie that doesn’t think you’ll care until it can convince you that it’s not just entertaining but important. Why? I enjoy Superman, guys, that’s why I paid for it. It’s OK to just tell a story and then let the themes naturally emerge. The Marvel movies, while not perfect, seem to have accepted that idea much more than the DC ones. They’re confident enough to put their actual characters front and center and just let the action play out, without having to circuitously reinvent everything so it seems dark and portentous. Now, obviously that’s not a sure thing either; I think we’d all prefer to avoid another GREEN LANTERN. But I would argue there’s a pretty wide middle ground there which gets the most out of the juvenile but enjoyable premises without collapsing into a frantic, charmless bore.


But I don’t know, I’ve taken dumber concepts more seriously. I mean,  maybe most of the comic films I really love take themselves a little less seriously than this one does, but I guess it would be foolish to complain about a genre movie with some real ambition for thematic depth. It’s not like I’m demanding that comic films should be smirking, disposable trifles. Hell, even Nolan’s BATDANCE films pretty much worked for me, even though I still struggled with their inherent ridiculousness balanced against their self-conscious seriousness. At the end of the day, the real problem here is that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion in the first place if the movie worked. Maybe it’s possible to make a movie like this that does work, that manages to be weighty and epic and deeply felt while still being about a flying alien guy in a cape, and the day I see it I’ll be a happy man. But MAN OF STEEL isn’t just wrongheaded in its approach to the material, it’s simply turgid and convoluted, an overplotted mess of superficial themes and unearned pretensions. And that’s the real bottom line here. If you’re gonna shoot for important instead of fun, with a concept this silly, you better be prepared to back up your ambition with genuine content. And MOS is not.

Truck Talks. Son, there comes a time in every young man's life when his father sends him to another planet where he's basically invincible and then his adopted father who wants to make sure he never lives up to his potential suicidally walks into a tornado to save a dog, but then later the kid reads an Ayn Rand novel or something and figures Dad was wrong and has to save the human race from these asshole guys who were punished for overthrowing the government by being put into the last ship leaving a dying planet, and then mankind is scared of him but he has a secret identity where he wears glasses and acts like a dork except it seems like everyone knows who he is anyway, I dunno. Anyway, it's the oldest story in the book. The important thing is, we can all relate to that.

Oh, it’s got themes and stuff. Plenty of that. On paper it’s got narrative and story arcs and conflicts. Its not like the Prequels or TRANSFORMERS or something, where it just seems like a bunch of random exposition and action scenes jumbled together. This all feels deliberate and plotty, very planned out for maximum impact. At its core, it’s supposed to be about the ol’ Man of Supes finding his place in the world, an outsider who still stands up for the good aspects of mankind, even if maybe we don’t always give him a ton of reasons to.
But the problem is that I just don’t see that element meaningfully dramatized in this movie. In fact, Bill’s monologue on the subject in KILL BILL 2 probably better summarized the interesting dynamic between super and normal men than the whole 2+ hours of MOS. I get what Goyer/Nolan were going for, but although I see the CONFLICT spelled out, I don’t see a meaningful change for the character. Why does Cal L. Superman (Henry Cavill, HELLRAISER 8: HELLWORLD**) choose Earth over Krypton, even when a ridiculously transparent plot device gives him the option to choose? Pretty much just because he grew up here. I guess? There’s never really any genuine conflict about it, he never for a single minute appears to take seriously the idea that there’s a real debate about what he should do. WHY does he decide to save a bunch of assholes? I really don’t know, he never seems to be given a chance to genuinely think about the matter beyond a few simple platitudes. So even the central conflict feels like its rushed and unearned (not to mention a bit hard to relate to, unless you are someone who holds enormous personal power but have been instructed by Kevin Costner never to use it for fear that you’ll reveal yourself to be an alien). Not a single dramatic beat here feels intuitive and earned. Every bit feels conspicuously, self-consciously constructed, which might be tolerable if it was more fun, but at this level of serious it just ended up feeling labored and dull. I just can’t make myself ignore Goyer and Nolan running around stuffing overbearing themes into everything and preventing it from ever really taking off and feeling like a genuine adventure film unfolding naturally in service of telling a story.

Buried alive in skulls: admittedly a pretty badass way to go, but still inconvenient.

And alas, for all their fretting, all their labored plotting to set up these themes, the movie never really gets around to actually developing any of the characters much. Surely 143 minutes was enough time to at least introduce us to this character Superman, right? But somehow it never seems to get around to that. A lot of time is spent on tertiary characters, and a significant portion of the middle of the film is spent from an outsider’s perspective, painting Supes himself as a mysterious figure. And even when it finally does get to the man of the hour, his motivations have to be explicitly stated aloud for us to understand the conflict. When you’re reduced to that, you probably haven’t told a story very well.

For all the movie’s bluster, there’s a palpable sense of panicked desperation about conveying its most basic conflicts. How many times must we stop the action and flash back to Kevin Costner lecturing Clark before they’re convinced that the point has been made***? How many times do we have to drive home the fact that his power means he’ll forever be separated from us? We get it, guys. It’s just not all that interesting, please, fucking move on and tell an actual story that might be enjoyable. In fact, for all of MOS’s longwindedness, I’d argue that most of the best issues at the heart of the movie are completely underdeveloped. The mostly nonverbal finale is well-crafted, but by the time it arrived I had already completely checked out and just started to see a bunch of problematic elements there, too. How does Supes end up winning against Zod**** (Michael Shannon, DEAD BIRDS, GROUNDHOG DAY [seriously!]), who correctly points out that he’s been training for this moment his whole life? The fight goes one way and then another, and then just randomly Supes wins, (spoilers) kills Zod, and gets all sad about it. Why is he sad? I don’t honestly know, we don’t know enough about him to really know if he just doesn’t like killing, or he’s sad to kill off the last of his own species, or what. There’s definitely an interesting conflict there in theory, but despite all the bluster the script doesn’t really give us much meat.

"Who do you Fight For?" is the tagline, but I'm kinda stumped. I guess if "the right to party" is taken, I suppose I'll take "self-actualization." Or at least, "to save the family dog so my dad doesn't die like a jackass." 

But even THAT might be forgivable if the movie had simply been more fun. I can take over-plotted nonsense, I can take ill-advised self-serious hokum, I can deal with gloopy melodrama, but you damn well better entertain me. And MOS spends surprisingly little time on that goal. As we all know, Snyder has a fabulous eye, and so several action sequences scattered throughout the film (mostly at the end) are at least striking, capturing some unmistakably potent images of this American icon. But despite his obvious visual prowess, Snyder doesn’t have a great grasp of rhythm or tone. His movies always look great, but they’re pitched at the same hysterical frequency all the way through; every scene is presented as the most intense scene ever, whether the content merits it or not. You’d think that would result in a more relentlessly gripping cinematic experience, but actually the opposite is the case: you simply burn out after awhile, everything looks expensive but nothing comes off as very thrilling. I’ll admit, by the time it gets to the world-wrecking chaos of the finale, the sheer scale of the spectacle does generate some mild interest, but honestly even that has a curiously unfocused mechanic (at one point, Supes has to defeat a giant robot octopus by flying at it really hard) and after 2 hours of tedium, it’s just not enough to turn the tide. Smash all the buildings you want, but until you can actually make me care about what’s happening, it’s just gonna be special effects.

I mean, it’s weird, there’s lots of stuff that sounds fun on paper. Russell Crowe commutes home on an alien dragon, then returns from beyond the grave as a computer face in pin art. Michael Shannon mega-acts till he gets a nosebleed. Supes breaks the sound barrier, shoots eye-beams at people, fights superpowered aliens in rockin’ robot spacesuits. There’s that giant robot octopus, a fortress of solitude, superman saving helicopters, fighter jets, and destroying virtually every kind of four-walled structure mankind has yet devised. But I dunno, it just never overcomes its sense of grim lugubriousness enough to have any of this stuff read as fun. I think that’s what the nerds complaining online that Superman doesn’t save enough people are ultimately mad about; everything here just seems so serious that you can’t just brush off the wholesale destruction of a major American city the way you’d be able to in a movie with a sillier, lighter tone like THE AVENGERS. Snyder wants us to see the tragedy of Superman’s life; he feels guilty if he uses his powers because Pa didn’t want him to, but also feels guilty about not using them when he has the power to save people. He feels alienated from humans because he’s so much better at everything than them, but also alienated from the Kryptonians because they’re such assholes. Sad, sad Superman. But he’s the star here, and if he’s sad, we’re gonna be, too. How can we enjoy all the destruction when Snyder’s busy stuffing down our throats how emotionally traumatic all of this is? Especially when the trauma is too rote and ill-defined to have much impact either?

Michael Shannon reacts to the MoS dailies.

So what we’re left with is a bloated, pretentious, somber slog, far too dismal to have fun with but far too ludicrous to take seriously as an epic tragedy. It’s stuffed with characters who mostly have nothing to do, but somehow seems to never get around to focusing on the characters who do have something to do. It’s clearly expensive and sumptuously filmed and jam-packed with aliens and spaceships and stuff, but somehow never seems to produce any images which inspire genuine awe. It has lots of action but virtually no genuine excitement, and in fact is so mopey that when the spectacle does get truly grand-scale, all you can think about is the immense human suffering it’s going to engender. What does that leave you with?

Nothing. I mean, really, just nothing. It leaves you with a 143 minute hole, which cost 225 million dollars to make. Why this was done, I do not know; all I can say is that it should not have been done. This is fucking SUPERMAN, for cryin’ out loud! How do you not turn that into a big, rousing, crowdpleasing empowerment fantasy? The overthinking that went into bungling this is the only legitimately epic thing about the whole sorry affair.

Anyway, I don’t really care, it’s just a loud, long, crappy movie, its not like it’s worth getting mad and writing 3600 words about or anything, though now that I have I feel confident that the matter is now settled and we'll never have to talk about it again. We’ve had plenty of Superman movies before this, and we’ll have plenty after, some good, some terrible, most kinda stilly and stupid but affable enough that we kind of remember them fondly later. And I don’t really give a fuck about Superman anyway, so what the heck do I care? But listen DC, you better learn from this experience. If you fuck up your inevitable STEEL remake, both Shaq and I are pulling out the pitchforks.

*I hope not, because that would be unfaithful to the beloved Clifford the Dog character at least as far as I am aware.

**Cavill is so terrible in that one that his bad acting is noteworthy even in the 8th Hellraiser sequel, four movies into their direct-to-video period. He’s fine in this one, though, as far as it goes; he looks the part and manages to not look ridiculous in flight.

***Dad’s noble sacrifice of his own life to save the family dog is the most hilarious dog-related melodrama since Christian Bale decides to bring down society instead of murder a puppy in EQUILIBRIUM, and I appreciate that. But I have some questions about Pa Kent’s logic here. “Son, you can’t go save that dog or everyone will think you’re an alien.” Makes perfect sense obviously, except then he goes and tries to do exactly that and yet no one seems to think he’s an alien, for whatever weird reason. Maybe he just means “Son, you can’t go save that dog and survive or everyone will think you’re an alien,” but if that’s the case, he’s basically intentionally planning to die for a dog too stupid to get out of the way of a tornado OR come when called.

***By the way, let’s take a moment to consider the Kryptonian justice system. “Zod! For you horrifying crimes, I sentence you to be placed on the last ship to leave our crumbling planet, to spend hundreds of years in cryo-sleep, resting comfortably and unaware of time passing, to awake refreshed some day in the future with a ship and all of your underlings immediately at your disposal. Meanwhile, we’ll all die.” Yeah, tough but fair. This is what you get putting Democrats in charge of a dying planet.