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.

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