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Man of Steel (2013)

Donner Party Redux

Fuck hope.

--George Carlin

Well, kids, summer is officially over. Time to pack up. There's nothing more to see here. Like Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the doomed Kryptonian scientist who sent his only begotten son to Earth, all my hopes and dreams for a salvageable blockbuster season rested on Man of Steel. Following Iron Man 3's promising kick-off, movie after movie after movie after movie have announced themselves mightily at the box office, only to be revealed as a parade of sloppy drunks in million-dollar clothes. Zack Snyder's new Superman picture is no exception, and I may just take the next few months off from reviewing to give my brain and heart a chance to heal.*

This movie is full of ingredients, most of them wrong for putting together a great Superman movie. The current wisdom holds that Richard Donner's Superman and Superman II are nothing more than dated 70s fare, too cheesy to even consider as good films--let alone classics. Further, Bryan Singer's failed 2006 reboot, Superman Returns, was so married to the past and so devoid of honest-to-God superheroics as to be barely considered a Superman movie at all. In order to appeal to modern audiences, the thinking goes, the franchise must become a gritty, hyper-violent, CGI spectacle.

Wonder, heart, and intelligence? We don't serve their kind here.

I understand how things may have gotten so jumbled. David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan resurrected the Batman brand by steering that character in a darker, more realistic direction, and the gamble paid off: anchored largely by the outrageous success of The Dark Knight, their three films became genuine pop cultural phenomena. So it's no wonder that Warner Brothers and DC tapped them to work that same nihilistic mojo on the Man of Steel.

On the directing side of things, Snyder had delivered a string of ultra-violent hits with Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen (another DC Comics property); his track record was so lucrative that it was no big deal, I'm sure, to overlook the widely ignored flop, Sucker Punch, and give him a shot at the cape. If nothing else, Snyder is renowned for immersive, opulent effects marvels, and from a strictly visual standpoint, I was excited to hear that he'd landed the job.

Man of Steel's greatest problem is that, despite what the horde of sad, above-it-all millenniasl think of Donner's movies, they cast a wide shadow across the public consciousness when it comes to Superman. Remove the spots of corny dialogue, and remember that the special effects were, for its day, just as revolutionary as those in Snyder's version, and you have a tightly scripted, emotionally stirring fable that speaks to mankind's highest aspirations. For a genuine franchise reboot to work, the creative team would have to come up with something so daring and iconic as to give moviegoers a new language with which to speak about the character. Unfortunately, they get tongue-tied early on, mistaking plot-heaviness for solid storytelling, and harsh, quick-cutting action for heroism.

You may think it unfair of me to compare Man of Steel to Superman and Superman II--and it would be, if Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer hadn't delivered a charmless, brainless remake of those films. It's as if they were too scared to forge new territory and decided to "make better" the one story that most of the audience was already familiar with (see also Star Trek Into Darkness). That story, of course, is one part origin, one part showdown with Kryptonian military nut-job General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Lest the studio risk losing a single dollar from a mouth-breathing, peak-hours-IMAX-3D ticket holder, we spend half the movie revisiting one of the most popular origin stories in contemporary fiction. I'd give credit to the writers for not simply rubber-stamping it, had they not bogged down the telling with flying dragons, superfluous junk about the politics of Kryptonian genetic engineering programs (flashbacks to The Phantom Menace's trade embargo storyline are all but guaranteed), and a clunky flashback structure that makes Slumdog Millionaire's game-show narrative device seem refined and honest in comparison.

For the duration of Man of Steel, I never got a sense of who Goyer and Nolan think Clark Kent is--aside from an oddly surly emo-Jesus. There are lots of great little moments between the young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry) and his adoptive father, Johnathan Kent (Kevin Costner), in which the super-powered kid is warned to keep his abilities hidden--implying a kind of mental abuse that goes on for long after Clark learns that he's from another planet. It's an interesting idea, but one that is A) never fully reconciled, thanks to all the pin-balling flashbacks, and B) fundamentally antithetical to who Clark Kent is supposed to be. He's not Bruce Wayne. He isn't haunted and tortured. Clark Kent is an optimist who wants to be among the people of Earth.

The argument, of course, is that this is a new vision of the character, and that the old rules don't apply. But that doesn't hold weight, any more than if the Christian Bale incarnation of Batman had grown up acting like Seth Rogen's Green Hornet. One can play with the details, but the fundamentals must be left intact if one is to successfully reinterpret an iconic story. Henry Cavill's Clark Kent is brooding, snarky, and petty--all the things that the character has never been; this bleeds into the Superman persona, as evidenced by his frequent assurances to the government that he could kill everyone on the planet if he one day decided not to be a "good guy".

Speaking of fundamentals, does anyone else remember when Superman cared about saving lives? Depending on whether or not you have a soul, Man of Steel's forty-five-minute climax (!) will either have you cheering for Superman as he levels Metropolis while fighting Zod and his minions--or you'll be genuinely horrified at the hundreds of thousands of innocent people who were likely turned to pulp amidst all the crumbling buildings and explosions. At every turn, Superman makes no effort do draw the villains away from heavily populated areas (as he did in Superman II); nor to mitigate the damage he causes when throwing iron-bodied Nazi aliens through the city's business district.

In reality, very few people care about this stuff. Man of Steel is "fun, escapist entertainment"--a dumb popcorn movie that everyone should just enjoy with their brains securely set to Airplane Mode. Unfortunately for me, my mind is most active when taking in art, and my enjoyment of any movie is ultimately not up to me; that's the filmmakers' responsibility. If a story is no good, sometimes original visuals will help ease the pain, and vice versa.

What's this? Oh, dear. From a design standpoint, Man of Steel is nothing more than a "greatest hits" of summer blockbusters past. Apparently, Superman and Spider-man share a mesh-Lycra jumpsuit tailor. And Zod's crew look to have stopped by Prometheus' Engineer homeworld when shopping for spacewear (I'm not sure if that was before or after they commissioned a warship from the people who brought us the Narada from 2009's Star Trek). The biggest outrage--and what would have undoubtedly been the subject of a maaaaaassive lawsuit if Warner Brothers didn't own both franchises--is the Matrix-style Kryptonian incubation chambers, complete with robotic spiders that harvest fields of eerie, bubble-encased fetuses. Lawrence Fishburne's wallpaper-presence cameo in this movie acts almost as a subconscious nod to the IP-Theft Easter Egg Hunt of movie geeks everywhere.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned how Cavill does in the Superman role, or, for that matter, how Amy Adams handles being Lois Lane. Both are serviceable, but they're in service of a really weak script. Neither of them has the charisma of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder (yes, David and Christopher, there's a huge difference between being spunky and bitchy). Cavill is very good at looking the part, but comes across more as a really cut Abercrombie model hitting the floor at Comic-Con because he knows he can pull off the Superman look--rather someone who exudes the perfect combination of humility, confidence, and compassion that has made this character an icon for seventy-five years.

In fact, I've glossed over much of this movie because you've seen it all before--and not just in previous Superman pictures. From the wise elder who comes back from the dead to explain everything to the struggling hero, to the bad guy who really thinks he's doing the right thing (even though, to him, "the right thing" involves murdering billions of people**), to the alien invasion that involves a giant spaceship drilling into a city below--there's not an original idea in this movie. I should be thankful, I guess, that there's not a scene in which Zod gets captured on purpose as part of his master plan--then again, this is a guy who removes a suit made of mega-lethal battle armor just before the biggest fight of his life, so it's unlikely such a good idea would've occurred to him anyway.

Like the most recent Star Trek movie, I could literally break down Man of Steel's problems, scene by scene, for hours on end. But what's the point? As of this writing, the movie has made north of $125 million and a sequel is already in the works. People have already proclaimed this "the greatest superhero movie ever made" (which is what they said about 2004's Spider-Man 2 on release--a movie that, thanks to last summer's blockbuster hipster reboot, is now widely considered terrible). I realize that I'm screaming into the wind here, but I've got to put my thoughts on record--if for no other reason than to have proof that I didn't drink the Goyer/Nolan Kool-Aid when, about three years from now, the Man of Steel sequel has been scuttled and DC's Justice League movie has been rendered moot by Marvel Studios' continued domination of the superhero market.***

I've been wrong before, but I predict not-so-great things for Man of Steel. Sure, it'll probably make back its $225 million budget, but I can't see it grabbing the public consciousness tight enough to kick-start another franchise--at least not with these grim jokers at the helm. Sad but true: the one movie I was super-excited to see this summer really let me down.

Oh, well. Maybe next time.

But probably not.

*Okay, probably not. But I feel a nervous breakdown coming on.

**Hold on. The conceit we're presented with is that all Kryptonians are genetically created to fulfill a single function in society. Zod was made to be a high-ranking member of the military, who are essentially indentured to the ruling class of council members. Is staging a coup in his DNA? Why didn't disobeying orders not make his cells boil or something, if he truly has no free will?

On a related note, the film opens with Zod's military overthrowing the Kryptonian high council. The revolution lasts for all of ten minutes, at which point Zod is taken into custody--by the military. I need a drink.

***It's telling that the long-rumored post-credits sequence--which would ostensibly tie Man of Steel into an as-yet-developed Justice League universe--doesn't exist. I stuck around through a phone book's worth of digital-effects-artists credits, only to get an even bigger middle finger from DC Comics than the one they'd just spent two-and-a-half hours flashing me.

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