2013, Zach Snyder - in theatre (good, ol' fashioned 2-D)
My mind is reeling after an afternoon matinee (if there ever was a character built for the matinee...) ... I have an overwhelming amount of thoughts that I can only hope will coalesce as I attempt to spill them out into words. The most stripped down summary of my thoughts: a solid -- above-average even -- summer blockbuster, but a largely terrible Superman movie.
Where do I start?
Let's go with the solid summer blockbuster part. Let's start positive. What Zack Snyder, script writer David S. Goyer and story co-writer Christopher Nolan seemed to be aiming for here is a less fantastical Superman story. They've approached it with more of the stern self-seriousness and maturity that recent epics like The Dark Knight or Lord of the Rings have ushered into our genre adaptations. This isn't silly stuff for kids and emotionally stunted fanboys, but a narrowing-of the-eyes focus on a character and his well-trod history with an intent to both make it modern, as well as justifying treading the terrain again.
Man of Steel suggests more a sci-fi epic than Superhero fable, as it, tellingly, opens with a lengthy sequence on Krypton, one that establishes a rich and intriguing society and culture that could have justifiably formed its own epic movie. Most of the Kryptonian sequence was assembled from other parts present in the comics, cartoons and previous films, but presented on a scale it never had before.
In it, it's explained that the planet's culture has essentially become a hive of sorts, with its people conceived, grown and born in a chamber, genetically bred to perform a specific and predefined role in society. Jor-El (a screen commanding Russel Crowe) was bred to be a scientist, a pre-eminent thinker on his planet, he and his wife, Lara, are the first in hundreds of generations to conceive a child naturally, to give it the gift of independence and hope. Unfortunately, Krypton as a planet has been stripped dry of its resources, the host succumbing to infection, and it's not long before society is doomed. But in Kal-El, Jor-El see salvation for his race. General Zod (a surprisingly intimidating Michael Shannon), the planet's pre-eminent military mind also understands the doom Krypton faces and stages a coup, in order to extract the codex, the repository of all the genetic sequences of the planet and take it to another planet to rebirth their society.
The planet suffers in its death throes as battles rage on its surface. Jor-El, having already absconded with the codex, sends it and his only son on a rocket towards Earth. In Kal-El, Jor-El sees the hope for his people, the hope for a different life, and the hope for a better life that makes a difference in his new home. Hope is a very strong theme, at least in conversation. Zod, for his part, is defeated and sentenced along with his 8 remaining conspirators, to 300 cycles in the Phantom Zone (which, unlike most iterations, requires a space ship and a great machine that rips into the fabric of space to transport them there). The planet crumbles and dies.
It's a wonderful, epic set-up, filled with great science fiction ideas and a curious culture that would make for a great tale on its own, if only people wouldn't anticipate Superman. As a result, it's a bit contracted, but it sets the foundation for the main character and for rest for the rest of the action in the film. The destruction of Krypton leads to a malfunction of the Phantom Zone generator, freeing the prisoners and giving them a ship to travel the cosmos in search of the child of Jor-El and the salvation of the Kryptonian people.
Zod is the villain, but he's a villain of circumstance, a villain of programming, less than a villain of his own design. As he explains in the climax, he was made this way, every action he makes is for the benefit and preservation of Krypton, no matter how evil it seems. On Earth he doesn't look down upon humans as inferiors to be conquered as Zod past did, they're a potentially obtrusive species on a planet that could rightly be a new home for Kryptonian life.
The design of things Kryptonian and the pervasiveness of the Kryptonian technology in the film is some of the more intriguing visual elements of the film. How the "Superman" costume comes into play is much more organic than it has been so often in the past. They incorporate the "spandex tights" and S-shield and capes into everyday (or is that only elite) Kryptonian society so that when Clark receives his own costume, it's an extension of what he was searching for.
The science fiction part also deals with the alien child raised among humans quite well. We're presented with Clark Kent in multiple phases of his life, starting with present day, as a 33-year-old wanderer who does good deeds, helping his fellow man with his great power. We get flashbacks to him as a child, at 10 when his powers start to develop and overwhelm him, when as a teen saves a busload of his class mates, exposing himself in a way that makes his adoptive father uncomfortable. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, managing to chip away most of my longstanding distaste for his acting) has feared for Clark and what he represents since the day he found him. He's been petrified of the government coming for him since day one, and as his powers have developed he fears what the planet's reaction would be. We get a bit of that reaction in the microcosmos of Smallville, frightened classmates, or bewildered parents, and while it stays within the community, it's never celebrated. Jonathan, though, knows he must shape Clark to understand the power he has, the effect it can have on the people and world around him, and to gauge the consequences of his actions, not just in the immediate sense, but in the grander sense.
The scenes between Clark and his parents are the most resonant of the film. In The Dark Knight Rises, there's an underlying thread to Joseph Gordon Levitt's John Drake about being an orphan and connecting the Bruce Wayne/Batman ties through that shared history. Clark, meanwhile, has a loving adopted family, and even a loving ghost father, so he's naturally a bit shinier a character, learning he has great tragedy in his past, but largely only knowing an overwhelming love. The film deals with his adoption in an interesting light, not shying away from the complex emotions that such families might face.
The first and second acts are well connected, though disparate in what they present (think, I dunno, Avatar transitioning into Starman) and once it reaches it's action-oriented and super-science final act, brings it all home in popping fight scenes but overwhelming amounts of destruction (collateral damage seems to keep increasing in films since Independence Day over 15 years past now, more on this shortly). The climactic fight between Superman and Zod makes sense in the context of the sci-fi foundations the story laid, and the controversial conclusion (more on that shortly, too) is telegraphed as an inevitability.
Were this just generic "alien child grows up on Earth and gains fantastic abilities but then has to face the villainous people of his homeworld when they arrive" it would have been a cracking film, a damn solid movie with a surprising amount of emotion.
But it's not.
It's a Superman movie.
It's a terrible Superman movie.
I took my stepson to see the film, having already heard in advance (and just gauging from the advertisements) that this wasn't going to be a bright and flashy Superman movie, I warned him that there would be violence. Even I wasn't prepared for the level of violence nor the film's intensity. Even at 11 my stepson spent much of the film with his ears covered (as much a result of the intense, and frankly, kind of uninspiring score as it was the volume of the proceedings) as well as looking away anticipating the film's violence. My bad, but he clearly pick up early on (even before Jor-El was needlessly murdered by Zod) that this was more severe than Superman: The Animated Series or some of the other animated features he's seen. There were other kids, younger than he in line at the theatre. The boy in the well-loved, outgrown Superman tee in front of us was beyond excited, and at 6-years-old I couldn't help but continuously think of how crushing this movie must have been to him, especially having to sit through 50 minutes of feature before we see the character in costume.
Seriously, I understand from a story perspective the importance of the Krypton segment, and from a character perspective delving into Clark's development, but I have to wonder just who is going into this film without already knowing the basics on Superman. Last Son of Krypton. Raised in Smallville. Lives in Metropolis. Works for Daily Planet. Loves Lois Lane. If ever there was a character that you could tell their story in media res, it's this one. We don't need all the set-up again. Shorthand it. Yes it's presented differently, but kids (and frankly adults) want to see the Man of Steel in action, and you can start a film with him in action.
I didn't see the Owls of Ga Hool, so I can't assess whether Snyder is capable of making family friendly fare, but his track record has been otherwise solid-R-rated intensity (if not always maturity). 300, Watchmen, Suckerpunch are all steeped in genre, but Snyder is on the darker side of visualization and while he can deliver action I questioned whether he was right for a character like Superman. This film should be for everyone. It's a stiff PG-13 picture (there's a half-dozen swears in the film as well). That's not Superman. My four-year-old loves Superman. I should have been able to take her too.
I don't have a problem with more serious interpretations of the character but they're never my favourite and, in the 75 years of publication, they're rarely, if ever, the status quo. With the Dark Knight trilogy, the variations in Bruce Wayne and cast are less egregious because Batman's always been more versatile (some still see Adam West as "the" Batman). Superman needs to be the beacon of hope, of good, and this movie preaches that incessantly but it doesn't practice it much, if at all.
When the proverbial "S" hits the fan, we see Superman facing down two or three super-powered adversaries in the middle of hometown Smallville. He tells the citizens to get inside. Snyder shows us quick cuts of the people fleeing, locking doors, closing blinds, the audience understanding fully the futility of these gestures. It would be comical if the tone weren't so dire. These people are scared, they don't know what's happening, they don't know that death has fallen at their door. It's bad enough that a superhero throwdown is happening on their doorstep, it's another when the military comes in with fighter jets firing on the combatants, bullets and missiles only damaging the real estate (and the people trapped inside). Superman, for his part, make no effort to ward off the military, he makes no effort to try and drive the fight outside the city, he makes no effort to try and protect his hometown in any respect.
It's through the flashback scenes between Clark and his adoptive family that we know who the character should be, and we get hints through his travels and in his scenes with Lois and when he first surrenders himself to the military of what his character is. But when he fights, we don't really know what, or whom he is fighting for. We don't even really know why, except to say that the bad guys arrive and he must fight them. But in Smallville it's Zod threatening his mom that sets him off, but the fight as it perpetuates (and gets in a pair of awful product placements for Sears and IHOP), seems to have no focus, beyond just "keep fighting". That's not Superman. When it's all over, and the military concedes he's a "friendly", he says "Thanks", but makes no effort to help with any casualties or find people trapped in buildings. He goes home and checks on Ma. That's not Superman. The film preaches his selflessness but in practice it's less than obvious.
Even worse is the climactic sequence, as the Kryptonians begin terraforming the Earth, to turn its atmosphere and gravity into the same as Krypton's and destroy all Earth life in the process. Clark abandons the heavily populated Metropolis (to be fair, this is not his home yet), for the second machine in the Indian Ocean while he leaves the main ship to the US military and Lois Lane (?). As the terraforming progresses, Metropolis begins to crumble, buildings start to topple under the pressure of the gravity shifts. It's horrifying, and we're given the on-the-street perspective via the little used trio of Perry White and other Daily Planet staffers, as if to say these characters who we know will be important to Clark Kent some day are in mortal danger, so their safety is worth caring about. But the wanton disregard for the remainder of what's happening, to set the safety of Perry White and company as somehow more important than the tens of thousands of lives concurrently affected by all this is total bullshit. That Superman saves the day, halfway around the world mind you, that also saves Perry and co, and allows the military and Lois to save the day in Metropolis is a very hollow victory for the Man of Steel indeed. But then, the Military casualties are great in this one, and when Lois falls out of the plane that gets sucked into the Phantom Zone vortex, and Superman saves her, this is supposed to be somehow meaningful and triumphant, but it's one life he saves amidst the thousands trapped in rubble etc. Just as in Smallville, Superman seems utterly disconnected from the horror around him, that making out with Lois is the right reaction here. That's not Superman.
Then he engages in a battle to the death with Zod that further digs the knife into Metropolis' wounded heart. Zod calls the battle from the beginning, that he's a desperate man with nothing left but revenge and murder in his heart, and Superman can only try to contain him, to stop him, but he does so by punching him through buildings, tossing around vehicles, and generally destroying the place. It looks terribly cool, but the cerebral impact of what's going on, the reality of the situation is that they're creating collateral damage everywhere they go. The fact that Snyder/Goyer/Nolan try and drive home how meaningful and real and grounded this world really is only serves to heighten how brutal the battle of these titans is on the environment and people around them. That's not Superman. Superman would take it outside. That in the end, Superman has Zod beat, but Zod's not done. Death is the only end and he forces Superman's hand. That's not Superman (but I'll let it pass).
There's a lot of talk how Superman Does. Not. Kill. But I agree that there were limited options and it plays well with the grey areas that Jonathan Kent told Clark he would face. Clark, not Superman, melts down immediately afterwards, and the stoic figure of Henry Caville has his finest moment in this reaction. Lois cradles him. Cut to, some time later and everything is okay. Superman's a friend, women think he's hot, and Clark goes and gets a pair of glasses and a job with the Daily Planet.
Remember after 9/11, a couple buildings were destroyed and a few hundred people lost their lives in a terrible act of violence? (One can't help but bring up 9/11 with the imagery recalled here.) But the destruction is far greater here (though the death toll unclear) and one would think that the resonance of a) alien life being discovered, b) attacking earth, and c) destroying one of their major cities would be creating a whole tonal shift in society (sticking with the Snyder/Goyer/Nolan realism, of course it should). 9/11 still resonates a decade later, the events of this film should, months later, still be monumental. A scene with Superman becoming Clark Kent, reporter, and meeting his future cast for his more mundane future seems heavily anticlimatic and inauthentic to the experience beforehand.
Equally, Clark should be reeling from the effect of his presence on Earth, the damage he's responsible for, the lives that were lost or laid to ruin in the wake of his people's invasion, and the life he took directly himself. In the comics when Superman took a life he took off into space for about six months on a soul searching journey. Here, he seems to let it slide (judging by the early receipts, there will definitely be a sequel, so it better get dealt with there). So many missteps with Superman as a character and an icon, it's quite upsetting for a lifelong Superman fan.
Of all the things to think about Man of Steel, the least I've thought about was the production itself. But in that respect, it is a wonder. The acting is universally superb. Caville, like Brandon Routh before him, is almost a background player in the film he's supposed to be leading. He's handsome and definitely has the physique, and he carries the weight of great power well, but he's not given a lot of moments to showcase himself (his reaction shots are generally excellent). Amy Adams makes a good Lois Lane, but her soft spoken voice took some time to adjust to. Crowe, Shannon, and Costner really carry the film's biggest burden and each more than excel at the task.
The production design is inspired. Krypton is a unique environment, with a distinctive style that carries from costume to environment to technology. It looks great. The special effects are top notch throughout, though at times the fast-moving fight sequences look more like the primitive CGI animation of 10-12 years ago (Blade II, notably), though I think it was meant to represent the super-speed at which they move rather than a flaw in execution.
Snyder, for his part, puts in perhaps his best directorial effort yet. He mercifully dropped his signature slow-motion fight sequence style, which was what most fans were concerned about. He manages to find moments of great warmth and emotion (primarily from Crowe and Costner in their performances as parents) which is a rare feat for a Snyder film to date, but he still doesn't escape the cold style-first tendency as much as I'm sure he'd like. Progress is made though. His storytelling is quite crisp, even with the time hopping. But there's a decided lack of joy or triumph throughout the picture which is part script, part directorial style, and part score.
But even with all the technical aspects coming together, we get the blockbuster that Superman has been missing since 1980 (though I have little love for the Christopher Reeve pictures) only it's missing the character.