Thursday, June 27, 2013

Man of Steel...? For Real?!

I had the opportunity to see the latest Superman offering...a bloated big budget tent pole entitled "Man of Steel" and I was moved to write this review. Not necessarily because any of you care what I think about this exorbitant, hi- def re-imagining of Pop Culture's answer to Hercules...but because I want to go on record as being one of those people who get what Superman is supposed to be about.

Man of Steel, while interesting to look at...fails at selling to the world the joy of the character Superman and here's why;

1. The Unbearable Darkness of Being...Superheroes have become so grim and gritty since the advent of Tim Burton's seminal 1989 game changer, BATMAN, that ever since...writers and film makers have felt compelled to sprinkle angst and violence into the tapestries of our favorite heroes. Granted...darkness and violence are an intrinsic part of Batman's world. Bob Kane established that from day one when he has a young Bruce Wayne's parents mercilessly shot down in a desolate alley. This works for Batman because he's a vigilante in a corrupt purgatorial metropolis on the verge of urban decay. Gotham is bleak, bereft of hope...shadowy and chaotic. The color scheme for the comic book and the character is dark...his villains and back story have become edgier and more nihilistic as different writers have explored the tortured psyche of a child who decides to avenge the deaths of his parents by dressing up as a bat. While there are huge elements of escapism in all superhero comics...there are different types of escapism and different tones. I use Batman as an example of this because he is the polar opposite of Superman. Superman, alternatively, is a character that thrives in worlds of sunlight (from the beautiful,art deco spires of Krypton...to the wide open, big blue skies of rural Kansas and back again to the gleaming, progressive skyline of Metropolis) Superman's universe is the antithesis of Batman's. The differences are very pronounced in terms of color scheme, settings, characters and overall philosophy. Batman is Machiavellian while Superman is Ghandi-esque. Bruce Wayne was driven by revenge, anger and fear (for all you nerds and nerdettes, Bats would make a great Sith Lord!)...while Superman was raised by two God-fearing American parents who paid their bills on time and went to church on Sunday. Their perspectives are quite different if you get what I'm saying and this should never be tampered with because to do so is to lose the essence of what is appealing about the character. However, Tim Burton's Batman was so damn pivotal in sparking the Superhero/Comic Book movie renaissance that industry types and writers became reluctant to stray far from this new "trope" that represented the modern celluloid superhero.Michael Keaton's portrayal of Batman (which to date I believe is the best and most fun of all the Batmen) is somber, aloof and angsty. He came off as a combination of Charles Bronson's character from Death Wish and Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. He plays Batman as a guy with a tremendous chip on his shoulder. This became the template. Another DC Comics superhero was adapted for television and received much fanfare initially...THE FLASH, but due to the extreme lack of vision of the series producers...THE FLASH tried to capitalize on the success of The BATMAN movie. THE FLASH was transformed into a ridiculously muscled vigilante who roamed the dark streets of Central City hunting down various deranged super-lunatics that had more than passing resemblance to a certain Clown Prince of Crime.Bat Man rasps in a gravelly voice after saving a pedestrian or speaking with public officials...Superman smiles and offers words of comfort. Superman enjoys his powers...he friggin loves them! And we as the reader can vicariously enjoy those powers with him if he is written properly. There is much to be said about Superman being an alien...and feeling alienated. What is fascinating about his character is that we have an "alien" who seems to more easily live up to "The American Ideal" than most of us ever have and that's something to admire. Not to knock Batman, I dig Batman like any other self-respecting fan boy. But Bat Man is Death Wish Vigilante Porn for the dark side in us. Superman appeals to what's good and great in us...and encourages us to use our powers (whatever they may be) for the good of mankind. Superman doesn't work as a nihilistic character. He wasn't built that way. He's not Bat Man.

KRYPTON.....Fail...One of the coolest aspects of Superman is his science fiction leanings. At one point in my youth I thought Krypton was one of the nine planets. I have read the Superman origin over and over again by thousands of writers and seen it depicted in many different ways by great artists. The one thing that is always consistent about Krypton is that it is a prideful civilization of scientists, artisans, poets and builders who have created an alien utopia. It is a world that has reached it's zenith of productivity and accomplishment...realized its potential so to speak...and now due to some scientific gobbledygook, the planet is about to blast itself to smithereens. There's only one guy that's been blessed with the foresight to see this and he's Superman's dad, Jor-El. This is the stuff of pop culture mythology and should not be tampered with.Everything is everything on Krypton until Jor-El cries doomsday and that's when the proverbial shit hits the fan.Over the years this story has been tweaked and over analyzed.But the core story is the fall of a triumphant society that's become preoccupied with itself in the mirror and can't see the woods for the forest when it comes to an extinction level event. They are too pompous to acknowledge their own end times. The Richard Donner film starring the legendary Christoper Reeve even squeezes in a classic nod to General Zod, Non and Ursa....Kryptonian criminals that are whisked away in a nightmarish techno-mystical prison called The Phantom Zone. Fans of the 1978 Superman the Movie will never forget the spinning, psychedelic cube that descended from Kryptonian skies to envelope these three evil-doers and then jettison again off into some interstellar limbo. The Kryptonian Council were equally daunting visions in that movie and evoked an Orwellian, futuristic vibe that transported you directly where the director wants you to go with mood and story....Krypton. Man of Steel's Krypton is an embarrassing goulash of other movies. When we first see Superman's home planet, it struck me as a world already immersed in a complicated civil war. And that's okay but what makes it's impending doom so devastating is that nobody is ready for what's coming except Jor-El and Lara (Superman's parents...I actually liked Lara in the Man of Steel. Weird.)...so when these brilliantly built sky towers and gleaming super structures are being destroyed by planet quakes...it is a scene of absolute horror. In Man of Steel, we open on a Krypton that at once looks like some out takes from the second batch of Star Wars movies (not good) and then goes into Matrix mode with Jor-El jumping out of windows, riding dragons and diving into a pre-natal hatchery that looks like the body pods in the original Matrix film. There are spaceships flying around that look like beetles firing at each other and random things...and then of course the launching of the rocketship that is to carry Krypton's last son...Kal-El. Launching baby to earth and dying in a fiery conflagration is not enough for our inspired film-makers so they up the ante with a fight to the finish between Zod and Jor-El. I lost interest immediately at this point...it's taken them seven years to mount another Superman movie and since Bryan Singer's awful abomination of a movie, Superman Returns, we are served an absolutely overwrought Krypton that misses the point. When constructing an alien planet...make sure that the society we are seeing though they may be humanoid have some characteristics that differ from our earth culture...that's part of the fun of science fiction. Jor-El and Zod both look like souped up versions of Spartacus by way of Iron Man and Robocop. The Kryptonian Council looks like they wandered off the set of Game of Thrones and onto the set of Man of Steel. This is upsetting because a whole new generation of Superman fans are getting something that was not written or designed by the original creators of Superman. They are getting a "Bizzaro" Superman formulated in the back offices of Hollywood who constantly dicker with the great stories of our times because they think they know something those writers didn't. And how about mentioning Braniac...the alien super computer that manages Krypton quite like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the salvaged, bottled city of Kandor which houses a million, miniaturized Kryptonian survivors that Superman eventually recovers and keeps in his Fortress of Solitude? Sounds cool doesn't it? We'll never see it because film makers are convinced we want a realistic Superman.If you want to see what Krypton should be like...re-watch Superman the Movie or check out the pilot for Superman the Animated Series. Zach Snyder's Krypton...while interesting is not Superman's Krypton. Fail.

There's No Crying in Superman...I will be brief on this subject. I know that Marvel Comics Movies have squarely kicked DC Comics movies in the family jewels. That's obvious. Even though Dark Knight is probably the best comic book movie ever made for the big screen (with Spiderman 2 and Avengers running neck and neck at number two)...Marvel threw some destructive blows with a solidly entertaining Iron Man series...a competent if not fully realized Captain America and a wondrously fun fairy tale with real world ramifications in Thor. Marvel's heroes though have always been different. Stan Lee mastered the art of creating the hero with "problems". Iron Man has a heart and ego problem...to be followed later by alcoholism. Captain America is a man out of time. He struggles to adapt his 40's mind set to present day American culture. Thor is a Norse God who falls in love with being a simple man with a girlfriend on Earth but has responsibilities and concerns in his home of Asgard.We get this as readers and identify. DC Comics has let all this "Problem Hero" hoo ha cause them to run scared and try to make their heroes more Marvel-like. NOOOOOOOOOO! Superman doesn't need to be contemporized for new audiences to embrace him. Let him just be Superman. Superman does not cry and bitch and moan because he's different. He likes flying. He enjoys his X-Ray vision. Hell...he likes the fact that he's bullet proof, has heat vision and super cold breath. So would you and I. He doesn't cry about it. He gets pissed because he can't floss with it on the football field but he certainly doesn't spend a lot of time pouting about it. Pa Kent instills in him a sense of duty...of purpose. What I always understood was that his parents taught him that his gifts weren't meant for him to serve himself or for human frivolities but to benefit mankind. There's nothing wrong with Superman crying at the funeral of his father or the death of Lois Lane in Superman the Movie...but in Man of Steel he cries more than Kobe Bryant in the first half of a Laker game. I know these guys wanted to try an in depth character study of Superman similar to Bat Man begins but the first rule of Superman is...he is not Bat Man. And even Bat Man who has plenty of reason to cry rivers, both of his parents got blasted in front of his eyes not to mention being raised by a dour, English butler, but does not cry half as much as Henry Cavill does in Man of Steel. Come on Superman!

OMZ....OH MY ZOD....Michael Shannon is pretty good as General Zod. He is a quirky and interesting character who is able to turn in edgy, nuanced performances that feel real and mostly his favorite emotion to convey is pain. The first time I ever saw dude was in Revolutionary Road with Leonardo Dicaprio and he freaked me out completely and had me depressed at the same time. Next I saw him in Boardwalk Empire where he plays a freakish lawman who is a sex addict and devout Christian in complete denial that he is living in sin. He's tough too watch sometimes because of his intensity and this makes him the perfect heir to Terrence Stamp...the original owner of the role...General Zod. Terrence Stamp played Zod to the hilt; Zod was a bitter war strategist who had been made to look foolish in front of an entire planet before it's premature demise. He suffered these indignities at the hands of Jor-El and the Kryptonian Council while he was planning an insurrection that may have wound up making him the ruler of Krypton. When he escapes imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and realizes that Jor-El's only son and the last living citizen of Krypton is alive and well on Earth he is overcome with thoughts of revenge. On top of this, when he learns that he also has superhuman abilities on Earth, he's back to his thoughts of global domination again. He is drunk with power and becomes the first alien, super powered terrorist. Superman 2 is far from brilliant, I can remember the night I saw it...I was 13 at the time...I came home and immediately began to rewrite it because I felt there were so many missed opportunities and things that they almost got right.Shannon's Zod is a guy who seems programmed for duty like a robot and his agenda to resurrect Krypton and re-create it on earth is interesting but really makes no sense if you're Zod. Why would you invite the dissenting opinions of say a million other people who will have super powers just like you? You wouldn't. You would destroy those dormant Kryptonians that have somehow been injected into baby Kal- El (Superman pregnant....? Nah!) along with Superman and then take over the world unobstructed. Shannon's performance is muddied by this lapse in bad guy logic. Also...every time Superman beats his ass...Zod runs to the spaceship that serves as The Phantom Zone and flies away. So annoying...and not a Zod I'm comfortable with. I was not really impressed with any of the action or spectacle not because it wasn't well choreographed or staged but because it was soulless. To me...Zod is a hollow character with idiotic motives. Keep it simple stupid. There's no need for Superman to be carrying Krypton's unborn populace inside of him and absolutely no need for a World Engine. Just show us Zod attempting to strong arm the planet with brute force...that would have been nice. OMZ.

CAVILL is THE MAN OF STEEL... I got nothing but love for Henry Cavill. I can accept dude as the new Superman all day long. He's appropriately jacked; maybe even too much so. His demeanor as the alien champion is good...he didn't write this so you can't blame him for the faults in character development. Cavill looks the part, but will they write him better material so that he can graciously accept the mantle of Superman from Reeve. I just don't think the writers are going to allow him to be who Superman actually is. I'm kind of reminded of Jason Momoa as Conan. Momoa was spot on as the Cimmerian with an attitude, but the story was fecal matter and there goes Conan for another twenty years. Screenwriters trying to second guess Robert E. Howard is even more ludicrous than David Goyer trying to revamp pop culture's favorite alien. Heavy sigh.

LOIS LANE is....not Lois Lane? WTF?!! Being that she is the greatest love interest in comics...you would think that Lois Lane would be one of those intangible elements that would elude the dirty mittens of the revisionist writing squad that decided to deconstruct the Man of Steel. Amy Adams is cute, likable....and boring as hell! I like Lois Lane to be filled with spunk...kind of like Princess Leia mixed with Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lois is sexy, smart, opinionated, abrasive but most of all...she's got a love jones for Superman. Margot Kidder nailed it...even though I read a retrospective review of her performance and someone described her as looking like someone's chain smoking grandma (chuckle, chortle, ha ha)...she was still hot to this thirteen year old at the time and her persona was straight out of the comic books. In the comics, Superman always did his best to keep Lois far away from the fray...in this new film, Lois is walking around on spaceships, using alien technology and interacting with a sentient hologram of Jor-El. Thumbs down. Seriously. We won't even mention Perry White (ha ha! I get it, he's black! That's funny!) or the absence of kid cub reporter, Jimmy Olsen.

METROPOLIS...THESE STREETS WILL MAKE YOU FEEL BRAND NEW!!!  My final gripe is the loss of Metropolis. In the comics it's a bright citadel not unlike an earthly Krypton. Metropolis is a city of hope, advancement...opportunity. It's the ultimate city...it's New York Super Sized with a dash of the future sprinkled in for good measure. Metropolis is the destination for one country boy alien who has his sights set on Big City life and changing the world for the better. Obviously it's Superman's goal to send a message to the world that he is here and he has chosen Metropolis as his stage. He didn't just pick any run of the mill city. He picked the biggest and brightest. The character of Metropolis is dead on arrival in The Man of Steel. I don't even think they mention it. That sucks. Metropolis is as vital to Superman as Gotham City is to you know who.Why would people who purport to love Superman leave out Metropolis and not introduce and embrace it with huge fanfare?

In closing, now that I have told you all how I really feel, I will just say...Superman is about feeling good. About a wonderful character from another world that appreciates his new life on our planet and even more so his American citizenship and what it represents. He's a hero that will protect you, offer a kind word or stern admonition if necessary but it's always the right thing.If Norman Rockwell had ever illustrated a comic book, it would have been Superman. He is the person we all in some way aspire to be or wish we were, of course he's a fictional character but he gives us something to think about and shoot for...an ideal. And what is so bad about that? Is that corny...uncool? Most writers who say they don't like writing Superman is because they don't get it. Superman has a ton of cool powers...he has a cool arctic fortress filled with alien artifacts and complex machines from other planets...he has a bottled city and a Super Dog but what most people like about Superman and they don't even realize it is that he is a good person. Superman resonates not because of X-ray vision or Super Strength...but because of character. Maybe one day writers will realize Superman's true super power is his character. And maybe our society has become too cynical to embrace that.

                                                                                                                                                                                  

2 Comments:

Blogger trahap said...

some of this is just nitpicking come on Henry cavil was too big to be superman? and Zod was too complex he should have been more mindless? Look man of steel is not a perfect film not even close but, its a good film that atleast gets superman on the right track again. this review waa done before he saw the movie he had his own ideas of what krypton should be, what lois should look like, how big superman should look how metropolis and krypton should look And the descriptions are his own not the directors that's the beauty of comic books, different artist different ways of seeing things but, to say metropolis should look like some sort of high tech city come on most depictions of metropolis are like any other city. He went to see that movie wanting to shove it within his own vision and it didn't fit so he didn't like it.I can remember when the first image of the joker in dark knight came out people were pissed they hated it but you cant shoot something down simply cause it was designed without first getting your opinion unless its a glaring problem like the bat suit is pink or something. i liked man of steel i didn't go head over heels for it but i really like it. i am glad superman is getting off to a good start he can only go up from here but come on don't go see a movie with a check list of what you think things should be cause when things dont fit which they wont you will not enjoy it.

June 28, 2013 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger BWilliams said...

@trahap....man of steel is an insipid comic book adaptation that just shows that DC is envious of Marvel Comics and is not brave enough to forge their own path with their very unique pantheon of heroes. DC should be able to easily compete or trounce Marvel...but they won't because they are scared to believe in their own product. And then unfortunately there are fans like you who encourage bullshit like the Man of Steel to be made time and time again.

December 18, 2013 at 9:31 PM  

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